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Immigrant ‘Crisis in Construction’ Seen

Monday, March 4, 2013

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Half of the construction workers in Texas are undocumented, and seven in 10 are foreign-born—a dire situation with safety, social and economic implications for the entire industry, a new report warns.

“Texas is facing a crisis in construction,” reports Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, from the Workers Defense Project of Austin, TX, and the University of Texas.

More than 1 million workers nationwide are undocumented, with many concentrated in construction-related jobs, the report says. That includes as many as 400,000 undocumented construction workers in Texas alone, the group reports.

Build a Better Nation

Texas relies heavily on undocumented labor and faces shortages in qualified workers, according to new research from the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas.

The study, released Feb. 21, contends that the Texas construction industry “serves as a model of what is to come if our country continues down a path of failed immigration policy.”

"Undocumented workers have few protections, resulting in deadly, illegal working conditions that lower standards for all workers laboring in the industry," says the report, issued as Congress and President Obama are developing immigration reform proposals.

"Current policy has left employers with few options other then [sic] to hire undocumented workers, forcing them to put their businesses in legal jeopardy or remain unable to compete."

Data for the study were gathered through surveys of 1,200 construction workers and dozens of in-depth employer and employee interviews, the authors said.

The state’s construction industry problems restrict its future growth and shift important costs to workers and the public, Workers Defense reported in “Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State.”

Texas relies on undocumented labor and faces shortages in qualified workers, the researchers said.

Current Policies

 Nationally, nearly 7 million workers labor in building construction, the researchers note. They estimate that 14 percent of all construction workers are undocumented, though the actual number varies by region and trade.

Texas House of Representatives

Researchers from the University of Texas and Workers Defense Project presented findings of their report in this press conference sponsored by House Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D).

As an example, about 30 percent of insulation workers, roofers and drywall installers are undocumented, according to the report.

The researchers found that 50 percent of construction workers in Texas are undocumented, and an additional 20 percent are naturalized citizens, legal residents, or visa workers. In total, 70 percent of the workforce is foreign-born, the report indicates.

The implications of that demographic are wide-ranging and potentially damaging—and not just for the undocumented workers, the authors say.

Employers need an immigration system that allows them to legally hire the workers they need so they can focus on managing their businesses, not managing immigration policy,” the report said.

Report Highlights

Immigrant workers are paid less, more likely to be victims of wage theft, and are more likely to be killed on the job than their U.S.-born counterparts, according to the report.

Specifically, the report found:

  • U.S.-born construction workers earn an average of $3.12 per hour more than the $11.10 per hour average reported by undocumented workers.
  • One in four undocumented workers has been a victim of wage theft, compared to one in 10 U.S.-born workers.
  • Four in 10 U.S.-born workers have not received basic health and safety training, compared to 73 percent of undocumented workers.
  • About 65 percent of U.S.-born workers are covered by a workers' compensation policy, compared with 29 percent of undocumented workers.

In addition, although "immigrants are needed to fill skills gaps in the construction industry,” the report says, few undocumented workers qualify for training programs.

“Business leaders are left with a limited pool of skilled craftsmen, and with limited options to invest in the current workforce to build quality projects.”

As one commercial subcontractor from Houston told the report authors: "You may not be hiring [undocumented] workers, but your competition is."

Construction: 'Big Business in Texas'

Texas is one of the largest and most active construction markets in the U.S.

In 2011, the state single-handedly accounted for 16 percent of the nation's new housing construction permits—more than California and Florida combined, according to the report. The state's construction industry employs one out of every 13 Texans.

Baytownbert / Wikimedia Commons

The Texas construction industry accounts for 10 percent of all construction output in the U.S., the report says. "The economic stability of this industry is critical to the state's future economic growth," the group said.

Despite its importance, the Texas construction industry faces problems that will restrict future growth, the report says. Among them:

  • 99 percent of the jobs created between 2005 and 2010 paid wages at or below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
  • 52 percent of workers surveyed had wages below federal poverty guidelines.
  • 41 percent of the workers surveyed experienced payroll fraud.
  • Workers receive few non-wage benefits, such as medical insurance (22 percent); vacation (15 percent); sick leave (12 percent); retirement or pension benefits (9 percent); and workers’ compensation (40 percent).

