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MN Union: Safety of Immigrant Construction Workers Sacrificed for Profit

In addition to safety violations, wage theft has been cited as a big problem in the construction trade for immigrant workers in Minnesota. Policy leaders have been more responsive to that issue in recent years. (Adobe Stock)
In addition to safety violations, wage theft has been cited as a big problem in the construction trade for immigrant workers in Minnesota. Policy leaders have been more responsive to that issue in recent years. (Adobe Stock)
June 29, 2020

LAKEVILLE, Minn. -- The recent death of a construction worker in Minnesota has exposed a lack of safety oversight at job sites, according to a regional union.

Union officials say immigrant laborers are being exploited by contractors who are not prioritizing training.

Last week, a 26-year-old man died after a steep fall at a housing construction site in the Twin Cities area.

Burt Johnson, general counsel for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, says the victim was a non-union Hispanic worker. He says subcontractors often hire workers for cash-only jobs and don't provide proper training.

"They're disproportionately exploiting immigrant laborers," Johnson states. "We see that commonly on construction projects, multi-family construction projects throughout Minnesota, and it's appalling. "

While there's no data for Minnesota, a 2018 study found that in the U.S., non-native workers in smaller construction companies received less training than those employed by larger firms.

Johnson says developers and general contractors are ignoring the hiring and training practices of smaller companies brought in for projects.

He also blames the Minnesota office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for not holding contractors accountable.

The office declined to comment, citing the investigation into last week's fatality.

Because of the economic collapse caused by COVID-19, there are fears that marginalized construction workers will take up more risky jobs. And Johnson says it's not just general safety that's a concern.

Johnson says while many companies make it a point to protect skilled laborers during the crisis, workers aren't getting extra attention from other firms.

"They've done so throughout the pandemic with total disregard to CDC protocols for social distancing, wearing masks," he maintains.

Industry research says it can be hard for non-English speaking construction workers to advocate for themselves with smaller companies because of language barriers.

Johnson says they might be fearful to file a complaint with OSHA because they might be the victim of labor trafficking.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN