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Obama's Immigration Plan Is a Game Changer for Undocumented Construction Workers

David McNew/Getty Images

Construction in Manhattan is a dangerous line of work. First responders here are used to being called for accidents on job sites, but when fire officials arrived on the site of a Midtown hotel renovation on April 2, they were confronted with a strange situation, according to news reports: the site was completely deserted save for the body of a construction worker, the hotel management and a number of onlookers.

The worker, it turned out, had been doing façade work on the ninth floor of a hotel, when he slipped between loose planks, fell off the scaffolding, and died. This much witnesses could say. But the man’s identity remained a mystery, and eight hours after the accident the police still hadn’t identified him. Apparently none of his co-workers had returned to the site. In all likelihood, many of them were undocumented immigrants.

(Only later did the NYPD identify the worker as 58-year-old Harmit Singh. A police spokesperson couldn’t comment on his citizenship.) 

Illegal immigrants in the U.S. tend to avoid contact with authorities out of fear of being caught and deported. In the construction industry, this reluctance has left them with a disproportionate risk of injury or death. Fearful of reporting unsafe working conditions, they are vulnerable to negligent and abusive employers.

For these workers, President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration could be a game changer. By protecting more than four million undocumented immigrants from deportation and offering the prospect of work permits to some, it provides undocumented construction workers the leverage needed to fight for safer working conditions. The result could be far fewer deaths on job sites.

There is little reliable data on deaths and injuries among undocumented immigrants. But the data available shows a disproportionately high injury risk for both Latinos and immigrants as a whole—two groups in which undocumented immigrants feature strongly.

A 2010 study by Xiuwen Sue Dong, Yurong Men and Knut Ringen in the American Journal of Internal Medicine found Hispanic construction workers were almost 30 percent more likely to get work-related injuries than their white counterparts across the U.S., after controlling for risk factors such as age or type of work. In New York state, immigrants accounted for 60 percent of all fall-related deaths or injuries between 2003 and 2011, according to the Center for Popular Democracy—a disproportionately high percentage for their share of the workforce. Since incidents involving undocumented immigrants often go unreported, their injury risk is likely to be significantly higher.

The problem is particularly obvious in Manhattan, which is currently in the midst of an unprecedented construction boom. A few blocks from the site of the April 2 accident, at least half a dozen skyscrapers are rising around a rail yard. Further uptown, three new luxury apartment towers will soon stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Empire State Building, once unquestionably the tallest building in Manhattan. And downtown, the city’s most famous construction site has already churned out three new World Trade Center towers, with more to follow. “New York City’s construction market is operating at full capacity for both union and non-union companies like I have never seen before,” said Lou Coletti, head of the Building Trade Employers’ Association (BTEA).

Rents and condo prices are at record highs and penthouses in new developments regularly sell for tens of millions of dollars. But competition among contractors is fierce, and many are forced to resort to low-wage workers in order to undercut competitors. Coletti estimates that half of all residential construction projects—once the exclusive domain of organized labor—now involve non-union workers. Some of Manhattan’s most expensive condo developments are regularly picketed for alleged wage dumping.

In some ways the rise of the open shop has benefitted undocumented immigrants, who are often the first choice for contractors looking for cheap labor. But employers who hire the cheapest labor available often also try to cut costs by skipping safety training and equipment, explained Charlene Obernauer, director of the advocacy group New York Center for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH).

It is hard to find an undocumented construction worker who doesn’t recall working on sites without basic safety training and equipment, such as helmets, harnesses and secure scaffolding. Once the almost inevitable injury occurs, they are often left to fend for themselves—despite the fact that employers are legally liable for most injuries on work sites in New York. The Scaffold Law also applies to injuries to undocumented workers, explained Alexander Spilberg of Zetlin & De Chiara LLP.

Pablo, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, worked for a plumbing firm in Brooklyn for a daily pay of $100 in cash. About six months ago he was installing pipes in a basement when a loose piece of wood fell on his head, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs and knocking him out cold. After he came to, his employer dropped him off outside a hospital, urging him not to tell the hospital staff he was injured on a work site. In return, Pablo claims, the employer promised to foot his medical bill.

After telling the doctors that he had tripped on the curb, Pablo was surprised to find out that his employer changed his mind and wouldn’t pay for his treatment. But lacking alternatives, Pablo went back to work for him—until he got injured again.

