By Equal Voice Action
Amid a devastating hurricane season that has wrought widespread damage across the Southern U.S., cities from Houston to Charleston face major rebuilding efforts as they embark on what will be a long-term recovery for the hardest hit communities.
Vital to this effort will be the thousands of construction workers and laborers who will be on the front lines of repairing and rebuilding essential infrastructure, from roads and bridges to schools, factories, business parks, and residential neighborhoods.
Yet, as a new report highlights, construction workers across the Southern U.S. face difficult and frequently unsafe working conditions while often receiving inadequate compensation and limited protections against wage theft and other labor law violations.
Build a Better South: Construction Working Conditions in the U.S. South, a 2017 report released by the Workers Defense Project, Partnership for Working Families, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, draws on the input of more than 1,400 construction workers in six major Southern cities to detail the day-to-day experiences of the hardworking people who are building and maintaining our major metropolitan communities and economic hubs in the South.
In surveys and in-depth interviews, construction workers from Houston to Miami described earning their livelihood in challenging and frequently dangerous conditions, working long hours in hot, humid weather with often limited or no employer-provided safety or skills training, and often without basic safety measures or equipment. As just one example, more than one-third of respondents in some of the hottest climates in the country reported that their employers did not provide drinking water on site, despite legal requirements to do so.
The study found that while nearly 15% of surveyed construction workers had been injured on the job in these types of conditions, only 43% of workers were offered health insurance from their employer, and only 45% had employers with workers’ compensation insurance, leaving them vulnerable to not only injury but financial hardship.
Despite their hard work in challenging circumstances, 57% of workers reported earning less than $15 per hour – even though they demonstrated high average levels of experience – and 36% reported difficulty covering rent, food, and other necessities. The study also found labor law violations to be common in the South, with nearly one-third of construction workers improperly classified as independent contractors – thereby restricting their access to full benefits and protections – and more than one in ten workers experiencing wage theft.
As the authors discuss, these and other substandard conditions threaten the viability of blue-collar construction jobs to serve as legitimate “pathways to the middle class,” rather than difficult, dangerous positions that provide neither a living wage nor a career ladder.
Many construction workers are immigrants, including undocumented workers, who have been drawn on to fill labor shortages in the industry, particularly during recent economic booms in Southern cities, as well as in the wake of past natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and they can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation in this industry.
According to the report’s findings, the construction industry has strong potential to provide good jobs to good workers, but currently, four of five of these jobs in the South do not meet basic standards regarding workplace safety, compensation, and training.
Describing the report as a “call to action,” the authors assert: “We can no longer be silent knowing that our homes and commercial centers, our universities, and hospitals, are built by men and women who work long hours but who can barely feed their families, who face dangerous working conditions daily with no recourse or compensation if they are injured, and whose labor rights are too often violated.”
The authors propose four recommendations that policymakers can undertake to improve working conditions for construction workers in the South:
- Guarantee safe working conditions
- Ensure honest pay for honest work
- Create good jobs with a career pathway
- Improve enforcement of existing policies
And they offer three recommendations for leaders in the construction industry to similarly help boost the well-being of workers in their industry:
- Prioritize safety
- Invest in training
- Subcontract for quality
To read the full report, including details regarding these recommendations and specific overviews of construction working conditions in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Nashville, click here.
Workers Defense Project (WDP) is a membership-based organization that empowers low-income workers to achieve fair employment through education, direct services, organizing and strategic partnerships.
The Partnership for Working Families is a national network of leading regional advocacy organizations who support innovative solutions to our nation’s economic and environmental problems.