There is a belief that pervades the United States: if someone works, that person will invariably be paid by someone else, motivating the first person to continue working for the second. Fortunately, with the arrival of social media and everyday people carrying cellphones, this belief has been strongly challenged as the eyes of most of society have been opened to the continuation of unpaid labor. Many examples of unpaid labor abound, but people are often most oblivious to those examples directly in front of them. In “Building the American Dream,” Chelsea Hernandez takes viewers on a journey that forces them to acknowledge that the real estate industry thrives on injustice and the exploitation of undocumented labor.
First and foremost, too many citizens continue to blame undocumented workers for violating the law, refusing to understand that these workers have been recruited by large building companies. Like the agricultural industrial complex, these employers are able to pay low wages based on the workers’ need to secure stead income, often to take care of family. Workers tend to operate in good faith, but what starts out as a satisfying transaction slowly turns into a nightmare as employers lose interest in paying people who have little legal protection. Thus, construction companies look for workers who they can eventually stop paying, leading to enormous profits for the companies and devastating circumstances for the workers. Even one of the business executives in the film says that the current circumstances are unsustainable, though did not indicate a willing to change.
What if the workers refuse to back down, and demand their wages? A small number of organizations, one of which is the Workers Defense Project, work with undocumented laborers to recover lost wages. Some of the numbers in the film are shocking, but no matter how small the recoveries are, these organizations keep pushing. However, some of the companies fight dirty, and ironically call upon law enforcement to arrest the labor which they themselves requested. Because of the failure to attack the employers, this trend is widespread, and there are more builders than not who refuse to pay workers and then expect law enforcement to torture their former staff. Doing anything less than allowing these employers to continue these practices is viewing as impeding business.
The reality is that both the builders and the workers are responding to an artificial housing need. In a country with stagnating wages, more housing is being built to attract the well-to-do, which should be viewed as shaming those who are unable to acquire such housing. Because of this, the film demonstrates that most of the workers are forced to maintain vehicles, a further deduction from already small wages. In 2017, there was a national action called “Day Without Immigrants” when undocumented laborers risked their livelihoods to show the United States how essential these workers are to the daily ecosystems where they live. While some people rejoiced about the lack of traffic, others recognized that those workers would not have to travel so far if affordable housing were available closer to work. Thus, all of these workers are being recruited by all of these companies to build all of this housing that almost no one can afford.
One of the small victories from the film is a ten-minute break required for every four hours of labor enacted as city ordinance. It is revealed that only Austin and Dallas allow rest breaks for workers, despite Texas undergoing hotter and hotter summers. Oddly, El Paso is not mentioned as having rest breaks, which is interesting because El Paso was home to a former presidential candidate and has also been known for its gentrification practices. All in all, people should take any chance available to see this film if they want to become more enlightened about the true cost of “economic development.”