A map published by the Workers Defense Project, a collective of organizers and laborers advocating for low-wage workers, shows the meteoric growth of Austin. Dimpled across downtown are dozens of construction sites and half-finished high rises. The city’s population grew 37% in 2010 and shows no sign of stopping. As of March 2013, Austin was still the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. A crowded future is on the horizon— brimming with new jobs and fresh faces.
But WDP’s Arnulfo Manriquez knows there is a darker side to the rise of Austin. After all, the map tracks not only where the latest luxury condo is being built but how many workers were unpaid at each construction site or report being denied basic rights like water breaks and safety gear.
Manriquez is a Workplace Monitor, responsible for overseeing worksites within WDP’s Premier Community Builder program. The City of Austin adopted the program to ensure that the construction boom not only provides high quality homes and workplaces for new residents, but protects the rights of low-wage workers hired by developers. Manriquez’s job is to process complaints, educate workers and developers about the law, and maintain the wellbeing of Austin construction laborers.
While the map covers downtown and suburban Austin, Manriquez says, “I could easily come up with one for West Campus. Wage theft, safety violations, misclassification of workers— this happens all the time in the city.”
As the student population around UT rises, so does the demand for housing. And while Austin City Council passed the University Neighborhood Overlay in June 2004 to create accessible student housing, the majority of the developments serve affluent students. Not only has this led to accusations of de-facto racial segregation, but wage theft and labor law violations run rampant among the luxury high rise construction sites clustered in West Campus. According to WDP, 1 out of 5 workers in Texas are victims of wage theft. Since over half of construction workers are undocumented, abuse and exploitation is the rule.
“Last month, 28 workers walked off the construction site for the Callaway House. They came to the WDP,” says Manriquez, “and they told us they didn’t get paid. They also didn’t get water breaks, which is against the law.”
Many of the laborers were veterans of West Campus construction and had war stories to share. Last summer, three workers were injured and hospitalized after an accident at the construction site on 24th and Nueces. While no one sustained life-threatening injuries, Manriquez says others were not so lucky.
“One of the 28 [laborers who walked away from the Callaway House] worked on 21Rio. He was dangling off the edge of the building and watched three co-workers die as they fell off the 11th floor.” The scaffolding had collapsed. By March 2011, two years after the accident, the companies fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the deaths had neither fully paid their penalties or the compensation owed to the workers’ families.
Manriquez and others at the WDP have organized a protest against the maltreatment of West Campus construction workers in response. On April 19th, they will be delivering letters to the leasing offices of various construction sites and demanding back lost wages, calling for a better industry that protects workers’ rights. They also want to show UT students how they can support Austin’s growth in a sustainable way.
All across Texas, booming cities use undocumented or low-wage workers to build skyscrapers, student housing, and more. But Texas laborers face deadly conditions no matter what city they are in.
“A crane fell in Dallas, one worker died. Others weren’t paid. The laborers organized went to the company’s office to meet with administrators [and ask for better protection],” Manriquez says. “The company called the police and told the workers they’d be in touch. But they never got a chance to talk to anyone.”
Alan Garcia, a junior at UT, started at WDP as an intern. He organized students and workers to pressure downtown developers who refused the standards set by the Premier Community Builder program. After several successful campaigns, Garcia wants to mobilize UT students in the fight for economic and social justice.
The university does not have complete oversight over private residential developments in West Campus but is a major stakeholder in housing matters. Ultimately it is the thousands of upper-middle class students at UT who are the target market for developments like 21Rio or the Callaway House. Students benefiting from the construction boom, according to Garcia, are accountable for the fate of workers.
Lorena Rios, another UT student and volunteer at WDP, echoes this opinion: “It is our responsibility to demand that workers are paid for their labor and that they are provided the adequate conditions for doing their jobs. Giant multimillion dollar buildings are being constructed at the expense of the workers. It is absolutely unacceptable for students of this institution to remain in the dark about the human aspect behind the giant concrete cubicles they will spend their college years in.”
Austinites and UT students are at a critical juncture: population growth is not bad—it may even be desirable. But the silence around worker exploitation must be broken, or else the rise of Austin will be a story of uneven growth and inequality. Garcia is blunt: “The campus is growing by robbing workers. This is the hidden story.”
WDP is alarmed that the UT community remains silent about routine labor violations happening at the doorstep of 60 thousand students. Dozens of laborers halted construction at an apartment complex that is almost entirely leased for the next semester, but most of Garcia’s friends were unaware of the incident. The lack of acknowledgement highlights the split between affluent students who live in these buildings and the exploited workers they rely on—workers who endure extreme safety hazards, job insecurity, wage theft, and verbal abuse. As the son of Mexican immigrants, Garcia says the abuse of workers hits a personal note. He was motivated to join the labor movement after witnessing his parents face similar mistreatment.
“I have to rise up and speak out. They sacrificed and worked to give me a better life. When we look at these workers, we have to remember they have kids. They have families. If they die or get hurt, someone is affected,” says Garcia. “I have to honor my parents’ dream and stand up for workers. The people building apartments for [UT students], they have dreams too.”
A construction worker dies in Texas every 2.5 days. Nearly 17000 injuries and accidents occur every year. To learn more about working conditions and the men and women who build Texas, see the following reports: