April 2013

Raising the Standards for All Workers

Every year thousands of workers enter the United States on temporary work visas arranged through their employers or agents. While well intended, these visa programs suffer from a lack of oversight that leads to often-heinous working and living conditions that impact workers. Furthermore, a growing number of employers in the construction industry are employing vulnerable, undocumented workers. These practices have broader societal impacts, such as a depression of wage markets, lost tax revenues, unfair competition and a plethora of human rights abuses. The Iron Workers at every institutional level must address the issues facing guest workers in the United States and Canada or face dire consequences. Together with the support of new workers’ centers and groups studying and organizing guest workers, we can increase worker power in our rapidly changing industry, improve standards for all ironworkers, and ensure our signatory contractors are competing on a level playing field.

Employers in the construction industry are increasingly making use of guest workers and day laborers in order to meet their staffing needs. This troubling trend seeks to shift jobs in the construction industry from well-paid, middle-class jobs with benefits to low-paying temporary jobs without benefits and often not covered by minimum wage and mandated benefit laws. These practices have numerous negative impacts on the construction industry, but also society in general, and in the broader economy.

Particularly unscrupulous employers will mislead workers and defraud the government so that they can obtain special guest worker visas that they are not actually qualified for. Some companies fraudulently obtain guest worker visas, sometimes those intended for foreign investors and venture capitalists or intended for truly temporary workers, and then charge their employees upwards of $20,000.00 (USD) to pay for the associated fees. On top of this, workers are often made specific promises in terms of wages and benefits and can find themselves imprisoned in forced labor camps when they arrive in this country.

In many areas of the country, construction contractors are utilizing greater numbers of day laborers. This is a practice rife with fraud and abuse such as those already outlined above in terms of guest worker programs. In addition, many contractors will classify these workers as independent contractors—i.e. self-employed workers they have subcontracted instead of people they have employed and manage. Misclassified workers must bear the full cost of social security (FICA) income taxes (as opposed to half for employees) and are excepted from minimum wage laws and other mandated benefits.

Each of these practices has numerous economic and social costs. Law-abiding contractors are frequently underbid by those committing fraud. In addition, the wage market is depressed and jobs that once could support a family comfortably are moving further toward poverty-level wages. The federal government, states and municipalities suffer from lost revenues when employers engage in these practices. When workers are employed surreptitiously, as they often are, they do not pay into FICA, unemployment insurance, or state and local income taxes. The workers’ compensation insurance industry is also negatively impacted as often workers are added onto plans after an injury has occurred—meaning a benefit is paid to a worker who never paid a premium. Furthermore, many of these workers are paid so little, have no benefits, and therefore rely on public services to meet their needs, adding an additional societal cost.

As greater numbers of immigrant and migratory workers enter the construction industry, it is imperative that we take this opportunity to organize these companies and unionize the workforce. As the industry’s demographics and employment practices change, we are developing unique ways to meet the needs of ironworkers in the modern work environment. With the right plans in place and an understanding of the needs and desires of these workers, our union can continue to grow and thrive. We can now do for this industry, what our forefathers did over 100 years ago, and raise standards for all workers across our industry.