We will rebuild. The promise and call to action is a common refrain after disasters, including Hurricane Harvey. But when it comes to the people actually doing the literal rebuilding, protections are few and abuses are common.
“While it was still raining in Houston, I was freaking out about the recovery because after Hurricane Ike, it was the deadliest year for workers in Houston,” said Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center, “we knew we had it coming.”
One of only two worker centers in Houston, Fe y Justicia started organizing right away, coordinating with national groups and local officials to provide safety and health training to workers here in Houston who would be tasked with the difficult and hazardous job of rebuilding. But there were significant gaps. “Protective equipment was one of the things that happened slowest because we didn’t have it stocked,” she said at a panel discussion Tuesday. “By the time it got to us it took like a month and a half.”
Though it’s actually the contractors responsibility to provide protective equipment to laborers, said Sasha Legette, business liaison with the Workers Defense Project in Houston, they often don’t. “They should probably go ahead and stock up as well,” she added. “We want to make sure we do hold them accountable.”
Texas is a particularly dangerous place for workers, including those in construction, oil and gas and trucking. The state regularly tops the list for worksite deaths. And workers here have few protections. Texas is the only state that doesn’t require private employers to have workers’ compensation coverage.
“When these workers are going into these structures….without the training they deserve and need,” said Legette, “if something happens to them and they get hurt, they don’t have any recourse.”
Now facing a daunting rebuilding effort, these workers are vulnerable, not just to safety risks but also to wage theft and other abuse.
A recent study commissioned by the Fe y Justicia Worker Center and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network found that in the four weeks following Harvey, roughly a quarter of day laborers reported incidents of wage theft. That number will likely grow, according to the study’s author Nik Theodore from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In fact, in the past year, 57 percent of day laborers said they had experienced wage theft, with the average amount at $225.59.
“It’s clear there’s a breakdown of the enforcement system here in Houston and in the state of Texas,” said Theodore. After surveying 361 workers, asking them where they would go to report such a problem, Theodore said not one worker mentioned the Texas Workforce Commission, highlighting the importance of worker centers.
“It’s really, really overwhelming,” said Arreaza, who said her center has received 21 calls per day since Harvey from people facing wage theft, safety and health issues and less frequently discrimination-related problems.
Though the City of Houston emphasized that undocumented immigrants, which comprise a significant portion of the day labor market in Houston, could seek assistance without fear of being detained or deported, 64 percent of undocumented day laborers said they did not feel safe asking for help from government officials, according to the survey.
“The role of workers is to try to rebuild places that may not even want them there,” said Diana Mejia, a safety and health expert with Wind of the Spirit in New Jersey.
And then there are the health issues, which often don’t emerge for months.
“We talked to workers who protected themselves by wrapping a t-shirt around their mouth,” said Theodore.
Working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Santos Alvarado said through a translator, “There was no chance of asking for protection, gloves, masks. The job just had to be done.” Alvarado was part of the crew that cleaned up City Hall and remembers hearing a chorus of coughing each morning when the workers would wake to shower and take the bus over to the job site. “There’s no permission to miss a day of work. Either you work or you work,” said Alvarado, who founded the Congress of Day Laborers.
In Houston, though day laborers are overwhelmingly immigrants from Central America, most have lived in the area for at least five years, with 37 percent living in Houston for more than a decade. Some were affected by the storm themselves. As was the case after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, disasters expose the depth of inequity.
“It’s been five years,” said Gonzalo Mercado, executive director at La Colmena in Staten Island. “We are thinking this is going to take ten years and probably more,” he said of the recovery effort and ongoing wage theft and health and safety issues he’s seen since Sandy.
“We still see some towns in New Jersey,” added Mejia, “it’s like it happened maybe a year ago. All those vulnerable communities where people have been oppressed…people forget about them.”
Harvey has drawn attention to these divides as well. And many are calling for an equitable recovery process, starting with the laborers rebuilding affected homes and businesses.
“Recovery has to go beyond just immediate recovery,” said Legette. “Take the opportunity to look forward to say how do we make substantial and sustaining changes for the long-term? There will be another Harvey. What we don’t want to have to do is come back to the table and relitigate these issues.”
In addition to helping individual day laborers, Workers Defense Project has lobbied for structural change, including through its Better Builder campaign that seeks to commit individual builders to labor standards beyond what is legally required, including providing a living wage to workers. “It’s been applied to over one billion dollars of construction” across the state, said Legette.
Fe y Justicia have also called for clearer health and safety standards for builders after a disaster, more outreach to day laborers from the Texas Workforce Commission, temporary suspension of immigration enforcement in disaster zones and support for worker centers to do critical work like distribute protective gear.
“Maybe it’s an opportunity to redo the history,” said Mejia, “to reinvent the history where people can have more access and opportunity to a better life.”