Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Invisible, Anonymous, Far From Home and Dead on the Job

I've written frequently about the short lives and tragic deaths of immigrant workers who fall from roofs and are crushed in collapsing trenches. Most of the stories are about Hispanic immigrants. But there's also an even less visible world of immigrants from China who have come to this country to make lives for themselves, and like their Hispanic brothers and sisters, end up doing dangerous work without basic training or safety precautions. I wrote yesterday about a nameless Chinese immigrant worker killed on the job in a trench collapse in Queens.

The victim has still not been identified.
Yong Fa Cai did not know the man's name. He did not know what kind of construction experience the man had, either in New York or in his native Shanghai. All Mr. Cai knew was that the man had called his cellphone a few days ago, expressing interest in Mr. Cai's project to build a two-family house at 51-18 92nd Street in Elmhurst, Queens.

But the call was enough to get him the job.

On Monday, though, just days after the man started to work, an eight-foot-tall concrete wall at the construction site suddenly crumbled, killing him and injuring two others. And now, the man's death is helping to expose an informal but little-understood world in which construction workers from China rely heavily on anonymous calls, personal references and help-wanted ads to secure dangerous work.

Tossing in another element of mystery, the authorities said yesterday that they still did not have any clue to the man's identity. The only official hints, based on an autopsy performed by the medical examiner's office, were that he appeared to be in his mid-30's, and that he was short and slight, at least by Western standards.
As the number of construction and demolition projects accelerate in the New York area, and more immigrants pour in to find any work they can, OSHA and city building code authorities are having a harder time keeping up.
According to local residents, many Asian contractors have been aggressively buying older homes to either subdivide into many small rooms, or to replace with larger homes. Those plans often include demolition, which jumped by 27 percent citywide in 2003, according to a report released last week by the Rent Guidelines Board. But demolition can be a dangerous task when performed by unskilled laborers working with few safety precautions.

"The builders tear down houses and build new ones to pack a lot of people into," said Irwin Wanto, a retired electrician. "These crews of Asian workers in the neighborhood, they never have harnesses or even hard hats."