He was standing on the back of a pick-up truck when an unsecured pile of manhole covers fell on his foot, crushing his toes and pushing the bone of his big toe into his right foot. Once again, he was left with no compensation or support from his employer and had to get most of his hospital bill covered by a state program for low-income patients.

“I called my employer’s secretary, but the secretary said he wouldn’t care. And he hasn’t called me back,” Pablo said, sitting in the hallway of his shared apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “I am worried because I don’t have any family members here, haven’t worked in a month and the rent is due soon.” With no income or injury compensation, Pablo may soon find himself on the street and unable to pay off the $7,000 he borrowed to pay for the trafficker that brought him from Guatemala to the U.S.

“After you get useless, companies don’t hire you anymore,” said Arturo, a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He recalled the case of a colleague who fell from a 40-foot ladder and broke his back, only to find out that his employer didn’t have any insurance or license. “He couldn’t claim support and didn’t know how to sue, so he had to pay for the hospital bill himself,” he said.

Undocumented workers like Pablo are often reluctant to report unsafe conditions or injuries out of fear of losing their jobs or getting deported, said Ligia Guallpa, head of the advocacy group Worker’s Justice Project. By removing the immediate threat of deportation from most undocumented immigrants, Obama’s immigration plan could help overcome that reluctance.

“The plan will make a world of difference for undocumented construction workers,” Said Haeyoung Yoon, deputy program director of the advocacy group National Employment Law Project.

“Undocumented workers live in a culture of fear because unscrupulous employers often use immigration status to retaliate against workers who want to assert their rights,” she added. “The fact that they can work legally takes away that huge fear.”

But while immigration reform will likely help improve the bargaining power of undocumented construction workers, activists argue that more is needed to ensure they enjoy protections similar to their unionized peers. A particularly glaring issue is a lack of enforcement of safety regulations.

Even if undocumented immigrants don’t have to fear deportation, they still tend to have little job security and might still be reluctant to report unsafe conditions so as not to antagonize employers. Moreover, a lack of training and language barriers mean many workers don’t know what kind of safety regulations are mandatory, according to workers and activists.

New York State requires all construction workers to complete a 10-hour safety training by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and its controversial Scaffold Law holds employers accountable for all fall-related injuries on their sites—regardless of whether they were actually at fault.

But while the laws are strict, enforcement is lacking. OSHA, the government body responsible for ensuring safe working conditions, is notoriously understaffed, leaving many sites uninspected. Moreover, its fines and temporary work-stop orders often do little to deter bad behavior and OSHA’s list of repeat offenders is long. According to activists, a flourishing black market for fake OSHA-10 training certificates has sprung up. A report by the advocacy group Public Citizen found that 72 percent of construction-site deaths in New York City in 2011 and 2012 occurred on sites where workers had not participated in state-approved safety training.

NGOs have filled some of that vacuum. The Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project, for example, acts as a kind of union surrogate for immigrants, offering OSHA-10 classes, conducting safety audits of sites and bargaining with employers to ensure workers receive adequate wages. Ligia Guallpa, the daughter of a former construction worker who immigrated from Ecuador, runs the NGO out of a shipping container turned makeshift office in Bensonhurst. She is currently arranging legal help for Pablo, who hopes to be compensated for his injuries.

But NGOs still only reach a fraction of the workforce. In order to ensure safe conditions for all workers, stricter laws and public oversight are needed, activists argue. NYCOSH’s 2014 report on workplace deaths calls for an increase in the number of public safety inspectors and a minimum $50,000 fine for any safety violation that causes the death of a worker.

In the meantime, many undocumented immigrants are trapped with two bad choices: complain about unsafe conditions and risk getting fired, or keep working and risk a potentially devastating injury. Jose, a 31-year-old undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, chose the former option and hasn’t regretted it.

Jose spent the past spring installing floors in a high-rise luxury condo building in downtown Manhattan. He recalls carrying heavy plywood planks on the building’s 23rd floor, trying not to trip over the numerous nails sticking out of the scaffolding. He says he was given a harness, but it wasn’t connected to anything.

He repeatedly complained to his employer about the unsafe working conditions, but his co-workers, mainly undocumented immigrants, were loath to join him. “Of course they wouldn’t speak up. Whenever workers started to argue our employer would threaten to fire them and tell them there were many other people that wanted the job,” he said.

Eventually Jose decided to quit the job and has since found a safer construction job on Long Island. “I had arguments with the employer and the foreman. I told them that I’m not their slave and that I’m here to work safely,” he recalled. “I was lucky I didn’t get injured before I left.”