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Houston Is Being Rebuilt on a Foundation of Wage Theft

To gird themselves against Houston’s freakish sub-40-degree weather, the jornaleros, or day laborers, draw the hoods of their sweatshirts so tight that just their noses peek out. Huddled in groups of four or five across a Home Depot parking lot, the clusters disintegrate when Maurico “Chele” Iglesias approaches.

Although Iglesias, an organizer with the Workers Defense Project, has been coming to this parking lot every other week for five months, he rarely sees a familiar face. “It’s always different people,” he says. “They always keep moving.”

The workers, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, now living in a state not known for its warmth toward immigrants, eye Iglesias with caution and edge away. His beard and dark glasses could easily be mistaken for a hipster aesthetic. But once he starts speaking in Spanish, his ease talking with day laborers quickly becomes apparent. A few circle back to hear what he has to say.

The jornaleros have become Houston’s go-to rebuilding corps in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. When the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, it destroyed an estimated 30,000-40,000 homes in the area and caused, by some estimates, nearly $200 billion in damage.

The work agreements these men enter into are loose at best. When a rental pickup pulls up, four men run over to it, knocking on the window. One gets in after an exchange of a few words, and the truck drives off.

On Dec. 8, 2017, Iglesias is here to gin up interest in an upcoming wage theft clinic and a two-day OSHA-certified training about health and safety protocols for gutting, cleaning and rebuilding damaged homes.

Wage theft and safety violations were rampant in Houston’s low-wage construction industry even before the storm hit, according to local worker centers. One study found that 12.4 percent of construction workers in the city suffered injuries on the job. “The Texas construction industry is … incredibly dangerous,” says José Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “For years, the industry has absolutely failed to prioritize safety.”

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