Development

Construction workers, union seek more protection from wage theft, abuses in Charlotte

Standing up for workers

Monday evening construction workers and labor advocates gathered outside the Government Center. They asked Charlotte City Council to require developers to disclose their contractor's employment practices as part of future rezoning petitions.
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Monday evening construction workers and labor advocates gathered outside the Government Center. They asked Charlotte City Council to require developers to disclose their contractor's employment practices as part of future rezoning petitions.

A group of construction workers and labor organizers told Charlotte City Council on Monday that the city needs to take more steps to ensure the people fueling the building boom aren’t taken advantage of and subjected to unsafe conditions.

At a press conference organized by the AFL-CIO union in front of the Government Center uptown, they asked City Council to establish a task force to study construction workers’ conditions and pass a policy to rate contractors and make them disclose more about their employment practices.

The call for more rules to protect construction workers is tied to a report called “Build a Better South” that highlights wage theft, workers misclassified as independent contractors, lack of benefits and other hardships facing workers in the South’s booming construction industry. The report is a partnership of the Workers Defense Project, Partnership for Working Families, and the University of Illinois.

The report’s authors surveyed almost 1,500 workers in six fast-growing cities – Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Miami and Nashville. In Charlotte, they found:

▪ Nearly half – 44 percent – received no benefits at all from their employers, such as sick leave or health insurance.

▪ The industry is largely made up of Latino workers, who comprised 68 percent of those construction workers surveyed in Charlotte.

▪ Only 11 percent had formal training in construction at a vocational school or community college.

“We see a lot of wage theft,” said Isael Mejia of the Latin American Coalition. Many workers fear speaking up when they’re denied pay their employers owe them, either from fear of losing their jobs or because they’re undocumented immigrants.

“People that are helping to construct the city are ones that are suffering,” he said.

But they acknowledge it’s a tough proposition. Charlotte City Council is unlikely to successfully pass any ordinances toughening rules for contractors and the construction industry, especially given the state legislature’s recent history of overriding local regulations on issues from single-family house designs to Charlotte’s controversial LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance.

Alexis Gonzalez, a worker on the new roadway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, said his employer, Border Rebar, hasn’t provided basic safety features, such as training to operate heavy equipment, gloves, safety glasses and drinking water for employees.

“The working conditions are nothing to be proud of,” said Gonzalez, also representing the Justice and Respect in the Reinforcing Industry Coalition. He told City Council that he was stuck by a piece of metal and had to receive a tetanus shot, which his employer didn’t cover.

Border Rebar didn’t respond to a message seeking comment Monday.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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