Just last week, Juan Chonilla and another still unidentified worker died from construction accidents. These men were important members of our immigrant community. As one of the members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), one of these men was family. These tragic deaths and severe injuries of multiple construction workers last week, on sites with safety violations, underscore the urgency for New York City to enact legislation that meets the needs of all workers.
The City Council is currently considering a bill, Intro. 1447-C, that would mandate increased safety training standards, and the Council has the opportunity to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we are talking about safety - and the very lives - of the city’s immigrant workers.
On any given day in New York City, there are thousands of immigrant construction workers seeking increased access to trainings for higher safety and health standards in their workplaces. These workers live under precarious and dangerous conditions every day due to their immigration status and work conditions. There are countless examples of bad-acting employers who use immigration status as a threat to workers, denying their rights to health, safety, and fair wages.
Organizations like NICE, a worker center and member of the New York Immigration Coalition, are often the only support these workers have. We are able to help workers get critical services such as health and safety trainings in their native language and help address other labor issues they face. Many of these workers come to us after they have already started working, only to discover health and safety violations at their worksites after receiving training.
The story of one of NICE’s members, Antonio, is the embodiment of the unique struggle of our city’s immigrant construction workers. Antonio and his two co-workers noticed a crack in the reinforcement of an excavation and informed their supervisor of the danger, as they had been trained to do. Their supervisor instructed them to begin work, and within minutes of beginning, the wall collapsed, trapping Antonio and another worker under crushing dirt and concrete. While the employer was busy locking the entrance to the site so no one could see, Antonio’s colleagues called 911 and recorded the incident on video. Antonio’s co-workers were subsequently fired for this act of solidarity and humanity.
Antonio’s story shows that construction workers are often the victims of blatantly negligent employers, who value their production over workers’ well-being. Workers like Antonio are not only deprived of safety on their jobs, but also of real protections and compensation after an accident. Their bad-acting employers face weak penalties and are able to continue construction projects that will inevitably put more workers at risk of injury or death.
Immigrant workers come to New York City with aspirations to support their families and build a better future, only to find that they are the target of unscrupulous employers, offered lower-wage work, and put in abusive and dangerous working conditions. If New York City is truly committed to its immigrant population, it cannot let these conditions continue on its watch. When workers like Antonio or Juan Chonillo are hurt or killed on the job, it is far from incidental. Accidents can be prevented when employers respect and adhere to the labor rights of their workers. We know from our experience that when an employer ignores health and safety laws, they will likely violate other labor laws; studies have shown this correlation.
This week, as the City Council considers Intro. 1447, we call on it to ensure that immigrant workers are able to obtain adequate safety training required by the bill. We furthermore call on the Council to develop stricter enforcement for safety protocols at constructions sites in the City in the future. The health, well-being and very lives of our members, our families, our neighbors are currently at stake. We need to make sure we are listening to their voices to develop solutions that protect them.
Manuel Castro is executive director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). On Twitter @NICE4Workers.