Friday marked the end of the national Labor Rights Week, which takes place every year during the last week of August leading up to Labor Day. But Houston as a city isn't in the best position when it comes to worker safety.
Labor Rights Week -- organized by the U.S. Department of Labor in conjunction with various embassies, consulates, worker rights groups, community and faith-based organizations, and local unions -- aims to "increase awareness and inform workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities under U.S. labor laws."
Houston itself has the worst record in Texas, and Texas the worst in the country, when it comes to workplace fatalities or catastrophes. According to a recent Dallas Morning News investigation, Texans are significantly more likely to die on the job than workers in other states. "More workers die here than in any other state," according to the report. "On average, a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than someone doing the same job elsewhere...That translates to about 580 excess workplace deaths over a decade."
So far this year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Houston has seen more than 3 times the amount worker fatalities than Dallas, the second most fatal city for workers in Texas.
According to OSHA's most recent report on workplace fatalities and catastrophes, which covers October 2013 through today, most of the 14 local worker deaths over the past 10 months have been caused by problems related to construction work, maintenance, and repair--things like electrocution and falling from high places. Texas has also had the highest on-the-job death rate out of all 50 states since October, with 134 fatalities or catastrophes, or incidents in which three or more workers were hospitalized. That's 43 more fatal or near-fatal incidents than California and 61 more than Florida during the same period of time.
And construction, the data shows, is both the industry where Texas and Houston employ more per thousand workers than the rest of the country, and where immigrant workers are drawn to.
"Often time what happens is employers threaten undocumented immigrants," said Secretary-Treasury of the Harris County branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Richard Shaw. "Or they think they're not going to say anything, or will refrain from saying something, so they're at special risk. If you look at the rate of people killed in Texas every year, construction is the industry where it's the highest, and it's mostly Hispanic workers who are killed."
This is why Labor Rights Week events are specifically targeted at immigrant workers. Organizations like the AFL-CIO partner with the local Mexican Consulate and the consulates for other Latin American countries to help hundreds of workers every day, both documented and undocumented, know their rights in the workplace.
According to a report from Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, The Houston metropolitan area, including Houston, Sugar Land, and Baytown, employed 11.78 construction workers per 1,000 jobs, more than anywhere else in the country. Each of those workers also earned less hourly and annually than any of the other 9 cities with the most construction employment, with the exception of Dallas-Plano-Irving metropolis, earning $13.61 per hour on average. In stark contrast, New York construction workers earned a mean of $26.02 hourly.
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Texas's construction industry is slightly smaller--9.91 per thousand jobs, still a rate almost twice that of California, the second-highest construction employer. The construction involved in the oil and gas industry specifically results in more deaths than any other industry, according to a data analysis conducted by the Houston Chronicle, which may explain the unusually high rate of on-the-job deaths in Houston and Texas.
Houston's resilient economy has left business owners worried about a shortage of skilled labor, needed for thousands of new jobs like welding, pipefitting, and plumbing in the petrochemical industry according to a Reuters analysis from June. This creates another pull factor for immigrants crossing into Texas to come to the Houston area specifically.
Groups like the Harris County AFL-CIO who did work during Labor Rights Week are well aware of the disparities and correlations between the immigrant status of workers and the industries they work in being dangerous.
"We have a lot of jobs here and a lot of people attracted by those jobs. And there are shortages of workers in those industries as well, so that also attracts workers. A lot of folks are coming basically to try and feed their families back home," said Shaw. "They have the same exact rights. Once you're in this country as a worker you have the same rights as anybody else."