Immigrant Day Laborers Confront a Perfect Storm of Exploitation in Hurricane Harvey Cleanup

Texas leads the nation in construction industry deaths, and labor organizations in Houston say they’ve seen a spike in wage theft since the hurricane.

A construction crew cleans out the home of Kenny Licona, which was flooded out from Tropical Storm Harvey on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Spring, Texas.    (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)
A construction crew cleans out the home of Kenny Licona, which was flooded out from Tropical Storm Harvey on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Spring, Texas. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the Houston area, and inestimable tons of moldy debris have to be mucked out as the city rebuilds. Much of the work is being done by undocumented immigrants, who make up half of the Texas construction workforce, according to some estimates. But even as their labor is in high demand, many are silently enduring abuse as they fear deportation.

This is what brought Mauricio “Chele” Iglesias, an organizer with the Workers Defense Project, to the far end of a Home Depot parking lot six weeks after the storm, where men wearing work boots waited to be picked up for their next job.

“Houston needs a construction workforce that is unafraid to demand dignified wages and safe job sites,” Chele told me as we approached a cluster of day laborers. He agreed to let me shadow him in order to understand the conditions they face.

Chele chatted with the men in Spanish and invited them to a clinic on wage theft, a problem the WDP has seen spike since the flood. The first to express interest was 56-year-old Jose, from El Salvador, who said his main job recently has been “to take out the sheetrock, everything that is damaged.”

I asked if he was being paid fairly, and he described how a contractor recently offered him $100 to clean out houses 10 hours a day, for eight straight days, but only paid him $600 in the end and never provided any gloves or dust masks. “I didn’t want to take the money,” Jose recalled, “but my rent was due, and I could end up on the street.”

A worker named Enrique from Mexico agreed that while there has been more work since the storm, contractors often “don’t pay in full. So, you work five days, and some people pay you for three, then tell you they’ll pay you the rest later.”

Several others took flyers when Chele explained how a lawyer at the clinic could help them recover stolen wages if they brought the necessary details to file a complaint.

“We want these workers to get organized and learn how to protect themselves from abuse,” Chele said as we walked back to his car with a few new names added to the sign-up sheet on his clipboard. “If not now, when?”

He has his work cut out for him. Post-Harvey, Houston has become a perfect storm for worker exploitation. Texas leads the nation in construction industry deaths, and workers in the state lose the most money to wage theft. But confronting abuse on the job now carries an added risk for undocumented workers, thanks to a new state law that allows police to report anyone in their custody to immigration officials.

Interview with Adrian, an immigrant from Mexico who was a victim of wage theft as he helped rebuild Houston after the Hurricane Harvey. Video: Renée Feltz

Wage theft is not new for day laborers, and it can take many forms. But it has been especially hard on undocumented construction workers ineligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who live in apartments and homes that flooded during the hurricane.

So Chele also does door-to-door outreach in working-class areas, like a bayou-crossed neighborhood in East Houston called Lake Forest. Within a few minutes of canvassing on a Sunday afternoon, he met Adrian, an immigrant from Mexico who was bringing boxes to the curb filled with pieces of green-painted sheetrock.

When Chele handed him a flyer and asked if he had faced worker exploitation, Adrian invited us into the home he shares with his wife and five daughters. The lower sections of the living room’s green walls were missing, and I could see directly into the girls’ bedroom.

“My wife’s nephew helped me,” Adrian said when I asked if he was doing his own repairs. “There was wood. There was tile. We had to take it all out to get rid of the moldy smell.”

“Do you feel like your house is safe to live in now?” Chele asked as we sat around a makeshift table in the family’s deconstructed kitchen.

“Now, yes,” Adrian responded. “My wife can’t cook because we don’t have a stove. But little by little, we’re moving forward.”

Until recently, he said, he had a job building a five-story parking lot. But he was only offered $12 an hour instead of the usual $15 rate and then had to clock in at three different companies so they could avoid paying him overtime.

Adrian estimated he devoted 60 hours per week to the job, but “since I didn’t work more than 40 hours for any of them, I just got the regular pay.” Instead of confronting the subcontractor who hired him, he eventually quit.

“There are lots of people who don’t say anything because they’re afraid of stirring things up,” he told me, emphasizing he is not alone.

When I asked if this was because of the state’s new “show me your papers” law, Adrian nodded. “If they hadn’t supported SB4, things would be different.”

In this Aug. 11, 2017, photo, U.S. a Customs and Border Patrol vehicle patrols along a levee in Granjeno, Texas. Law enforcement officials in the Rio Grande Valley say a border wall is part of their strategy to slow the entry of drugs and illegal immigration. And they want to avoid the issues that stymied the U.S. government after the Secure Fence Act. That resulted in hundreds of lawsuits and years of delays in Texas, and yielded just 100 miles (160 kilometers) of fencing in the state. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols along a levee in Granjeno, Texas, on Aug. 11, 2017.

Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Under the Texas Payday Act, victims of wage theft — including undocumented immigrants — can file a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission. Similarly, an ordinance passed in Houston in 2013 allows workers employed by a city contractor to also file wage theft claims with the city’s Inspector General and prohibits retaliation. But nearly four years after the measure went into effect, none of the dozens of complaints filed have been resolved.

