When the private sector does not address a major issue, the public sector will often step into the vacuum and do it. The construction industry has been slow to embrace the principles of social responsibility and sustainable value, focusing instead on whatever it takes to be lowest bidder. As a consequence of this, government is adopting policies that reshape the rules for the industry.

The problem of human trafficking in construction and other industries was on full display at the American Jewish Committee's Immigration Summit 3.0 on March 18 at Rice University in Houston.  The panel discussion – featuring Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Letty Ashworth from Delta Airlines and your humble correspondent – focused on what government and business leaders can do to combat the problem.

No matter how anyone spins it, comprehensive immigration reform is a huge part of the solution.  Law enforcement must be enabled to go after those who are actually doing harm to others and not the wider group of people whom many are mad at for being undocumented.

The people who end up as victims of human trafficking may not be who you think.  While there are far too many women and children caught up in the criminal enterprise, there are also very many men who are trafficked for their labor.   Read more » about Immigration Summit 3.0 Focuses on Human Trafficking in Houston [VIDEO]

Some lawmakers raised questions this week about whether school districts around Texas have the kind of resources they'll need to fully implement sweeping education reforms signed into law last year.  Starting this fall, students will have several new options for which path they'd like to take to earn a high school diploma.  But whether those kids and their parents will receive adequate guidance up front about their choices has become a point of contention.

The flexibility in graduation plans was part of a broader education reform package that got a “yes” vote from all of the 181 members of the Texas Legislature.   Read more » about More Resources May Be Needed For Texas Education Reforms to Work

While some believe education reforms passed by the Texas Legislature last year offer the right alternatives for students who may want to go to college or immediately enter a career, there are others who will push to make changes as soon as possible.  They'll get their chance over the next few weeks.  The Texas House and Senate have scheduled separate hearings for later this month and in April to take testimony on implementation of the sweeping education reforms that were signed into law by Governor Rick Perry under House Bill 5.

As we've told you, this is a bit of a “fight within the family” because the business community is not of one mind on this issue.  There are those who think the changes went much too far and relaxed standards in a way that will be detrimental to students and the future workforce.  Others, specifically those in the construction industry and other fields that need skilled workers, say students will now be afforded a broad range of options that will be mutually beneficial to those students as well as their future employers.   Read more » about Fight Over Education Reforms in Texas to Start Anew

The Construction Citizen team has long held the position that any good faith effort to try to close the skills gap in America should be welcomed with open arms. The players on this landscape are as politically diverse as Glenn Beck on the right and now President Obama and some of his supporters on the left. Naturally, any initiative proposed by any politician is going to be met with some skepticism. But if there’s a chance the federal government can aid employers in finding the kind of skilled workers they need – and therefore place those workers in jobs that better their families and communities – then we are encouraged to see it.

A push by the Obama Administration to reform the way the government engages in job training is underway, led by Vice President Joe Biden. His responsibility for overseeing this was announced during the State of the Union address, and since then has been met with a mix of skepticism as well as hope. The order signed by the president has been billed as an “across-the-board” reform review designed to make those programs more “job-driven”. Imagine that.   Read more » about Obama's Job Training Reform Met With a Mix of Hope and Skepticism

There is an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) court case moving through the legal system that potentially could have major impact on every building site, general contractor and subcontractor in the country.  It concerns the “Joint Employer” concept and Discrimination under Title VII.  It is a case that you should have your legal teams and insurers watch closely over the next few months until it is fully resolved.

The case has been filed, decided, reversed and appealed, so you know that it is definitely serious business – especially for the defendant, Skanska USA, and perhaps you as well.  The case, filed by the EEOC in September of 2010, pertains to the construction of a hospital that Skanska USA built for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.

In the original suit, the EEOC argued that the general contractor (Skanska USA) allowed the plaintiffs (workers supplied by a small subcontractor, C-1), to be subjected to racial slurs and discrimination on the jobsite and that when the workers complained, Skanska took no action to rectify the conditions other than to retaliate and fire them.   Read more » about EEOC v Skanska – “Joint Employer” Ruling a Game Changer

An unfortunate reality of the industry we cover is that there are many instances of worker abuse. We have documented much of this on Construction Citizen over the years.  Terrible working conditions, worker misclassification, lack of health insurance and workers’ compensation insurance, denial of overtime pay and other problems honestly keep me up at night.  But, I was only fairly recently alerted to just how prevalent human trafficking is in construction.

Houston is ground zero for human trafficking in the United States and for that reason, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Bridging America Task Force will present its third immigration summit on March 18 at 8 am at Rice University.   Read more » about Immigration Summit in Houston to Focus on Human Trafficking

Editor’s note: The following was written by Texas House of Representatives member Armando Walle exclusively for Construction Citizen.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus recently directed Texas House committees to study important issues in advance of the next legislative session in 2015.  I am particularly pleased that Speaker Straus gave the House Committee on Business and Industry the assignment of “[Studying] the voluntary nature of workers' compensation in Texas and how it meets the needs of employers and employees.”

Texas is currently the only state in the nation that does not require workers' compensation coverage for private employers, including construction companies.  In fact, since 1913, Texas employers have been allowed to opt out of workers’ compensation coverage.  Civil legal action is frequently the only path to redress for an injured employee against their potentially negligent non-subscribing employer.

Unfortunately, even when a civil lawsuit is litigated in favor of a plaintiff employee, the practical benefits of the favorable judgment can often be low compared to a similar claim going through the workers’ comp system.   Read more » about Studying Workers’ Compensation Subscription: An Opportunity to Respect Workers

When you think of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), you probably think of technical workplace safety regulations.  However, don’t forget that OSHA is also responsible for enforcing the whistleblower provisions of twenty-two federal laws with anti-retaliation provisions.

OSHA maintains a separate website section for whistleblower issues at www.whistleblowers.gov.

OSHA received 2,787 whistleblower complaints during the last fiscal year.  More than half were complaints of retaliation for reporting workplace safety issues.  Complaints are expected to increase this year, because as of December 5, 2013, individuals may file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA using a simple online form.   Read more » about Beware of Whistleblower and Retaliation Claims