Construction workers, Austinites, community advocates from Workers Defense Project and a handful of media types gathered around a makeshift memorial and candlelight vigil Wednesday night for three men who fell to their deaths while constructing a high-rise condo last June.
The crowd of about 50 people huddled together on the sidewalk for warmth as ministers and members of Austin’s Latino community denounced the unsafe work practices and wage theft occurring at many job sites in Austin and across the state of Texas.
Children, women and men held small white candles as they gazed at the three white wooden crosses placed next to the deceased workers’ battered work boots and white hard hats displayed on the sidewalk. On each cross a name written in black ink: Raudel, Jesus, Wilson Arias.
Juanito Mirabal was there when the scaffolding fell and his three co-workers tumbled 11 stories to their deaths. “I’m here because I want better security for all of us on work sites,” he says. “And I want justice.”
The condo high rise is already open for business rented to students at nearby UT Austin. It’ s business as usual but not for workers like Mirabal who helped build the 21 Rio condo high-rise. They did the work, some of them even died on the job but no one, including the families of the deceased men, was paid for their final two weeks of work. “I’m still owed 5,200,” Mirabal says. “The subcontractor I work for is gone – he went back to Honduras.”
Studies say that Latino immigrants have an 80 percent higher chance of dying on the job in construction than native-born citizens. In June, the Observer wrote about the treacherous conditions that construction workers face in Texas, where a worker dies every 2 ½ days according to OSHA statistics.
Profit triumphs over human lives. Contractors hire subcontractors who bid cheap. The bosses don’t ask questions. The immigrant men who build this city and other cities across America are considered cheap and disposable.
There aren’t enough OSHA inspectors to ensure that every work site is safe. Government fines hardly make a dent either; when 19-year old Omar Puerto was electrocuted on the job while fixing rain gutters on an Austin apartment the company who hired him was only fined $4,950 for his death. A fiberglass ladder and safety training would have saved his life.
Emily Timm from the Workers Defense Project sees some hope at least in the announcement today that the four companies who operated the work site received 23 fines from OSHA for numerous safety violations. “OSHA’s citations are significant because they demonstrate how all actors on the construction site are responsible for the safety of the workers. You can’t subcontract safety away,” she says.
The companies: Andres Construction, Greater Metroplex Interiors, Scaffolding assembler American Mast Climbers and Capoera Construction were fined a total amount of $141,400. The fines are a small victory but no consolation for three grieving families.
As the candlelight vigil ends a young man parts from the crowd for a moment. He looks up at the makeshift paper banner above the memorial that reads: “Security is everyone’s responsibility.”
He grabs a black marking pen and starts to write on the banner; “You have a duty to these families and community,” he scrawls. “We want justice.”
For Mirabal and his fellow construction workers justice seems a long way off.
* Photos by Eugenio del Bosque