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Many children of Central America immigrate to the US unaccompanied by an adult and are quickly swept up by non-union construction contractors who put them to work in the dangerous job of roofing. Many of their stories end in injury and death. -- New York Times

Children immigrants come to our city, often unaccompanied by an adult, seeking prosperity for themselves and their families back home. Too many of these kids are then exploited by construction contractors who seize on that desperation as they put the immigrants to work at the very dangerous job of roofing, and pay them less than the minimum wage to do it.


The workers are called “ruferitos.” Baby roofers. 


The heart-wrenching and well-researched story in the New York Times by Hannah Dreier and others, complete with rooftop videos made by the workers, portrays the immigrants’ daily work and private lives. The story captures one crew boss on record revealing her disdain for safety equipment and how she instructs her workers to mislead safety inspectors.


The direct consequence of that disregard for safety is also portrayed in the story’s many tragic anecdotes about falls, injuries, and deaths. Young men, some not old enough to get a driver’s license, are killed or maimed on a construction site where they had no business being, suffering  accidents that were completely preventable.


It’s a Non-Union Thing

This exploitation of the weak by the powerful is not unique to the roofing business. There is a long record in this city of young people whose desperation is seized upon by unscrupulous non-union contractors seeking to leverage the immigrants’ personal hardship to make more money for themselves on a construction project. We have many, many more examples of this.


Fifteen-year-old Juan Ortiz was not wearing a safety harness when he fell through the roof on a non-union job site in Alabama. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration determined that there were not enough harnesses for the crew.

One non-union carpenter explained to Union-Built Matters how an 18-year-old — “a baby,” in his words — was in this country from Haiti less than a week and did not speak English but was nonetheless put to work on the edge of a midtown high-rise. On his first day, that young worker fell off the building. Lucky for him, the carpenter had insisted he wear a safety harness. He was reeled back in, “like a fish,” the carpenter said, “and put right back to work. That guy was a mess.”


Another non-union carpenter described the day a new recruit from Ecuador, working on a 9th Avenue job site, stepped on a loose floorboard and then fell into an illegally open elevator shaft. “That kid, he just disappeared into that hole,” the carpenter told us. That young man died before his 19th birthday.


A non-union demolition worker told Union-Built Matters about the day a teenaged co-worker new on the job from Guatemala, was standing on an illegal aluminum ladder during a renovation project at the Waldorf Astoria. That ladder collapsed beneath the young man, whose leg was caught between the ladder rungs and “snapped like a toothpick,” the demo worker said. He doubts that young worker received any health compensation for his accident. “We don’t get no benefits here. That guy’s leg is probably ruined for life, and he won’t get another dime from this company.” 


A young non-union bricklayer was unharnessed as he worked beneath a water tower in Brooklyn. He fell 13 stories.


A 19-year-old non-union cement worker was crushed to death when an improperly built temporary wall collapsed on him and two other workers in Brooklyn.


The Tragedies Add Up

Add these tragedies to the many that are detailed in the ruferitos story. Add them to the many that we’ve featured on Union-Built Matters. Add them to the many that are suspected to have gone untold because these workers are often invisible in our culture (a fact that is detailed in another excellent New York Times expose). It’s too many.


And what makes these accidents and deaths so much more tragic is the fact that almost every one of them was avoidable had these workers had been properly trained and had they followed established safety protocols. 


Had these workers been in a union, they would be alive today.

Too many non-union contractors read these immigrant stories and see a potential workforce to be exploited.

They’re Getting Away With It

In a sidebar video about the making of the ruferito feature, Ms. Dreier explains that the New York Times has reported the incidents uncovered in her story to the Department of Labor, which has a very poor record of finding and penalizing contractors who illegally employ children.


She says about her story, “It’s really surprising that in the absence of this kind of reporting it seems like these contractors would have basically just gotten away with these things.” News flash. They are getting away with it and have been for a very long time.


Antonio Padilla was 15 when he fell 30 feet from a roof and suffered sever brain damage. He is pictured here with a sibling in his Honduras home before he went to the US. As a ruferito he was able to send home $300 per month. 

These Non-Union Contractors Are Not Like You and Me

When most New Yorkers read stories about immigrants who risk leaving everything behind to strive for a better life in our country, in our city, we feel empathy for those people and respect the herculean effort they’re making to improve their lives. For many of us, their long trek echoes a similar migration tale from our pasts. 


But too many non-union contractors read those same stories and see a potential workforce to be exploited, a future crew to be paid poorly to do dangerous jobs, with no training, with no benefits. And too often the hard efforts of those immigrants end in tragedy.


When a developer hires a non-union contractor in New York City, they are often encouraging these unethical scenarios and tragic results.


Hard-working immigrants deserve better. New York deserves better. If you agree, tell your city councilperson, your state senator, your representative to Congress that you want New York buildings constructed by New York City unions.

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