Deadliest State

Texas is also the deadliest state for construction-related fatalities. Between 2007 and 2011, 585 Texas construction workers died, compared to 299 in California, which had a larger construction work force, the report says.

Foreign-born workers

Texas has more deaths among construction workers and fewer OSHA inspectors than California, which has a larger workforce, the report says.

In addition, it said, Texas is the “only state that does not require employers to provide workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.”

“Texas also lacks a state OSHA law to supplement the federal OSHA program and provides only one OSHA inspector per 103,899 workers, compared with 1 per 52,416 in California, which (along with 20 other states and Puerto Rico) does have a state OSHA law,” the report says.

And, the authors say, "As Texas goes, so goes the nation."

'Pathway to Citizenship'

The authors call for immigration reform legislation that provides "a pathway to citizenship" that will allow the construction industry to maintain its needed workforce.

“All workers who are free of serious convictions and can demonstrate they are self-sustaining should qualify for legal status as they build an employment record in the mainstream economy,” the report said.

The Workers Defense Project workers low-income individuals to achieve fair employment through education, direct services, organizing and strategic partnerships. The project has partnered with OSHA to increase workers’ awareness of hazardous conditions and to provide training for safer and healthier workplaces.

“Given the important role immigrant labor plays in the Texas construction industry," the report said, "immigration policies that support workers are crucial to the longterm sustainability of Texas’–and the nation’s–economic and social well-being."


Tagged categories: Commercial Construction; Construction; Contractors; Government; Health and safety; Housing; Program/Project Management; Residential Construction; Worker training; Workers

Comment from Billy Russell, (3/4/2013, 5:50 AM)

Agreeing with the authors this is much bigger in our industry all across this nation, every Bridge crew I have seen from california to NC, Boston and new york are "Mostly" undocumented workers with fake papers we all know there fake but send them in any way. WE should help the many hard working men and women that are trying to support thier families become legal and documented not only for the Tax revenue, but then we can get everyone on the same page with safty and you "WILL" see a definate reduction in the amount of workers killed in our industry. force contractors to stop "PENCIL WHIPPING" documents prior to an advanced notified SSPC audit "were coming in 2 weeks phone call" so hurry and back date and get all the medical monitoring and safty documents filled out and signed before the auditor arrives. and if guys will be honest they Know im telling it like it really is. contractors will be forced to really train people to be safe but just not on paper writting a check for QP certification. my name is Billy Russell and I approve this post.

Comment from John Fauth, (3/4/2013, 9:11 AM)

If anyone is seriously concerned about incomes in this country, they will favor a strict immigration policy that does not allow undocumented laborers to drive down wages.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (3/4/2013, 9:15 AM)

Being forced by ICE, I had to lay off a handful of very well trained workers that had worked with me for over twelve years. These men were here with political asylum papers and after they had families, good jobs and settled in to the "good life",they are told to get out of this country. This is after years of paying taxes and social security through payroll deductions. Nobody says anything about that extra money the government keeps. These workers are more loyal than most American workers that I have worked with. And they where paid well. And one became an OSHA "Train the trainer" guy. All most of the immigrants want is a good home and a job, just like 53% of us!

Comment from Billy Russell, (3/4/2013, 1:27 PM)

Very well said Mr.McCloud you are the exception like me being a former contractor I got out of that end for the same reason being forced to get rid of people that want to work, only to find some of those 47% only looking for an excuse to go on workers comp.

