Skip to main content

labor Construction Booming In Texas, But Many Workers Pay Dearly

One in thirteen workers in the Lone Star State - nearly one million - are employed in the booming construction industry. But large numbers of these workers are undocumented and unorganized, and employers are taking advantage.

,

Like almost everything in the Texas, the construction industry in the Lone Star State is big. One in every 13 workers here is employed in the state's $54 billion-per-year construction industry.

Homebuilding and commercial construction may be an economic driver for the state, but it's also an industry riddled with hazards. Years of illegal immigration have pushed wages down, and accidents and wage fraud are common. Of the nearly 1 million workers laboring in construction here, approximately half are undocumented.

Many of those workers have been in the U.S. for years, even decades. This critical mass of eager, mostly Hispanic workers means it's possible for a family from New York or California to move to Texas and buy a brand new, five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot home for $160,000.

Just how cheap is the cheap labor in Texas? Sometimes, it's free. Guillermo Perez, 41, is undocumented and has been working commercial construction jobs in Austin for 13 years.

"[The employer] said he didn't have the money to pay me and he owed me $1,200," Perez says of one job. "I told him that I'm going to the Texas Workforce Commission, which I did. Then after that, he came back two weeks later and paid me."

Perez is brave. Undocumented workers are usually too afraid to complain to Texas authorities, even when they go home with empty pockets. And they almost never talk to reporters.

Widespread Wage Theft

The economic collapse of 2008 brought with it an onslaught of wage theft, according to the Austin-based Workers Defense Project. At the end of the week, construction workers sometimes walk away with $4 or $5 an hour, sometimes less, sometimes nothing.

"Ninety percent of the people who come to our organization have come because they've been robbed of their wages," says Cristina Tzintzun, the Workers Defense Project executive director.

The organization has , that examines working conditions in the Texas construction industry. For more than a year, WDP staff and University of Texas faculty canvassed Texas construction sites, surveying hundreds of workers and gathering information about pay, benefits, working conditions and employment and residency status.

To continue reading the full story, click hereThursday on Morning Edition, Wade Goodwyn examines the Texas construction industry from the other side — from the contractor's perspective