Previously we told you about a lecture at Texas A&M University about Ethical Dilemmas in Construction Industry Labor Practices. Following the February 1 lecture, Professor Joe Horlen, department head of the Department of Construction Science at the university, distributed questions to students to help them choose a topic for a blog post, and Stan Marek agreed to provide an award to the student with the best submission. Professor Horlen chose Scott Beatty’s composition from among those received, and we are pleased to post his winning entry here.
I am a Construction Science student at Texas A&M University. Through class discussions and Stan Marek’s lecture, I have been made aware of several ethical issues that face the construction industry; one of which is the sustainability of the workforce that is currently employed as labor.
Currently the construction industry employs around 7.2 million wage and salary jobs and another 1.8 million self-employed and unpaid family workers. Many of these workers are not legally employed. The Pew Hispanic Center, in its report: A Portrait of Undocumented Immigrants in the United States, found that in 2009, 17% of all construction workers were undocumented – working illegally. This number increased from 13% in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Pew report continued to find that these illegal immigrants were disproportionately likely to be “less educated than other groups [and to] hold low-skilled jobs and less likely to be in white-collar occupations.” A great portion of our less-skilled trades, especially in the construction industry, comes from these illegal workers, who endure poor workplace environments to be able to provide for their families.
So why are they being exploited for their labor? In one of my classes, we commonly talk about industry ethics and practices. Often, Professor Eustace will ask why something is done in a certain way. Invariably, the answer when dealing with an ethical dilemma is always “money”. The construction industry has always been known by the public as an employer that will hire undocumented workers to save a buck. In the short run, this practice leads to lower bids, and thus, more work. But, in the long run, will this save money for the contractors who rely on this workforce for survival? And even if so, is it right to take advantage of these workers to gain an edge over other contractors at the workers’ expense?
In Stan Marek’s lecture at Texas A&M University in February, he repeatedly stated that it is totally unsustainable to use this work force. The first reason that was presented was that the workers’ offspring are not replacing them in their respective trades due to the poor working environment that they see their parents enduring. In other words, the labor workforce is aging and not being replenished. So, in a few years, there will be a huge labor shortage in the industry. The second point that Mr. Marek made was that as the labor and immigration authorities pressure the enforcement of policies regarding the employment of illegal laborers, this workforce would be impossible and illegal to hire. The final reason that was discussed in the lecture was the increased social costs caused by this unethical and irresponsible labor practice. Monetarily speaking, a huge social cost comes from workers getting injured on the job site and going to an emergency room, thus incurring a bill that they are unable to pay. This unpaid bill ultimately falls on the shoulders of the taxpayers. The other social cost from irresponsible labor practices is the unfavorable view that is created of a particular company and the construction industry as a whole.
As a student who will soon find himself immersed in this industry, I will ethically have a primary interest in these practices and their effect on my future. I do not want to inherit an industry that is in shambles and in disrepute among the public because of its lack of ethics, nor do I want to pass this on to the next generation of constructors after me. So, what can be done about such a tough situation? I don’t believe that new rules will help. With the current system, it is already illegal to have these workers, but contractors and subcontractors continually turn the other way when they know that there are undocumented workers on their sites, hiring them as “independent contractors” instead of as employees with benefits like Marek Brothers Systems has done. I would suggest that the burden of solving this problem rests with two primary parties: the contractors, who stand to increase profits in the short run, and the owners, who stand to pay less for their building to be built. The contractors need to train employees before they are put on the job site. This will give them trade skills and a safer jobsite. This investment in human capital, I believe, will pay off in the long run as these investing companies have better labor efficiency, and thus less costs. You have to spend money to make money. The sooner some construction companies stop cutting corners and invest in their workers, the better. The owners, on the other hand, need to be aware of which contractors use documented workers and which ones do not. To be knowledgeable of a company being unethical and still contract with them is unethical. Organizations such as the Construction Industry Sustainable Workforce Alliance (CISWA) show owners that a contractor has values that they claim to represent. Working with builders that are part of alliances like this shows that an owner truly cares about more than just their bottom line.
The construction industry is made of many hard working, dedicated people. I believe that once contractors see companies having success through ethical labor practices, and the effects the unethical practices are having on our industry, that they will change. Until then, I hold in very high regard the companies that maintain their ethical standards even though they risk losing a few bids and jobs to contractors who use unethical practices.