Report: Treating workers fairly, maintaining safe workplaces good for the bottom line

Fair working standards for construction workers and financial profit for developers aren't incompatible, according to a new report from Texas' Workers Defense Project. In fact, consumers are actually willing to pay more to live in places built on principles of safety, economic justice and dignity.

Released this week in collaboration with the University of Texas' Center for Sustainable Development, "Green Jobs for Downtown Austin: Exploring the Consumer Market for Sustainable Buildings" studied consumer attitudes toward sustainable construction jobs and explored the market for certification via the Workers Defense Project's Premier Community Builders program. With the help of independent monitors, Premier Community Builders certifies new developments as sustainable for workers, which means developers pay a living wage, provide safe working conditions and worker training, and offer workers compensation insurance.

Greg Casar, business liaison at the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, noted that when developers decide to limit their environmental impacts, the associated costs of going green are often quickly offset by producing a higher quality building and attracting consumers for whom environmental sustainability is important. In turn, Casar and his colleagues wondered if the same would be true for developers who create quality construction jobs.

"Consumers, especially those in Austin, value social responsibility," Casar told me. "We wanted to understand quantitatively just how much consumers did care (about sustainable jobs), and we found out that they really did."

To gather their findings, researchers collected nearly 300 surveys from downtown residents of mixed-use buildings and tourists staying in downtown hotels, and conducted six focus groups with downtown residents, real estate professionals and event planners. They found that nearly 69 percent of residents and a little more than 67 percent of tourists were indeed willing to pay more to stay in buildings certified by the Premier Community Builders program.

Also, 46 percent of residents and 56 percent of tourists said they would feel "proud" to "very proud" to stay in a certified building. And 43 percent of residents said it was "unlikely" to "very unlikely" they would buy a home if they knew the law had been broken during its construction. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents said they would trust independent monitors over self-regulation as well as industry or government regulation to ensure workers are being treated fairly. Both real estate professionals and event planners said Premier Community Builders certification could lead to new marketing opportunities and enhanced prestige.

In fact, while there were some differences among survey respondents, people across the political spectrum and with varying levels of education were willing to pay more to stay in certified buildings. In the report's recommendations, authors Casar, Haley Collins, Alan Garcia, Angie Pastorek, Jennifer Scott, Cayce Smith and Cristina Tzintzún write:

Downtown residents want to ensure they are making a good, long-term investment when purchasing downtown — and quality of construction is a major factor in making that determination. Consumers view worker treatment as a good indicator of quality craftsmanship and they indicate a willingness to do the research necessary to determine the best place to invest their dollars. Simply stated by one downtown resident, "fair labor certification to me means that it's gonna be quality." Developers should emphasize to consumers that (Premier Community Builders) certification means a higher quality product.

"(Our program) creates a system where those folks who are doing the right thing can be recognized and use their certification to market themselves and differentiate themselves," Casar said. "Before we did the survey we couldn't say that for sure, but now we have the hard data to prove it."

The report also notes that certification of fair practices has been a boon to other industries and businesses as well. For example, authors cited that at Starbucks, sales of fair trade products grew 12 percent between 2010 and 2011 worldwide, and growth in such sales earned more than one million farmers in 66 countries $83 million.

Jeff Wacker, an engineer with the Green Building Commercial Program at Austin Energy, said the Workers Defense Project's efforts to create better jobs fits in perfectly with the triple bottom line of sustainability: environment, economy and equity. Austin Energy has been partnering with the project for a couple years now, and developers in Austin can earn one point toward their green building rating if they participate in the Premier Community Builders program.

"What we're in the middle of is a more holistic way of assessing value and success," Wacker told me. "Buildings built with fair labor practices are providing more value than ones that are not, and that's an exciting message."

Wacker said he and his colleagues at Austin Energy will use the new survey results to council developers on the value of collaborating with Workers Defense Project — "it's an arrow in our's something we can point at to say 'this will be positive for you.'" He also noted that he doesn't think the survey results are necessarily unique to Austin, although the city might be considered an early adopter of a "new way of thinking."

"We as people are becoming more empowered to not accept that there's just one way that things are done," Wacker said. "I'm excited to see this study...I think that being on the front edge of this style of thinking can help bring others along a lot faster."

The Premier Community Builders program addresses serious issues within the state's construction industry and particularly in Austin, which is experiencing an enormous boon in growth and development. Today, Texas is home to the highest construction worker fatality rate in the country, and one in five workers in Austin said they've suffered a workplace injury that required medical attention. Also, 22 percent of Austin construction workers report not being paid for their work and more than half of workers live in poverty.

For more about Workers Defense Project or to download a full copy of their recent report on consumer attitudes, click here. And read our previous coverage of the Premier Community Builders program here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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