Comment from Frank Tomasi, (3/4/2013, 9:50 PM)

Here in Florida we also have a large population of illegals. Unfortunately, their numbers are growing, and many contractors who have been in business for 20+ years, are declining. The illegals are also operating without licenses. You can see them daily in the paint stores in the mornings. They pull out a large stack of money($10K-$15K) to pay their bills. They drive new vehicles(paid for in cash of course), bring their small children in with their IPads, and snicker at the local contractors--they consider us "suckers". They think it is hilarious that they are stealing our jobs and business' We once had a great business where I averaged approximately $120K per year in salary, and my our crew of ten craftsman brought home appreximately $40K each-all honest taxpayers. Now my salary is only 25% of that average, and my crew of ten are gone-even though there is plenty of work in our area. This is where the middle class has gone--we have lost our jobs and business' to the illegals. Cheap labor will in the long run eliminate jobs in all fields of endevor, not just the skilled trades. You know what is real funny-they pay no taxes, ship all their money back home(rather than circulate it in the local economy). They really do not care to be legal-some do, but most don't. They are not being sent back to their native country any more, so they have nothing to fear. You should check out our crime reports also: every day about a dozen are arrested. Rape of children under 6, murder, rape of children under 12, grand theft, rape of children under 18, battery, DUI, etc. You can see what they like most. Waving a magic wand and making them all legal will do absolutely nothing but increase their numbers. Those that are hiring them are also operating illeagally. It is truely a shame that some of them are being ingured and killed in the workplace, but who cares, they are just the contractors money makers. That is what it all boils down to "greed". On the part of the contractors, and those who want the "good life" and "good jobs", and will do things illegally to get what they want. Let's just throw away the law books and the constitution and let everyone just do what they want, and we can all have 'the good life". The federal government released a report recently that stated by 2023, there will be more hispanic children in this country than whites or blacks. By 2030, there will be more hispanics in the workforce than whites and blacks. By 2040--you don't want to know. What we need to do is be fair. Let's let 15 million chinese into the country, then 15 million russians, then 15 million europeans--all illegally of course, and see what happens. God I'm glad I'm retiring soon--and legally of course!

Comment from John Fauth, (3/5/2013, 7:30 AM)

Frank brings up a very salient point; namely that money made in the US by Mexican nationals is often sent to Mexico to support family there. So much so that it is the third largest (legal) source of income in the Mexican economy. That is not an insignificant drain, considering the average number of times a dollar is recirculated through the US economy.

Comment from Jim Johnson, (3/5/2013, 2:11 PM)

What Frank and John did not mention is the fact these illegals are using our tax dollars for free healthcare, WIC money, Food Stamps, Rent Assistance, free obamaphones and they are flooding the schools we tax payers are paying for. Last year illegals cost the state of Arizona over 2.5 BILLION dollars, which legal workers had to pay. The illegals sit back and laugh at us because they make more in illegal cash and benefits than the legal worker does after paying taxes. We currently have over 26 Million Americans out of work, yet we cater to illegals who are stealing their jobs? That is insanity! Yes, it can be hard on their families when they are deported, but they should have thought of that when they broke the law. If an American breaks the law and goes to jail it is hard on their families too, but they should have thought of that before they broke the law. So there is no case for their families - it is their own fault for breaking the law. Today we have an actual 14 to 16% unemployment rate. Many of you do not remember back to President Eisenhower, but he was faced with returning veterans and 14% unemployment. He resolved the issue by deporting 13 million illegals and in less than 18 months reduced unemployment from 14% down to 5%. His motto was "You report them, We deport them" and it worked! I agree our immigration laws are too complicated and they should be rewritten, but in the meantime close off our borders, fine employers who hire them and deport them as quickly as they are found. That is what Mexico and numerous other countries do and it works for them.

Comment from Rob Green, (3/5/2013, 2:40 PM)

Demography is destiny. You do the math.

Comment from John Fauth, (3/6/2013, 9:04 AM)

Rob, sometimes demography is the natural outcome of political policies, for the benefit of political parties. There was a time in this country when placing party above country was considered an egregious violation of the public trust. Sadly, neither party is above that today. And I agree with Jim to the extent that I have a great deal of empathy for illegals on a personal (individual) level. But that doesn't alter the reality of the economics of the problem as a whole, nor make right what everyone knows to be wrong.

