Labouring in the Lone Star State

Nearly half of full-time construction workers in the capital of Texas live below the poverty line, writes Tzintzun.

    Labouring in the Lone Star State
    More construction workers are "killed on the job in Texas than in any other state" [EPA]

    Today is an opportunity to honour our nation's hardworking men and women, and the best way to do that is to face the facts about how difficult life is for so many working Americans. Simply put, our nation is on an economic collision course, and for a glimpse into where we are headed, one only need look at Texas.

    Governor Rick Perry's management of the state's economy has been highlighted as a "miracle" by some, and his deregulation policies are touted in the state as a smart business strategy by many companies and policymakers. But the Texas Miracle has had a devastating impact on workers.  

    Though Texas has added jobs, most of them are low paying. From 2007 to 2010, the number of minimum wage workers in Texas rose from 221,000 to 550,000, an increase of nearly 150 per cent. The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, adding up to a yearly income of $15,080 for a full-time worker. And as hundreds of thousands of Texans scrape by, the gap between our rich and poor continues to widen.

    Workers in poverty

    Texas currently ranks fourth in the US in number of multi-millionaire residents, yet 24 per cent of Texan children live in poverty. In Dallas, home to some of the state's most affluent families, it is estimated that 80 per cent of children in the Dallas Independent School District live in poverty.  

    We aren't creating opportunities for these children when economic policy in the state creates jobs that are low-wage, part-time and devoid of benefits. These children will grow up reliant on government programmes because they don’t make enough money to meet their basic needs. The jobs that provide that are already disappearing.

    Imagine what the Texas job market will look like when these children are adults. If we keep following Perry's economic model and investing in companies that really don't need government support, Texas will have plenty of jobs. The only problem is that none of them will be any good. 

    I have spent the last 10 years working with low-wage workers in Texas, most of who labour in the construction industry. These blue-collar jobs used to be thought of as good jobs; they would allow you to earn a decent wage, plan for retirement and support your family. 

    "Workers in many Latin American countries are guaranteed paid sick and vacation days, and maternity leave... In Texas, rest breaks are considered a benefit, not a right." 

    But today, nearly half of full-time construction workers in the state's capital live below the poverty line. More construction workers are killed on the job in Texas than in any other state. In the Lone Star State, a construction worker is killed on the job every 2.5 days. 

    Deregulation, a major component of Governor Perry's economic vision for the Lone Star State, has made life easy on business but hard on families. Texas is the only state in the country that doesn't require employers to carry workers' compensation coverage to help those who are injured on the job.

    Leaving taxpayers stuck to pick up the tab for employers who don't have insurance and aren't willing to pay for expensive hospital bills, and of course neither are the workers that most frequently make $10/hr.  

    Perry's policies direct investment away from small businesses, which are the true engines of economic growth. This year Apple, Inc received a $21m incentive package from the Texas Enterprise Fund to build a million square feet campus in Austin. Large businesses do create jobs.

    More uninsured residents

    But when small businesses can't compete, Texas is left with a few big companies, which leave the state vulnerable to economic forces. An economy with lots of small businesses is more stable than one with just a few large corporations. 

    Americans, especially on occasions like Labour Day, like to think that our country is one of the most vigilant in protecting the rights of its citizens. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth when it comes to workers' rights. My clients who come from Latin America are surprised to learn how few protections exist for workers in this country. Workers in many Latin American countries are guaranteed paid sick and vacation days, and maternity leave.

    In Texas, rest breaks are considered a benefit, not a right. Two months ago, 54 year-old father of four, José Lainez's family learned the cost of business as usual in Texas when he died of heat exhaustion building Interstate 183. In Texas, don’t bother asking about health insurance, or pension benefits. Texas has the dubious distinction of having more uninsured residents than any other state.   

    The college students who volunteer with my organisation are burdened with student debt and have few good job prospects. I often wonder what will become of these educated young people, who live in a state where the safety net has been cut to the bone, and landing a good job with benefits makes you part of an elite class.

    The cruel side effects of the Texas "miracle" must lead us to ask ourselves: what kind of a life are we leaving to future generations? This Labour Day, we should be asking tough questions about how Texas treats its workers. It’s not an economic miracle when nearly one in five Texans live below the poverty line - that’s an economic disaster. 

    Cristina Tzintzun is the Executive Director of Workers Defence Project, a statewide-based immigrant workers’ rights group, and has worked for over a decade with Latino migrants in Texas, Ohio and Mexico. She has been published in The Dallas Morning News and is co-editor of the forthcoming book, Presente! Latino Immigrant Voices in the Struggle for Racial Justice. 

    Follow her on Twitter: @TzintzunCris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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