UPDATED: This story has been updated to clarify that though the protest was organized in response to previous denials to address these issues, Gables did sit down with Workers' Defense Project on Thursday February 13th.
At a time when the President of the United States is pushing to raise the minimum wage for working people as well as tackle immigration reform, it seems unconscionable that in the progressive city of Austin, Texas workers would have to take legal action just to get paid for work and overtime they have already completed — but that is precisely the reason behind Saturday's protest organized by Workers' Defense Project.
By targeting Gables Residential, one of state's most prominent luxury apartment developers, WDP hopes to promote change in the construction industry and accelerate action on immigration reform that will go a long way in addressing the status quo which allows for the exploitation of workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
According to WDP there have been repeated complaints of workers' rights abuses at every Gables downtown project, including reports of $130,000 in wage theft since 2008, and violations of city ordinances regarding rest, safety, and water breaks.
See why one worker filed a lien against Gables on Friday and what Workers Defense Project is asking for below the jump…WDP also says at least one worker has been instructed not to talk to authorities regarding his complaint, even though in an unrelated case Gables has been working with one contractor who received citations from federal government in relations to the deaths of 3 workers in 2009. According to the Department of Labor, Texas remains the deadliest state for construction workers with nearly 700 fatalities on the job (between 2007-2012) which is nearly double the next closest state of California which also has a larger construction workforce.
A joint study by WDP and faculty of the University of Texas showed that 50% of Texas construction workers reported that they were undocumented. Of those, 55% reportedly experienced payroll fraud while 25% were victims of wage theft. As it turns out this is not just a moral shortfall but an economic one as well. The estimated 300,000 construction employees who go unreported on payrolls each year account for over $1 billion in lost federal income tax revenue and over $54 million in lost unemployment insurance taxes.
WDP says they have repeatedly approached Gables to discuss these issues, a meeting which finally materialized on February 13th, and the denial of those previous requests are the foundation of the campaign launched to protest the companies practices
On Friday Heriberto Mendoza, who worked as a painter on the unfinished Gables Park Tower project, filed a lien against the company for unpaid wages. In a press statement he said, “I've worked in construction for 10 years, and I have never seen worse conditions than on Gables Park Tower.”
Another worker and member of Workers' Defense Project Filemon Salas, said he, “saw several co-workers faint because they were made to work in 100 to 110 degree heat without water,” while on Gables Park Plaza project in 2009.
Gables had turned down, until the Thursday before Saturday's protest, the opportunity to sit down with Workers' Defense Project and that's why the campaign is being launched. WDP is asking for a living wage, safe working conditions, investment in workforce training, particularly when companies are receiving tax incentives.
WDP would like Gables to join the “Better Builder” program that would insure these higher standards are followed. Details of living wage include a floor tied to cost of housing in the area. Safety conditions include basic safety training, Workers' Compensation and following safety laws that require rest breaks, water and proper equipment. The focus of a “career path” asks that companies hire from local training centers, and low income neighborhoods into jobs with a living wage.
Floyd Akers is Executive Director of the Pflugerville Community Development Corporation, which participates in the “Better Builder” program. He said, “When we build, we want to make sure our workers are safe and receive a fair wage.”
WDP believes that when large companies like Gables raise its standards it will promote equitable development across the state so that honest companies and compete in a fair marketplace that is in turn good for the Texas economy.
Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez backed that sentiment when he said,
“We need to set the bar higher for developers across Texas so that companies that prove to be good stewards can compete, and the workers building our communities have the wage and safety protections they deserve. Companies that come to Austin should know that we value our workforce and expect them to invest in our city and the people who build it.”
Workers' Defense Project points to several good actors in and around Austin that have adopted these “Better Builder” practices including Apple, Foundation Communities, Pflugerville Community Development Corp. and Saltillo Collaborative. Participating developers are required to implement these higher standards (which include any subcontractors) and are not allowed to lower wages or risk worker safety to win construction bids.
If Workers' Defense Project is successful in their efforts it will be a win-win-win for the state of Texas. Workers who get paid a living wage will rely less on government assistance programs, the state and federal government will receive owed taxes, and businesses will compete on a level playing field. When it comes to the future of our growing state, it's clear we can build it better.
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