Female Construction Workers Fight the Odds

Construction worker and gardener Maggy Guzmán, of Morristown, N.J. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

Construction worker and gardener Maggy Guzmán, of Morristown, N.J. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

Despite her petite figure, Rebeca Gallegos, 42, isn’t easily intimidated. Originally from Ecuador, Gallegos has worked in construction for 16 years and she’s determined to fight discrimination facing women in her industry.

Gallegos started working at a construction company in Queens in 1997. Back then, she worked 10-hour shifts. She wasn’t allowed to drink water except during lunch or to use the bathroom freely.

“I got urinary tract infections all the time, in the summer I would die of thirst, my mouth would dry out,” recalled Gallegos, who has five children and currently works removing asbestos from a building in Manhattan.

After more than a year of working in deplorable conditions, Gallegos thought about changing her profession, but didn’t because she made good money. Instead, she decided to train herself and to find a job where her rights would be respected. Gallegos joined the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA Local 78), which represents 4,400 workers, 14 percent of whom are women.

Now, Gallegos doesn’t want other women to go through what she suffered in the past. She pointed out that women in this industry also face problems of isolation, gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Women need to know how to defend themselves and that there are laws that protect them. Women are just as good at installing wire rope for rigging purposes and repairing broken sewage pipes as well as men. They just need to be given a chance to prove what they can do.

“Every woman should know her rights,” Gallegos said. “Although it’s a male-dominated field, women can also do it, but we have to prepare ourselves physically and mentally.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, more than 800,000 women were working in construction in the country, making up 9 percent of workers in this industry.

Edison Severino, a representative of the aforementioned union, said that discrimination against women persists, especially in companies that don’t have a union.

“The number of women in construction has risen a lot in recent years,” he said. “While it’s a physically challenging job, it’s very well-paid.”

Maggy Guzmán, a 50-year-old Colombian with one daughter, has been working in construction around Morristown, N.J., for 19 years. She started out gardening and later learned to paint and to demolish and build walls.

“I haven’t felt discriminated against because from the start I’ve stood by my convictions and learned my rights,” said Guzmán, who keeps in good physical shape thanks to routine trips to the gym.

Diana Cortez, of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), said that all workers have the right to complain if they are being discriminated against.

“We’re not interested in the worker’s immigration status,” Cortez said. “If someone is afraid to call us, they can log complaints through a community agency or through their home country’s consulate.”

Employers must:

  • Provide a workplace free of dangers and risky conditions.
  • Provide adequate safety equipment.
  • Provide accurate information on injuries and illnesses related to the job.

Workers have the right to:

  • Ask OSHA to inspect the workplace.
  • Exercise their rights under the law, without retaliation.
  • Receive information and training on dangers and methods to prevent injuries.
  • Training, which should be in a language that workers can understand.

Complaints

  • Workers have 30 days to inform OSHA of any retaliation of which they may have been a victim. They must send a letter or call the nearest office. Call OSHA at (800) 321-6742.
  • The law protects workers who complain to OSHA about unhealthy or unsafe working conditions, or environmental problems. The law also prohibits the employer from transferring workers, denying them a raise, cutting down their work hours, firing, or punishing them.

Numbers

  • In 2011, 800,000 women were employed in construction, comprising 9 percent of all workers in this industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Between 2003 and 2010, an average of 15 women, and 1,101 men died at construction sites.

Challenges for Women

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified the following challenges as the most common problems facing women in construction:

  • Being looked down on by co-workers
  • Sexual harassment
  • Isolation from having to always work in male-dominated environments
  • The tools and equipment are made for men who often have larger hands
  • A lack of hygienic facilities. Most work sites have portable bathrooms that aren’t sanitary and not equipped to be used by women.
  • Training that women receive is not adequate, despite that the law requires it.

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