Marchers demand city do more to ensure safe construction sites

Hundreds of protesters marched late last month in Sunset Park in memory of an immigrant construction worker who was killed on the job and to demand that the city take action to safeguard work sites.

The marchers, organized by the grass-roots organization Workers Justice Project, walked past Seventh Avenue and 39th Street, the site where Luis Almonte was killed after a 30-foot-high wall collapsed on him in September.

The march, which took place on April 28, coincided with Workers’ Memorial Day, a day that pays tribute to employees killed on the job. Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, a Democrat who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook, joined the marchers.

The participants marched through the streets of Sunset Park carrying a box resembling a coffin to symbolize their anger and frustration over workplace deaths.

Almonte, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was one of the six workers in New York City who died on the job over the past seven months, according to the Workers Justice Project.

“We cannot let these employers own our lives,” said construction worker Luis Albendano, a WJP member.

Another WJP member, Prospero Martinez, spoke to the marchers about surviving a harrowing job site accident in which he fell from the second floor of a building targeted for demolition. “Today, I feel lucky to be here with you. There months ago, I fell from a second floor that left me with a broken arm. It’s been three months without being able to work,” he said.

The marchers observed a moment of silence at the site of Almonte’s deadly accident.

Construction sites are getting more and more dangerous, according to WJP Executive Director Ligia Guallpa. “The construction industry is a problem. It’s one of the deadliest industries. And these deaths are preventable,” she told this newspaper.

Many of the construction workers laboring in dangerous conditions are immigrants, she added.

Another employee recalled having to work with electrical equipment while water was leaking from the roof of a construction site.

“We Latinos are the most affected by unsafe working conditions, especially in construction where we aren’t given training or protective equipment. We’re fed up with the treatment we’re getting and that’s why we’re marching today.  We want to be treated like human beings,” protester Manuel Albenado said.

“We need to stop blaming workers and hold employers accountable. It’s about dignity. It’s about respect. The workers deserve to be recognized,” Guallpa said.

A major part of the problem is a lack of oversight, she said.

“There are developers all over the city who are building multi-million-dollar homes. They’re getting big tax breaks from the government. But there is no commitment from them to hire union labor or to have safety measures in place. There is no accountability from big developers. The workers are putting their lives on the line. The developers want to work cheaply and quickly. We need a system that will hold them accountable,” Guallpa said.

The city is not properly regulating the industry, she charged.

The WJP is calling for the establishment of a construction enforcement task force. “We want to bring in different agencies and representatives,” Guallpa said, listing the Department of Buildings, the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, the city’s five district attorneys and leaders of community organizations.

Guallpa also wants more spot inspections of worksites and for construction contractors’ licenses to be revoked if they fail the inspections.

There has been progress on some fronts, but existing laws need to be strengthened, Guallpa said.

She cited Local Law 196, a bill sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in 2017 when he was in the City Council that mandates 30 hours of safety training for construction workers. Menchaca co-sponsored the legislation. The WJP wants employers to pay for the classes, rather than the workers, Guallpa said.

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