The Houston Chronicle published an article recently about our undocumented workforce, primarily in the construction industry, and it deserves an immediate response.
The author laid it out very well. The undocumented workforce is and has been providing cheap labor for over three decades and they would be sorely missed if deportations continue without an immigration reform bill.
But there seems to be a misunderstanding about the root of the problem. It’s not just that so many are in this nation without documentation. It’s that they have never been employees. The way most people employ them – including homebuilders who have very few if any skilled craftsmen on payroll – is as independent subcontractors.
Under that scheme, each worker is responsible for their own training, tools, taxes, accident insurance and so on. They work long hours without overtime and they know if they are hurt they will not be paid and will have to rely on the emergency room or health clinics.
Unfortunately, this is also true in the commercial industry, especially within the large numbers of high rise residential projects being built all over the state. If any developer or commercial builder would like to dispel my comments, I would invite the conversation.
The Chronicle article included a comment that young American-born men and women will not fill the jobs available in construction. Under current practices, that’s true. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Young men and women are looking for a career path. Working as an independent subcontractor doesn’t fill the bill. Our kids expect a good starting wage, to file a tax return, be trained in safety, and to be cared for if they are injured on the job.
A mass deportation of these undocumented workers would create a shortage of labor that could cost the Texas economy dearly. To make sense of the situation, Congress should offer a legal status to those who have been here a certain number of years as long as they consent to a background check and work for an employer who pays and matches taxes.
As I argued just last week in the Chronicle, such an immigration policy would bolster national security and lead to an increase in tax revenue.
We are facing a severe shortage of skilled labor in Texas regardless of how deep the President's deportation order impacts our exiting labor force.
The only way to fix the problem is for employers to realize that a good starting wage, training, and a career path will attract young men and women.
The model of the independent subcontractor will not work without an ample supply of undocumented immigrant labor. And if President Trump builds his wall and continues deportations, our industry may be forced to take actions that could ultimately lead to a sustainable labor force for the future.