Beside the Point: Your Job or Your Life
Worker death highlights unsafe conditions
Who built your home? Were they born in the U.S., or were they immigrants? If they were immigrants, were they documented? Were they paid a fair wage, and treated decently? Were their working conditions safe? Did anyone die or lose a limb during the construction process? If you can answer any of these questions, you're a better person than I.
At the time I signed the lease on the duplex where I live now, I was working two part-time jobs, making $12 per hour each. My only concern was finding a place that I could afford, and that would actually approve my lease application. I didn't feel like I was in a position to be picky. And to be honest, I don't believe it should be my personal responsibility to investigate whether the construction of my home was cruelty-free, any more than I believe it should be my personal responsibility to test my food to make sure it doesn't contain poison, or evaluate the roads I drive to make sure they can bear my car's weight. While the FDA and TxDOT may not always work perfectly (the Blue Bell listeria outbreak comes to mind), I have more faith in them to keep me reasonably safe than I do the invisible hand of the market.
Unfortunately, the Texas Legislature doesn't find worker safety to be a pressing issue. The Texas construction industry is among the deadliest in the country, and its lack of regulation isn't incidental to that fact. While all employers are required by federal law to follow OSHA safety standards, those standards often aren't enforced, and the penalties for violations are minimal. In addition to the unsafe conditions, Texas workers are paid low wages, denied overtime, and paid under the table.
Our immigration policies abet this exploitation. Undocumented immigrants, fleeing sometimes horrific conditions in their home countries, or seeking to escape poverty, and in constant fear of detention and deportation, don't have a great deal of bargaining power when dealing with unscrupulous employers who'd like to pay less for their labor than required by law, or avoid paying taxes by misclassifying their employees as independent contractors, or not provide any of the equipment needed to do a job safely.
All of these things are on my mind because of the recent death of Ramiro Loa, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant who fell while on a third-story balcony of the currently under-construction Eastside Station Apartments (see "Remembering an 'Unknown Worker,'" July 17). Loa was standing on a sawhorse to reach what he was working on. The balconies currently have no railings or walls. It was an incredibly dangerous situation, one Loa should never have been put in. Texas workers aren't required to be given any safety training by their employers, so while it's unlikely that Loa didn't know that what he was doing was perilous, it's entirely possible that he didn't know that he had a right to demand a safe way to do his job.
It's thanks to Bethany Boggess, research coordinator at Workers Defense Project, who spotted it in an OSHA report, that Loa's death is now receiving some notice. Not only had it not received any media attention before then, but when WDP visited the ESA site, many of the workers there weren't aware a death had occurred. One worker was doing the exact thing – standing on a sawhorse on a balcony – that had led to Loa's fall. Now, if nothing else, the tragedy is not going unremarked, and the site's conditions are receiving some needed scrutiny.
If you're in the market for a new home or apartment, and you think it's unreasonable that someone should risk his life to do his job, rather than be provided with the necessary safety equipment and training, you could always look for a place that's part of WDP's Better Builder program – a set of "expanded safety protections and living wage requirements to improve working conditions" that participating developers agree to honor – or you could check to see whether the contractors hired unionized workers, or maybe you could build a new home and oversee the construction yourself, if you have the luxury. Consumer demand, as Boggess pointed out to me, can certainly be a driver of change. If enough people refused to live in homes marked by the suffering of those who built them, developers would find a way to ensure their workers' safety, regardless of what excuses they might be offering right now for maintaining the status quo.
But I'm not convinced that's the best solution. It's hard to consistently make virtuous choices on one's own, and laws help provide motivation to do the right thing. Holding out for an equitably built home can be a difficult thing to do in a city with a 98% occupancy rate. But workers deserve the right, no matter where they work, to be given the tools to do their jobs safely and to be paid a living wage. Austin's City Council has made some progress in this respect, such as by tying incentives to higher labor standards on certain projects. They can, should, and perhaps will do more to protect workers. However, at some point, their hands are tied by the Lege, which restricts the regulations a municipality can effect – the most notable example being minimum wage.
A persistent comment on stories such as this is, "There are so many jobs in this city. If you are unhappy with your employer, go get another job where you will be happy." Sometimes a person's best option, however, is the one that seems the least bad. We owe it to the people who do the hard work of building our state to not force them to choose between their jobs and their lives.
Michael King's weekly column, Point Austin, returns in two weeks.