Testimony of David Chincanchan

Chair Burrows, Vice Chair Samuels, and Commissioners Dhillon, Sonderling, and Lucas,

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing and creating a space to discuss solutions needed to dismantle long-standing barriers to equal employment opportunity in the construction industry.

My name is David Chincanchan and I serve as the Policy Director for Workers Defense Project (WDP). WDP is a membership-based, statewide organization that empowers low-income workers throughout Texas to achieve fair employment through education, organizing, direct services, and strategic partnerships.

Every day, WDP members, including low-wage, immigrant construction workers, are fighting against the discrimination, harassment, and wage theft that’s so prevalent in our state’s construction industry. They courageously take on this work, despite facing intimidation and retaliation, because they know from personal experience how urgently change is needed. They understand that real change can only happen if workers are able to speak out against injustice without fear of being punished for simply seeking dignity and fair treatment for themselves and others.

Please find attached a report titled “Build a Better South: Construction Working Conditions in the Southern U.S.” This report was produced in collaboration between WDP, Partnership for Working Families, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. For this report, researchers surveyed 1,435 construction workers regarding their working conditions in six major cities throughout the South including Atlanta, GA; Charlotte, NC; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; Miami, FL; and Nashville, TN.

Among the findings, the report helps illustrate that:

1) Workplace injuries are common and are an economic burden to workers and their communities;
2) Few construction workers have access to basic employment benefits;
3) Economic hardships are experiences by many construction workers despite working long hours; and
4) Violations of basic labor rights are widespread in the South.

You can find other relevant studies conducted by WDP and our partners here: https://workersdefense.org/en/research/

As has been acknowledged by the Commission, including during a previous hearing on “Workplace Civil Rights Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” there are circumstances that exacerbate and deepen these types of injustices in the workplace. This rings especially true in the construction industry and more so for the immigrant workers that make up a significant part of its workforce.

In Texas, the ongoing pandemic has now claimed the lives of tens of thousands of our friends, families, and neighbors. When the pandemic first reached our state, it became clear that the lives of construction workers were disproportionately threatened. Yet, as in many other places around the country, our state leaders were quick to declare construction work “essential.” While our communities went into lockdown and implemented precautions, construction workers showed up to their worksites and continued to do their job. In doing so, they risked their own health and safety and that of their families to provide the essential services that we as a state demanded.

The workers who build our homes, workplaces, schools and more in cities across our state deserve much more than just our gratitude. Yet all they are asking for in this context is that their basic rights are respected so that they can have the ability to make a living while keeping themselves, their families, and their communities safe.

If our country truly values our construction workers and means its words when it refers to them as “essential,” then it must stop treating workers as expendable and must not put them in a position where they are forced to work under dangerous conditions without the essential protections that they need and deserve.

In Texas, building our cities has been a dangerous occupation long before the pandemic. In 2019 alone, over 123 Texas construction workers were killed in workplace-related incidents and thousands more were injured. That’s why workers in our state, including worker-leaders with WDP, have spent years advocating for safer standards and conditions.

Thanks to their fierce advocacy, several Texas cities have vetted policies, engaged stakeholders, and ultimately approved policies with common-sense protections for construction workers. Some of these include ordinances guaranteeing ten-minute water breaks for every four hours of work approved in cities like Dallas and Austin (also under consideration in San Antonio) as well as the creation of the first-in-the-nation Essential Worker Board in Harris County. You can find more information about the Essential Worker Board here: https://ewb.harriscountytx.gov/

Unfortunately, in Texas, despite this being one of the most historically dangerous places for construction work, our state government has repeatedly attempted to strip away even basic protections like these life-saving water-break policies by promoting sweeping pre-emption bills that would devastate local control in cities and counties across the state and prevent democratically-elected local representatives from responding to these kinds of needs in their communities.

Therefore, as the federal government continues to grapple with the pandemic and seeks to make massive infrastructure investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other initiatives, it has a key role to play in ensuring that essential frontline construction workers are able to perform their jobs safely and are protected from discrimination or retaliation when they speak out against the type of exploitative policies that harm workers and their families, threaten immigrant communities, and ultimately endanger us all.

The federal agencies charged with reviewing applications and awarding funding in connection with these infrastructure investment efforts must rise to this moment and include both incentives and requirements in these processes to sensibly protect workers.

WDP brought together construction workers to get their recommendations on common-sense workplace standards that would greatly increase their safety on the job and improve their ability to provide for their families and continue in the construction career. Those conversations led to the creation of the Better Builder® Program. You can find more information about the Better Builder® Program and its standards here: https://www.betterbuildertx.org/en/about-us/

Incorporating the types of standards in the Better Builder® Program relating to living wages, OSHA safety training, worker’s compensation, local hiring goals and independent third-party monitoring into federal infrastructure projects would not just yield higher-quality products but would also result in high-quality jobs and improve equal employment opportunity in the construction industry.

Finally, to ensure that existing labor standards are properly enforced and that we can continue to build opportunity and progress together, we ask the federal government, including the EEOC, Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security, to take meaningful steps not just to hold abusive employers accountable but to protect workers who come forward to denounce these abuses – regardless of race, gender-identity, immigration status or any other characteristic on which employment discrimination is based. Thank you for your time and consideration.