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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Administration

Workers on The Quad project protest for allegedly owed wages


Chants of “People over profit!” echoed through a crowd of community activists, students and professors at a Thursday rally held on campus, demanding that construction workers receive fair payment for their work on the University’s Quad Replacement Project.

Eight of the workers have filed claims alleging that they were underpaid for nearly a year by at least $43,000 while working on the $124 million dollar project, according to Workers Defense Project.

The workers are employed and paid by the general contractor Austin Commercial who UH contracted to perform the work. The general contractor also also subcontracted employees. In light of the allegations, the University conducted an external audit of Austin Commercial’s practices but found no irregularities.

“UH values those who work on campus projects and supports fair labor practices,” the University said in a statement. “The Texas Workforce Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor are the appropriate agencies to report any violation of labor law, including allegations of worker misclassification.”

The workers believe many more may be impacted on the project, which employs roughly 700 workers, according to WDP. At the rally, constructors workers came off the work site during their lunch break to share their experience.

“I, like other workers, have worked up to 60 hours per week, seven days a week under the heat of the summer in Texas, and that sweat must be worth it,” said construction worker Samuel Cruz Carrasco in Spanish through a translator.

The workers have been operating on the Quad Replacement Project since late 2018, according to The Cougar’s previous reporting. The workers in October 2019 reported to WDP that they were not receiving prevailing wages or overtime pay under state law.

“It’s immoralizing going to work and seeing how there are contractors who pay you less than what you’re supposed to earn,” Cruz Carrasco said.

The workers joined WDP in November 2019 to demand that they be paid their allegedly owed wages.

“A $124 million dollar project, and yet the workers whose hands are building these dorms are saying they’re not getting payed what they’re owed,” said WDP campaign organizer Chele Iglesias. “Does that seem right to you?”

The workers and the rally’s attendants called for action from President Renu Khator. Iglesias said the president has a responsibility to make sure that “the people that build the buildings where students live are treated fairly and paid what they’re owed.”

Community rising up

As the workers continue their fight for their allegedly owed wages, politicians, activists and other community members are using their high-profile voices to speak their mind on the construction workers’ demands.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez of District 123, which covers covers part of Houston, Channelview and the cities of Galena Park and Jacinto City, attended the rally to share her advocacy of working families.

“Wage theft is not just a number on a balance sheet,” Hernandez said. “It’s something that affects our working families. Something that determines whether or not someone will put food on the table, pay that utility bill or buy that medication that is direly needed.”

From the Harris County Commissioner’s office, policy adviser Sasha Legette said there’s a need to have policies in place that protect the rights of workers and their families.

“We are hopeful that we can all come together and ensure that we are uplifting our workers and our communities, and that we are not creating barriers to fairness and equity,” Legette said.

Presidential candidate and former UH law professor Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Thursday showed her support of the workers by sharing a Twitter post from WDP about the rally.

Some students attended the rally to speak their minds about the social injustice workers can face, such as sociology junior Carlos Campos who delivered a speech at the event.

“I am the child of laborers,” Campos said. “My blood runs thick of industry, of construction, and most importantly of exploitation. My blood runs thick of economic anxiety, of poverty, and of having bosses line their pockets with the blood and sweat of our labor.”

Demanding answers

A petition issued by WDP in December 2019 has collected more than 670 signatures from students, professors, alumni and community activists.

The petition was offered as support to a Dec. 20 letter the WDP wrote to Khator, Associate Vice Chancellor David Oliver and executives of Austin Commercial.

The letter requested updates from Austin Commercial about what steps they’ve taken to investigate the allegedly owed wages, whether some workers were potentially terminated (along with a subcontractor) unlawfully and making sure the workers did not face retaliation for complaining that they did not receive their prevailing wages.

“This is an urgent matter that has an immediate and serious effect on these workers’ lives and
their ability to provide for themselves and their families,” the letter said.

Arm in arm and step by step, the rally attendants finished off the event with a march down to Khator’s office, chanting about standing up and fighting back all along the way.

“Our existence as students relies on the buildings the workers have made,” Campos said. “It is the workers that built the classroom. It is the workers who built the library, and it is the workers who are building our homes.”

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UPDATE 1/25/2020 at 9:31 a.m.: This story has been updated to include a statement from the University issued the day of the rally.

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