Katie Cullather

The Workers Defense Project student initiative held a remembrance ceremony Friday for three workers that fell from the 11th floor of the 21 Rio luxury apartments during the 2009 construction. Students demonstrated and solicited signatures for a petition to improve construction working conditions in Texas.

“We want to raise awareness on campus and within the student community,” said group outreach coordinator Katie Cullather. “Our emphasis is on safety training and worker autonomy.”

The performers shook bottles filled with rocks while they evoked the names of the fallen workers and recognized them as fathers, brothers and sons.

William Throop, director of project management and construction services for UT, said the University takes numerous measures to ensure the safety of construction workers on UT-funded projects.

“First and foremost, safety on the project is the responsibility of the contractor,” Throop said. “But the contracts we issue require that the contractors follow safety requirements. Furthermore, safety records are used as a basis for selecting contractors.”

Eric Slape, UT project safety coordinator, emphasized the importance of advanced planning, such as ensuring that workers have the right equipment and apparel, developing handbooks for safety guidelines and holding weekly meetings.

Slape said UT’s project management and construction services evaluated more than 250 projects on campus since 2009. The average safety performance rating is 92 percent.

The student group’s mission addresses not only Texas’ high rate of construction deaths — more than any other state in the country — but also wage theft.

Cullather said students who live in luxury complexes where contractors owe workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay should be more aware of workers’ rights issues.

Student volunteer Alma Buena said she was drawn to the cause because of her uncle’s experience in construction in Houston.

“He worked on a project for about three weeks,” Buena said. “When he was finished with the job, they told him he’d get paid, but he would wait and wait and nothing would come.”


 

Editor’s Note: Portions of interviews have been translated from Spanish to English.

Members of advocacy group the Workers Defense Project hope UT students will consider their role in alleviating abuse and injustice against Texas construction workers.

At a meeting at the McCombs School of Business on Thursday night, representatives from the group addressed worker wage theft in Texas and the three workers who died during the construction of the 21 Rio high-rise apartment complex in summer 2009.

Workers’ rights issues such as wage theft are a major problem in the U.S., where 45 percent of workers earn poverty-level wages and 50 percent earn overtime pay when in reality 71 percent work more than 40 hours, according to the group’s presentation.

Katie Cullather, an intern and event organizer for the project, said 64 percent of workers have not received safety training and 76 percent of workers are not medically covered. An estimated 41 percent of workers do not receive rest breaks, while less than one-third of employers do not provide clean drinking water, Cullather said.

“We know that workers’ rights are important to students because construction is going on around campus, and as students, we walk around not noticing and taking for granted what they do,” said government sophomore Alma Buena and who volunteers with the project.

The project has worked on policies, directed workers’ rights cases, participated in protests and gathered grassroots support for the organization and their fight for fair treatment in the labor force, Cullather said.

“We want students to come out and support construction workers by coming out and participating in the Day of the Fallen to specifically honor those who have died at 21 Rio,” Cullather said.

The Day of the Fallen is set for March 2.

“The support would educate other people, not just students, but other people,” said sociology freshman Alejandra Nava. “We want everyone to know that everybody has rights regardless of their status.”

The group also works to educate immigrant workers about their rights and to help them fight for those rights.

“It helped gain knowledge of where to go to find out my rights,” said construction worker Juan Ignacio.

The presentation featured the personal accounts of Ignacio and Eli Rodriguez, workers who, with the help of the Workers Defense Project, received wage compensation from their employers.

“The Workers Defense Project always worries about our safety,” Rodriguez said. “Also, aside from being concerned about their safety, they worry about our economic status and provide a lot of moral support for their workers.”

The night’s events ended with the signing of the Build a Better Texas petition which advocates mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, rest breaks and state-funded 10-hour safety training courses. The petition also seeks to improve wage-pay procedures and prevent contractors from taking advantage of employees by misclassifying them as independent contractors for tax purposes.