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Houston Is Being Rebuilt on a Foundation of Wage Theft

To gird themselves against Houston’s freakish sub-40-degree weather, the jornaleros, or day laborers, draw the hoods of their sweatshirts so tight that just their noses peek out. Huddled in groups of four or five across a Home Depot parking lot, the clusters disintegrate when Maurico “Chele” Iglesias approaches.

Although Iglesias, an organizer with , has been coming to this parking lot every other week for five months, he rarely sees a familiar face. “It’s always different people,” he says. “They always keep moving.”

The workers, primarily from , now living in a state not known for its warmth toward immigrants, eye Iglesias with caution and edge away. His beard and dark glasses could easily be mistaken for a hipster aesthetic. But once he starts speaking in Spanish, his ease talking with day laborers quickly becomes apparent. A few circle back to hear what he has to say.

The jornaleros have become Houston’s go-to rebuilding corps in the wake of . When the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, it destroyed and caused, by some estimates, .

The work agreements these men enter into are loose at best. When a rental pickup pulls up, four men run over to it, knocking on the window. One gets in after an exchange of a few words, and the truck drives off.

On Dec. 8, 2017, Iglesias is here to gin up interest in an upcoming wage theft clinic and a two-day OSHA-certified training about health and safety protocols for gutting, cleaning and rebuilding damaged homes.

Wage theft and safety violations were rampant in Houston’s low-wage construction industry even before the storm hit, according to local worker centers. One study found that . “The Texas construction industry is … incredibly dangerous,” says José Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “For years, the industry has absolutely failed to prioritize safety.”

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