fbpx Immigrant Construction Workers Secure Victory in 4-Year Battle for Improved Workplace Safety - Documented

Immigrant Construction Workers Secure Victory in 4-Year Battle for Improved Workplace Safety

Thanks to a new Department of Labor amendment, workers can establish safety committees that give them the power to refuse tasks they deem unsafe.

New York City’s construction industry is notoriously dangerous, especially for immigrant workers on non-union construction sites. In 2022 alone, 24 construction workers died at construction sites across the city, a 20% increase from just the year before, with Latino workers making up a disproportionate number of the fatalities.  

Although construction site death continues to trend upward, indigenous Guatemalan construction workers in Brooklyn have succeeded in making their workplace a lot safer. 

Since first launching the Cabricánecos Campaign in May 2022, nearly 40 mostly indigenous Guatemalan demolition workers have been organizing to demand that their employer, Best Super Cleaning, increase their wages and provide a safer worker environment by recognizing their right to form a workplace safety committee. 

Last November, with the assistance of the Laundry Workers Center and progressive Jewish groups, the workers were able to successfully win their campaign, with management conceding to nearly all of their demands. After ironing out the details with management, the workers were finally able to announce their victory this month.  

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As part of a 2022 amendment to the New York Health and Essential Rights Act (NY HERO Act), workers have the right to form a workplace safety committee, and an employer must recognize the committee within 15 business days. Although the law is vague on what the steps are for an employer to recognize the committee, if an employer fails to recognize it, the New York State Department of Labor (DOL) can issue a civil penalty of not less than fifty dollars per day until the employer complies. 

According to the DOL, employers are not required to inform the agency when workplace safety committees are formed. Since the law was passed, the DOL has received three complaints regarding workplace safety committees but did not specify further. 

During their nearly two-year struggle, workers alleged that Best Super Cleaning spied on them and held mandatory captive audience meetings to dissuade workers from organizing. At least three workers were fired in retaliation.

Initially, the company management refused to bargain with the workers in good faith. But after a sustained campaign that saw workers picket at various Best Super lean job sites, on January 20, 2023, the company agreed to recognize the safety committee but soon after reneged on its promise and abruptly suspended negotiations. 

According to Mahoma López Garfias, an organizer with The Laundry Workers Center, the company has finally agreed, not only to recognize the workplace safety committee but has also agreed to provide the proper tools needed for the work and the proper safety equipment. If a worker feels a particular job is unreasonably dangerous, they now have the right to refuse the job until it can be made safe. 

The workers also gained a modest wage increase but per a confidentiality agreement with management, the workers are unable to discuss specifics. 

Best Super Cleaning could not be reached for comment. 

Before their victory, workers were often forced to climb dangerous scaffolding without harnesses. They sometimes worked in buildings in near pitch-black conditions without proper demolition equipment where they would, on occasion, use their bare hands instead of tools.  

The company would also fail to provide workers with ventilation masks or gloves at the worksites. Best Super Cleaning’s lack of safety standards was cited multiple times by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

With the establishment of a workplace safety committee in November, workers are now empowered to refuse jobs they feel may risk their life or limb and can now meet with management once a month to discuss any safety concerns they have on the job. 

“Now the workers can ask for specific tools and the company provides those tools,” said Mahoma López Garfias. “In that way, this campaign has made a lot of improvements in health safety. That’s a 180-degree difference from what was before.”

Despite the law giving workers the right to form safety committees, the lack of specifics on how to establish one allowed the campaign to break new ground in terms of organizing marginalized workers.

“They are one of the first workplaces to have formed a work and safety committee where they are having meetings with the company discussing issues around health safety,” Garfias said. “They were able to achieve an improvement in working conditions.”

Porfirio Lopez, says that since he returned to work on Dec. 11 after being fired for organizing in 2022, the workplace is a very different place than how he remembers it was. 

“At Best Super Cleaning, there was a lot of harassment by the management. The biggest change is that there is no harassment or pressure from the management.”

Lopez says that management would force them to do jobs that they were not licensed to do like climbing scaffolding. If they refused workers would be fired. Now, with the establishment of a safety committee at his workplace he feels more empowered than ever before. 

With their victory, Lopez hopes they will inspire other workers to organize. 

“We don’t have to risk ourselves anymore to do those kinds of jobs,” he said. “This is for the benefit of all the future workers.”

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