Honoring workers killed on the job

January 5, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas--Activists here gathered on December 16 for a vigil for three construction workers killed in a fall from a scaffold at a site for a luxury apartment complex called 21 Rio.

The three workers were Wilson Joel Irias Cerritos, 30, of Honduras, Raudel Ramirez Camacho, 27, of Mexico, and Jesus Angel Lopez Perez, 28, of Honduras. The three men fell from the 11th floor when scaffolding collapsed on June 10.

Organizers from the Workers' Defense Project set up three crosses bearing the men's names inside their battered work boots, filled with poinsettia plants, glowing by candlelight. As activists set up the sound system, a group of about 30 candle-bearing demonstrators singing in Spanish rounded the corner and approached the vigil site.

"I'm sad because three people had to die to make other people aware of what is going on," said Jaime Moreno, a construction worker. "Just think about it, I'm going to go to work, and I'm not going to come back to my house to my family--it makes me really, really angry and sad. It is just not right."

Family members and friends of the fallen workers gave speeches and played music calling attention to the roles that construction shortcuts, lax attention to OSHA regulations, and the exploitation of immigrant labor played in the accident.

Filemon Salas said that the goal of the vigil was to remember the victims and protest safety offenses, but also to demand two weeks' back pay owed current workers on the project. In total, the workers are owed over $55,000 in back wages on the 21 Rio site.

A banner behind the speakers proclaimed: "Safety is Everyone's Responsibility!" Under that slogan appeared the names of four companies cited by OSHA in the workers' deaths: Florida-based Capoera Construction, Mast Climber Manufacturing, Andrews Construction Services and Greater Metroplex Interiors.

Among the violations were charges of failing to provide scaffolding capable of supporting four times the maximum load, failing to provide a competent person to inspect the scaffold prior to use, and failing to provide adequate fall protection systems on scaffolds.

"If scaffolding parts had been inspected and replaced or repaired as needed, it's possible that this tragic accident and loss of life could have been avoided," Eric Harbin said in a statement released by OSHA in Austin. However, the fines amount to only $160,000.

Activists called attention to the need for future organizing to demand humane treatment of workers. "We can change this city. We can make it a safer city. A more humane city. A more just city for the workers who are building it," said Rev. Tom Vandestadt of the Congregational Church of Austin.

"We want to make sure that their deaths are not in vain, that their deaths are not forgotten and that it leads the way for change in this industry and that we can really prevent these sort of things from happening in the future," said Emily Timm, acting director of the Workers' Defense Project.

Timm pointed out that every 2.5 days, a construction workers dies on the job in Texas. Forty-five percent of these workers earn wages below the poverty line, 65 percent are denied payment for their work, and 50 percent are not paid extra for overtime. Only 45 percent had employers with workers compensation insurance.

"We did our work, we even risked our lives out there on that worksite. No one should have to die for their jobs and no one should have to fight just to be paid," said German Zaravia, who is owed $7,000 in back wages. He was working on the day of the accident. "We are holding this vigil because when they died we were too afraid to come forward, but now we want all of Austin to know what we construction workers and our families are suffering."

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