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“At Any Moment Anybody Can Die”: Immigrant Construction Workers Fight for Safety

Because Best Cleaning Services did not provide harnesses, immigrant workers would tie each other with rope and hold each other up with their bare hands.

Porfirio Lopez began working at Best Super Cleaning as a demolition and construction cleaning worker in 2018. He had high hopes that the job would provide him with a decent living so he could support his family back home in Mexico. 

Almost immediately after he began working for the company, Lopez’s hopes began to diminish. Workers were forced to do demolition work with their bare hands because the company refused to provide tools or even gloves, he said. When working sometimes 10 stories high, workers were not given harnesses or lifelines, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and instead, Lopez said that workers would tie each other with rope and hold each other up with their bare hands.  

“Sometimes we carry things from 60 to 70 lbs with no harness or lifeline,” said Lopez. “At any moment anybody can die.”

Fed up, Lopez and his coworkers decided to complain to management, but their concerns were ignored. Lopez was fired in January. Best Super Cleaning did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Since Lopez was fired, four other workers have also been fired by the company after joining organizing efforts. Lopez, who formerly worked at B&H Photo Video and took a prominent role in the 2017 union campaign, and his co-workers reached out to the Laundry Workers Center for help. On May 2nd, the day after International Workers Day, Lopez and about 40 of his fellow immigrant workers who were organized by the Laundry Workers Center, launched the Cabricánecos Campaign. 

Most of the immigrant workers are indigenous Guatemalans who speak Mam, a Mayan language, and the campaign is named in honor of the town of Cabricán where many of the workers are from. They are demanding that the company not only rehire them, but also provide them with proper tools, wage increases, paid sick days, and better working conditions. 

In June, six progressive rabbis and progressive Jewish organizations such as T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice met with Joseph Jacobowtiz, Jacob David Segelbaum, and Benjamin Mehrel, the owners of Best Super Cleaning, to negotiate a settlement on behalf of the workers. The company agreed to hold monthly meetings with the workers and promised to look into hiring bilingual supervisors and to conduct better training for team managers. In return, the former workers and the Laundry Workers Center promised to cease the weekly picketing outside a Best Super Cleaning construction site in Williamsburg. Yet, after a promising start, the company quickly changed its tune and refused to negotiate any further with the workers. In response, the Laundry Worker’s Center has continued its weekly picket.  

“The workers are fighting for better conditions and to make a settlement agreement with the company to achieve their demands,” said Rosanna Aran, co-Executive Director of the Laundry Workers Center. “What they want is that Super Clean provide a safe environment and provide the right tools, PPE, and pay according to the industry standards.”

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At a protest outside a Williamsburg Best Super Cleaning construction site last Friday, Abraham Rojas, who worked for the company for three years, says that he felt intimidated by the way the company has reprimanded workers who speak out.  

“Basically I feel really bad because they treat us as disposable because if you don’t say anything they are happy,” he said. “ But if you say something about our safety or our rights right away they fire the workers.”

The 40-year-old Guatemalan father of five decided to speak out because he doesn’t believe the amount he’s currently being compensated — $17 an hour — is equal to the level of risk he takes daily.

“I’m here because I have in my mind my family first,” he says. “I believe that the salary is super low because the job we do is really hard. We have to do all the cleaning for the new building and for the old building we have to demolish.”

Workers told Documented that they often don’t know what work site they are going to be sent to until the night before or the morning of. Vans pick up work crews at designated spots and ferry them to sites all over the City. The workers say they sometimes have to conduct demolition work in near pitch black conditions. Lopez says that he and other workers have sustained numerous injuries at the sites.  

“I have inflammation on the spine and other co-workers developed illnesses and injuries because we have to carry a lot of heavy stuff,” he said. “Sometimes we have to carry a shed from the sixth-floor all the way down with no elevator, only ladders. They’re really bad conditions.”

Porfirio Lopez at the Laundry Workers Center office. Photo: Amir Khafagy for Documented

After the campaign was launched, workers allege that Best Super Cleaning began an anti-union campaign — from attempting to spy on workers to holding mandatory captive audience meetings during work hours in an attempt to dissuade the immigrant workers from organizing. 

Best Super Cleaning is just one of many non-union construction labor brokers that have proliferated in the City over the past decade. Commonly known as “body shops,” these companies hire workers and outsource them to non-union construction sites scattered across the City. Body shops are notoriously dangerous and often hire workers who have been recently released on parole and pay them well below industry standards.

Immigrant workers are also increasingly preyed upon by these dangerous companies. Last February, David Battinelli, an immigrant worker who was employed by the body shop Labor Innovations fell to his death while working on a construction site in Midtown Manhattan. This year alone, Best Super Cleaning has four open OSHA violations. In 2020, the company raked up $10,796 in OSHA violations.

Also Read: Undocumented Construction Worker Falls to His Death and Developers Deny It

“They hire us because they know we are vulnerable and they can manipulate and take advantage because maybe we don’t have documents or we don’t speak English very well,” said Lopez. “They say they are not going to pay what is the industry standard because we are not able to say anything.”

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Last November, after years of lobbying by unions such as Laborers Local 79, who argue that labor brokers shops bring down the wages and standards for construction workers as a whole, the New York City Council passed Intro 2318, which aimed to regulate the labor broker industry. The new law requires labor brokers to be licensed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protections (DCWP), provide information about their violation history, inform workers of their rights and pay a $200 registration fee. If a company operates without a license it could be fined $500 per day, for every day they operate without a license. 

The law also empowers workers by giving them the private right of action, which will allow workers to sue the companies for wage theft, discrimination, and retaliation. Since the law took effect in June, 17 labor brokers have registered with DCWP. Yet, Best Super Cleaning has failed to register. Chaz Rynkiewicz, Vice President of Laborers Local 79 has been closely watching Best Super Cleaning and has vowed to take action. 

“Local 79’s research leads us to strongly believe that Best Super Clean is a body shop primarily exploiting immigrant workers which has failed to register with the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection as required by law,” he said. “We have every intention of working with relevant government authorities to compel the company’s legal compliance and ultimately put an end to their mistreatment of workers.”

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Responding to Documented’s request for comment, DCWP acknowledged that they are currently investigating Best Super Cleaning. 

“DCWP has received 5 complaints about construction labor providers (body shops),” said Michael Lanza, DCWP’s Press Secretary. “We are investigating several possible unlicensed construction labor providers, including Best Super Cleaning LLC, however, we are unable to comment on pending investigations.”

Since being fired Lopez has taken a job at a local bodega but the work is not steady and he can barely make enough to support his family.

“The whole situation makes me feel bad because you are never prepared to be out of a job with less money.”

Nevertheless, his determination to continue to fight not only for his job back but for the overall improvement of his workplace remains absolute. 

“My personal motivation is for the workers,” he said solemnly. “We came here for a better future. We are not demanding crazy stuff, we just want to be recognized. We are the people that made these people rich. Only the workers can build this.”

Also Read: These Immigrant Workers Were Fired After Forming a Laundromat Union. Now They’re Fighting Back

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