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Workers' rights hearing highlights exploitation of immigrant carpenters with testimonials

Over the past five years, the State of Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has received 148 prevailing-wage complaints and claims worth $1.12 million in Multnomah County alone, according to Portland Jobs with Justice.

In late July, Portland Jobs with Justice hosted a Workers' Rights Board hearing to discuss wage theft and other exploitation experiences by Portland Latinos and immigrant wood framer carpenters.

Portland Jobs With Justice is a coalition of over 100 labor unions, community, faith and student organizations that fight for economic, racial, gender and immigrant justice. The Workers' Rights Board is a project of Portland Jobs with Justice, and helps build support in the community for workers seeking to improve their working conditions.SOURCE: PORTLAND JOBS WITH JUSTICE - Latino carpenters share personal stories at a Workers Rights board hearing.

About 100 attendees showed up at the St. Charles Borromeo Church in Northeast Portland to hear from wage theft experts, carpenters and labor leaders about the poor working conditions immigrants carpenters face and what can be done about it.

A translator, childcare and food were provided. The panel and audience heard testimonies about not being paid on time, not being paid overtime, being shorted on checks, safety hazards and lack of adequate training.

The panel of four Workers' Rights Board members included Mary King, economics professor emerita at PSU, Oregon House Representative Diego Hernandez, retired Father Jack Mossbrucker and community organizer Ranfis Villatoro.

"Providing support for contractors and demanding accountability are both absolutely critical, and best accomplished with the involvement of community organizations, including the unions," said Mary King, Economics Professor Emerita, PSU and chair of the workers rights board panel. "Without support, proper oversight and consequences for failing to meet the standards of a Community Benefits Agreement, nothing changes despite decades of effort."

Testimonials

Through a translator, Latino carpenters gave testimony about the mistreatment they've experienced working in the skilled trades here in Portland.

Lara Media, a Portland-based Latino marketing and strategic communication firm, put together a video of testimonies with English subtitles.

Francisco Barajas, age 28, has been a carpenter in framing since he was 15 years old.

"One of my cousin's friends suffered a fall and was in a coma for a week, until he died due to his injuries," Barajas said in Spanish through a translator. "They don't care about your safety, no matter the project you are working on. We worked 10-hour shifts sometimes Saturdays and even Sundays. We used to do residential work and back then we only got paid once a month, and sometimes we didn't get paid until two or three months later."

Jesús Pulido has been working on framing for a decade.

"When I was learning this trade, there were a lot of people who didn't want to help me, probably because they were afraid I was going to take their jobs away, or because they were racists and didn't want us to do well," Pulido said in Spanish through a translator. "Once they paid me cash but they were short $3,000. We sued them, but that didn't go anywhere."

Antonio Pulido has worked 10-hour shifts without overtime compensation, and sometimes wasn't paid on payday and had to chase it down.

"I've heard of people who fell and were badly injured because they weren't supplied with the right harness. They didn't have the right harnesses for us and we had to use whatever they had," Pulido said. "And because we are Latinos, they treated us different, they didn't listen to us. They made us feel like we were less than them."

During the downturn he had to find work outside the city, but wasn't compensated for gas and wasn't paid enough to rent a hotel room. He was even made to buy his own tools.

Recommendations

After an hour and a half of testimony and questions, the board panel came up with a series of recommendations for the City and Multnomah County leaders. They include requiring all construction projects in Portland and Multnomah County that use any public funding to operate with a Community Benefits Agreement ensuring that women, people of color and other marginalized groups will be well-represented among employees and contractors.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Mary King, economics professor emerita at PSU, is also the chair of the Workers Rights board panel.

"Pilot efforts on two Portland Water Bureau construction projects, working with a modified version of the City's 2012 Community Benefits Agreement, achieved exceptional levels of participation of women and people of color as apprentices, skilled workers and contractors," King said. "The key was dedicated funding — 1 percent of hard construction costs — for compliance, training, recruitment and technical assistance."

Jobs with Justice and the Workers Rights Board call for an Oversight Committee to be created, comprised of representatives from the city, the county, local community organizations and Prosper Portland, to monitor and enforce the community benefits agreement and contract with or directly hire Labor Compliance Inspectors to regularly visit worksites and speak individually with employees.

They recommend decent labor standards be met by all contractors and subcontractors including equal pay for equal work, appropriate training and professional development, safety practices and that workplaces be freed from discrimination, harassment and abuses including wage theft and misclassification of employees.

In apprenticeship programs, there should be a strong representation of women, people of color, low-income individuals and other underrepresented groups in Portland's construction sector, which will create high levels of skill development. The programs should provide appropriate training and evidence that a high proportion of apprentices graduate from the program in a timely manner.

Also, they recommend at least 1 percent of the total value of the construction contracts be placed aside for paying nonprofits charged with pursuing remedies from employers who engage in wage theft or other breaches of labor standards.

They recommend contractors that do not meet minimum goals for the outlined objectives be penalized. Since lawsuits result in a winner who started with the most cash and hired the best lawyer, it's hard for immigrants — or people experiencing a language barrier — to have a chance at justice.

By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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