Long before Texas ramped up immigration enforcement, it scaled back the power of unions to stand up to such abuse. In 1993, state lawmakers passed a right-to-work law that let employees benefit from a union contract without paying dues. Economists report that wages and benefits have since declined, and workplaces have become more dangerous. By 2010, the fatality rate for construction workers in Texas was higher than in any other state. Fewer than 5 percent of the state’s home construction workers are now unionized.

Meanwhile, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of its workers’ compensation insurance system for employees injured on the job. A 2013 report by the Workers Defense Project found that only 29 percent of undocumented construction workers surveyed were covered by a workers’ compensation policy, compared to 65 percent of those who were citizens.

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 05:  A contractor removes moldy drywall from a flood damaged home on September 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Over a week after Hurricane Harvey hit Southern Texas, residents are beginning the long process of recovering from the storm.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A contractor removes moldy drywall from a flood-damaged home on Sept. 5, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even ahead of the busy 2017 hurricane season, 69 percent of contractors in Texas were having trouble filling skilled and unskilled craft positions, an Associated General Contractors of America survey found. Amid the labor shortage, the National Association of Home Builders amped up its calls for a guest worker program. Soon after Harvey hit, the group said in a statement the move would “help alleviate the current labor shortage in the residential construction sector, quicken the rebuilding efforts in Texas and support the overall economic growth of this nation.”

Like Jose, Enrique, and Adrian, most immigrant workers are part of an informal economy, where they get paid in cash (or checks the contractor cashes for them) and treated like subcontractors instead of employees. In lieu of immigration reforms or union protections in Texas, vulnerable laborers have benefited from the WDP’s Better Builder program, which asks developers to “go beyond minimum legal requirements, which often go unenforced” to provide laborers a living wage, worker’s compensation insurance, and safety training.

Last year, Apple agreed to meet these conditions for 3,400 construction workers who built the company’s Austin campus. WDF saw another breakthrough when the city of Austin announced it would only allow developers to skip red tape and apply for faster review of construction permits on new projects if they included worker protections.

Now labor advocates want Houston to include the requirements for post-Harvey projects. Many support a Responsible Bidder Ordinance that bans contracts with developers that have a history of wage and hour violations.

Meanwhile, Hany Khalil, who heads the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO, has joined with the director of Houston’s Fe y Justicia Worker Center to urge law enforcement officials to give immigrants the “tools and confidence to report abusive employers” by granting whistleblower protections to those who come forward.

“Houston will either become a poster child for the construction industry’s worst abuses, or it will emerge as a model for construction work as it could be,” Jose Garza, WDP’s executive director, said.

Poster for Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a safe space for low-wage workers to learn about their rights and organize to improve working conditions.

A poster for Houston’s Fe y Justicia Worker Center, where low-wage workers can learn about their rights. After Hurricane Harvey, the Fe y Justicia center and the WDP saw a spike in wage theft.

Photo: Renée Feltz

As we left Adrian’s neighborhood, Chele pointed out a man precariously straddling the roof of a medical clinic alone, without a harness, as he hammered in new tiles. “His safety relies on a mix of having both the knowledge and the right equipment,” Chele said. “If the contractor doesn’t provide the gear, an immigrant may be scared to demand it. Or maybe they lack the training, so they don’t use it.”

With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration short-staffed in the state — there is one OSHA inspector for every 95,000 workers in Texas — unions and public health officials have stepped in to educate construction workers on how to protect themselves during cleanup and rebuilding after Harvey. At the AFL-CIO building that hosts the WDP’s office in East Houston, I met two United Steelworkers from Queens in New York City as they prepared a training on how to remove mold caused by flood damage.

“After Hurricane Sandy, it took too long to get trainers working with the community, and many people developed breathing problems they called the ‘Sandy cough,’” William Bonilla told me. “Now we are the second team of Steelworkers to arrive in Houston in less than a month.”

Bonilla is also a member of an Occupational Safety and Health Trainers Cooperative, which offers an affordable, 10-hour, OSHA-authorized construction training. The program is required to work in the industry in New York and encouraged by groups, like the WDP, in Texas.

“We focus in part on the immigrant community because they don’t know about their rights in the United States,” Bonilla said. “Most of the time, they are afraid because they’re undocumented and don’t understand some agencies can protect them.”

Also at the workshop was Michelle McDaniel, a continuing education coordinator with the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, who rolled in a cart full of free dust masks and gloves, as well as cleanup manuals in English and Spanish.

“When the storm hit, we said, ‘How can we help?’” McDaniel recalled. She said SWCOEH’s research shows cleanup workers outside of a corporate setting have the most potential for safety and health risks because they can’t afford to supply their own equipment when it is not provided by an employer. The center has also trained day laborers on how to protect themselves when working in flooded environments.

Chele listened closely and took some of the masks and gloves to share.

“We have to stand up for these workers who are now needed so much,” he said. “For Houston to rebuild strong, it needs to rebuild with their rights in mind.”

Top photo: A construction crew cleans out the home of Kenny Licona, which flooded during Tropical Storm Harvey on Aug. 30, 2017, in Spring, Texas.

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