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The Abuse of Undocumented Workers in Texas

A recent article in Texas Monthly’s “Hurting for Work” series highlights  how some employers take advantage of undocumented workers. The process involves unskilled laborers without valid work permits being constantly maimed or killed while engaging in dangerous construction jobs. The overseeing contractors may have a history of workplace accidents and even be working under various company names. However, because Texas does not require  employers to provide worker’s compensation insurance, these workers are discarded and forgotten once hurt.

This installment of the Texas Monthly series centers on Santiago Arias, a worker well aware of the dangers involved in construction. Eleven months prior, he lost his left eye while engaged in demolition work for the same contractor. Santiago’s reason for continuing was to obtain funds needed to finish a convenience store he was building for his family, in Mexico.

Atop a warehouse, Santiago was engaged in the process of demolishing its roof, while standing on it. “Hazardous” is an understatement here, not a single worker was wearing harnesses, lanyards, or any other fall protection equipment.  As pieces were dislodged, he would reach to catch them, but upon losing his footing, he slipped and fell 20 feet.

Santiago remained unconscious for a week following the accident and endured injuries that ran up $841,000 dollars in medical bills. He will never be able to walk again due to  harm to his spine.

Taxpayers and charities end up paying for most of a worker’s medical care  because Texas doesn’t require employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance. The workers and their families see their income and quality of life fall apart. However, the construction companies continue to flourish without a hitch, hiring more eagerly waiting undocumented immigrants that do not mind replacing the injured.

In Santiago’s negligence suit against the contractor, an expert described that the worksite environment at the time of the fall was the worst he’d seen in close to 50 years engineering experience. The owner of the construction company did not show up to court, and so though a verdict of $21 million was received, Santiago’s lawyer was forced to finally settle with the corporation’s insurer for less than 1 percent of the award.

The article notes that though Texas has lead the nation in job creation for the last decade, the state also leads in the number of worker deaths, and these numbers are largely due to this repeating scenario on building sites around the state. And as lawmakers push to create compensation systems, Texas businesses consistently reject the ideas in the name of profit.

Opponents of mandatory worker’s compensation programs note the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is a current protection for workers. But in this state there is only 1 OSHA inspector per 103,000 workers, one of the lowest ratios in the United States.

Disdain for government regulation sparked a “Texas miracle” economy which greatly withstood the recession and continues to prosper, but a grand portion of this success comes from a lack of protection for the workers who built it.

The full story can be found at: http://apps.texastribune.org/hurting-for-work/no-safety-net/