Comment from Bob Hubbard, (3/6/2013, 1:53 PM)

Of course the illegals are taking advantage of US politics. Until we resolve to seal our borders and ports, this will contine to be a problem for hard working Americans. I, too, have a great deal of empathy for the illegals, and if I were in their shoes, would swim the river to get a better life for my family. BUT, WE MUST CLOSE THE BORDERS FIRST, then establish some realistic role to citizenship. At this time, money coming from the US to Mexico from the illegals is a primary source of income fo Mexico. HOW TO SEAL THE BORDERS: bring American troops home from all over the world and let's protect American interests here, not in those remote places where people hate us just for being American. (by the way, I'm not a peacenik - SFCE7 was my rank). Until we realize we are not the world polic, we'll never regain control of our country.

Comment from Car F., (3/7/2013, 10:50 AM)

Immigration is not the problem: greed is. Greed drivers unethical employers to exploit the dire neccesity of poor, ill educated and desperate men and women trying to feed their families. regarding the comment "not in those remote places where people hate us just for being American", I believe this is wrong. No one hates Americans for being Americans, people hates exploitation, plundering and interference in their internal affairs anad that is what big American businesses has done for 200 years, aided and abeted by different administrations "Cease the philosophy of plundering and the philosophy of violence will cease too"

Comment from John Fauth, (3/11/2013, 8:52 AM)

Car, what about the greed of those who contract with the low bidder, knowing full well they're using illegal immigrant labor? A lot of very high minded municipalities don't think twice about the morality doing just that. As for American isolationism, there is no historical basis for believing it offers any "protection". One could even argue whether isolationism, as often defined, is even possible.

Comment from Bob Hubbard, (3/11/2013, 11:07 AM)

Car F, if you think Americans (and other Westerners) are not hated almost worldwide, you have woefully neglected your travel. We send money and troops all over the world to keep peace, and you have the audacity to call it "plundering and the philosophy of violence". And, John Faith, I'm not an isolationist - I just beleive in legal immigrants. By sealing the borders first, we impact not only the illegal immigrants, but the low bidder mentality that seems to permeate American business. Perhaps both of you should re-read the first several comments on this article. Carefully read them. Look at the stats. It's time Americans took back America from the bleeding hearts and the opportunists.

Comment from John Fauth, (3/12/2013, 9:03 AM)

Bob, please don't misunderstand... I do not equate border security with isolationism. On the contrary, a country that does not control its borders really ceases to be a sovereign nation. My reference to isolationism was to reference American ideas and ideals (including the concepts of freedom, democracy and individual rights), American culture, etc. that often pass as interference and exploitation. It's both funny and tragically sad that some perceive of our nation without borders, but believe borders should exist for concepts and ideas. Talk about a conflicted world view.

Comment from Jerry Trevino, (3/13/2013, 2:41 PM)

I am certain that Native Americans, which includes the Native components of the Hispanic makeup were having the same conversations when Europeans, Asians, Africans, Russians, and other groups were invading, plundering, sending wealth back to their respective homelands, and illegally occupying the Americas.

Comment from Car F., (3/15/2013, 10:39 AM)

First Nations/Native Americans had a terrible inmigration policy and their border security was a failure. They admitted every bootleger, pirate, outlaw and religiou freaks that crossed into their homeland, little by liitle they were displaced and assasinated until they became foreigners in their own land....sad.

Comment from John Fauth, (3/15/2013, 1:25 PM)

Are we forgetting that "First Nations / Native Americans" were neither first, nor native? Seriously, some things are the substance of myth and legend, rather than historical fact.

Comment from Jerry Trevino, (3/19/2013, 1:19 PM)

Most historical facts are tainted by biases and the limitations imposed the perspective of the historians. For example the reasoning for going to war with Iraq, or even what happened in Benghazi. What are the historical facts here? It totally depends on who spins the answers. In a few years this all could be myth and legends, People were killed, that is the only historical facts we know. I hope we can agree that some peoples lived in the Americas before Columbus and Vikings were came here a few hundred years ago. Before that, who know? Our children by be migrating to other countries if our leaders do not let the free enterprise system work. Free enterprise is not free. It is very costly, risky and difficult to achieve.

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