Sep 5, 2017

Houston has the money but not the workers to recover

Cleaning up Houston (David J. Phillip / AP)

Texas is helping to lead the charge to deport illegal immigrants, but with some 200,000 homes needing work or complete reconstruction after Hurricane Harvey, the state faces a potential crisis because of a shortage of construction workers, per the Washington Post.

President Trump's decision today to end DACA, the so-called Dreamers program that shielded the children of illegal immigrants from deportation, could exacerbate the shortages. Texas is losing not only a spine of its blue-collar work force — between a quarter and half of Houston's construction workers are illegal immigrants — but, because of low salaries, the state is unlikely to be a magnet for unemployed Americans.

  • According to Indeed, the job listing site, Texas construction workers earn about $12.51 an hour, 10% below the national average. They top out at about $21 an hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • By comparison, unskilled workers rushed in droves to North Dakota at the peak of the natural gas boom in 2013, when wildcat drillers were paying entry-level rig hands an average of $66,000 a year. They still earn $24.45 an hour, double the average Texas construction worker.

Why it matters: As of now, about 13,500 homes must be rebuilt, along with 30% of the roads in and out of Houston. Congress is expected to approve billions of dollars in recovery funds, but the very real question is who will do the work.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf coast in 2005, construction companies, also strapped for workers, brought in foreign labor, both legally on H-1B visas, and illegally. That led to massive abuses — workers stiffed of their salaries, and some held as effective slave labor.

  • In 2015, five Indian guest workers were awarded $14 million in damages against Signal International, a marine services company that promised to facilitate permanent U.S. residency for its foreign crew in exchange for payments ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 each.
  • Martina Vandenberg, who runs the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, said Houston's worker shortage could lead to a similar situation. "I fear that as the flood waters recede, the labor trafficking begins," she told Axios. In an email exchange, she said:

"In order to avoid repeating these abuses, the US government should be paying close attention to visa requests filed to bring workers to Texas. The danger that unscrupulous labor recruiters will use these visas -- H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, J-1, and many more -- to exploit foreign workers is extremely high. In some cases, that labor exploitation will even rise to the level of forced labor, labor trafficking, peonage, and involuntary servitude."

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