Description and Details

The con­struc­tion indus­try in the Unit­ed States relies sig­nif­i­cant­ly on the labor and exper­tise of immi­grant work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly undoc­u­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als. These work­ers are des­per­ate­ly need­ed to fill the 500,000-worker short­age in con­struc­tion, yet they face severe chal­lenges of eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, increased safe­ty haz­ards, and a hos­tile polit­i­cal atmosphere.

An esti­mat­ed 1.6 mil­lion immi­grants work in the con­struc­tion indus­try nation­wide, com­pris­ing 20% of the indus­try’s total work­force. In cer­tain states and loca­tions, this per­cent­age can be much larg­er. For exam­ple, 63 per­cent of New York City’s con­struc­tion work­force are immi­grants, and it is esti­mat­ed that 40 per­cent of those work­ers are undoc­u­ment­ed. This fig­ure is sim­i­lar to the entire state of Texas’ con­struc­tion work­force where half of the work­ers (an esti­mat­ed 400,000) are undoc­u­ment­ed. This num­ber may seem high, but the nature of construction’s vast sub­con­tract­ing struc­ture allows a large por­tion of the work­force to be paid as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors in cash instead of as employ­ees. Improp­er clas­si­fi­ca­tion of employ­ment lim­its con­nec­tion to devel­op­ers and gen­er­al con­trac­tors, while also reduc­ing costs through avoid­ance of pay­roll and unem­ploy­ment tax­es. Sub­con­trac­tors favor this prac­tice to save mon­ey and pro­duce more com­pet­i­tive bids, but the out­come relies on the eco­nom­ic exploita­tion of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant workers.
The eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty for undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers is sig­nif­i­cant and the result of a few fac­tors. First, there is a face val­ue dis­crim­i­na­to­ry pay gap where the medi­an and aver­age annu­al earn­ings for con­struc­tion work­ers diverge for immi­grants and cit­i­zen work­ers. For work­ers in the same posi­tion, it is esti­mat­ed that U.S.-born con­struc­tion work­ers earn an aver­age of $3.12 more per hour than undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers. Wage theft and under­re­port­ing of hours is also fright­en­ing­ly com­mon, as employ­ers rely on the improb­a­bil­i­ty of legal recourse for their refusal to pay. Not only do immi­grant work­ers receive less per hour, but they also lose out on job ben­e­fits such as health­care or time off due to their clas­si­fi­ca­tion as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. Final­ly, many immi­grants are either unaware of, fear­ful of, or unable to join a union or for­mal­ized job net­work. This means they also fre­quent­ly lose out on the 64% pay dis­par­i­ty between union­ized and nonunion­ized con­struc­tion work­ers in the Unit­ed States.
Migrant con­struc­tion work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who are non-Eng­lish pro­fi­cient face high­er fatal­i­ty rates, safe­ty inci­dents, and dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices than any oth­er labor group. This is in part due to a fail­ure of safe­ty train­ing for immi­grant work­ers, a fail­ure to bridge mul­ti­cul­tur­al work­forces, a large sep­a­ra­tion from author­i­ty fig­ures on site, and the reluc­tance and improb­a­bil­i­ty to receive work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion or med­ical atten­tion for work-relat­ed injuries. For exam­ple, an esti­mat­ed 73 per­cent of undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers have not received basic safe­ty train­ing, much less guid­ance on OSHA reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard prac­tices Addi­tion­al­ly, of the few­er reports made for injuries on site only 30 per­cent of undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers report­ed cov­er­age from a worker’s com­pen­sa­tion claim. So not only are these work­ers under­trained and overex­ert­ed with­out addi­tion­al pay, but they are also denied com­pen­sa­tion and time to recov­er from their work-relat­ed injuries.
There are many pos­si­bil­i­ties to address these wrongs and make con­struc­tion a more equi­table indus­try for all. Bill pro­pos­als to increase fines for repeat safe­ty vio­la­tions and increase work­er endan­ger­ment charges to felonies as in the case of Car­los’ law in New York could broad­en the scope of con­struc­tion safe­ty for work­ers and penal­ize com­pa­nies neglect­ing safe­ty train­ing and stan­dards. Greater OSHA-com­pli­ant train­ing agen­das con­sid­er­ing cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty could be adopt­ed amongst sub­con­trac­tors and gen­er­al con­trac­tors to improve safe­ty train­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, con­tract require­ments that lim­it the num­ber of inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors under a sub­con­trac­tor would incen­tivize the hir­ing of immi­grant work­ers onto pay­roll, pro­vid­ing them with bet­ter wages, ben­e­fits, and legal recourse. How­ev­er, the most effec­tive change would be larg­er immi­gra­tion reform that tar­gets the source of undoc­u­ment­ed work­er exploita­tion. As of now, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants’ voic­es are stripped out of fear of depor­ta­tion, and unfor­tu­nate­ly, unless wider reform at the fed­er­al or state lev­el occurs there will always be a pow­er dynam­ic that severe­ly lim­its their abil­i­ty to fight for fair wages, ben­e­fits, and safe­ty programs.
In sum­ma­ry, the con­struc­tion indus­try in the Unit­ed States heav­i­ly relies on immi­grant work­ers, notably undoc­u­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als. Com­pos­ing 20% of the con­struc­tion work­force, these work­ers face eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, greater safe­ty risks, and a hos­tile polit­i­cal cli­mate. There is a need for com­pre­hen­sive indus­try reform backed by wider pol­i­cy change that allows undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers to earn fair­er wages and safer con­di­tions with­out fear of repercussion.

Discussion Questions

1. What oth­er ways can the con­struc­tion indus­try or pub­lic pol­i­cy address preva­lent eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties and poor safe­ty con­di­tions expe­ri­enced by undoc­u­ment­ed workers?

2. Giv­en the reliance on immi­grant work­ers in the con­struc­tion indus­try, how might inno­v­a­tive approach­es such as tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven lan­guage train­ing be employed to seam­less­ly inte­grate non-Eng­lish pro­fi­cient work­ers into the work­force? Alter­na­tive­ly, do you think these inno­v­a­tive approach­es could be more dis­tract­ing than necessary?

3. Beyond leg­isla­tive mea­sures, how can con­struc­tion com­pa­nies active­ly engage with local com­mu­ni­ties, advo­ca­cy groups, and edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions to fos­ter a more inclu­sive and equi­table indus­try? Are there cre­ative ini­tia­tives that can empow­er immi­grant work­ers through com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ships and grass­roots efforts?


Peer-Reviewed Arti­cles:

Man­ag­ing Cul­tur­al Diver­si­ty at U.S. Con­struc­tion Sites: His­pan­ic Work­ers’ Perspectives–7862.0001359

Crit­i­cal Fac­tors Affect­ing the Safe­ty Com­mu­ni­ca­tion of Eth­nic Minor­i­ty Con­struc­tion Workers

Media/News Ref­er­ences:

Report: Half of Texas con­struc­tion work­ers undocumented

Climb­ing the Lad­der: Road­blocks Faced by Immi­grants in the New York City Con­struc­tion Industry

Undoc­u­ment­ed Immi­grants in Construction

The Con­struc­tion Indus­try Needs Undoc­u­ment­ed Work­ers. So Why Is Noth­ing Being Done To Help Them?

Num­ber of employ­ees in the con­struc­tion indus­try in the Unit­ed States from Jan­u­ary 2000 to Jan­u­ary 2024,construction%20and%20demand%20for%20workers.

Uncer­tain and afraid: Florida’s immi­grants grap­ple with a dis­rupt­ed real­i­ty under new law