Monday, January 12, 2004

Bush's Immigration Proposal: What Does It Mean For The Workplace Safety of Immigrant Workers?

As everyone is probably aware, President Bush floated his new immigration proposal last week, and will officially present it at the State of the Union address next week. The political constellations are forming in somewhat predictable ways. Democrats and labor are opposing it as a giveaway to business. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney stated that it "creates a permanent underclass of workers who are unable to fully participate in democracy." Immigrant groups, such as National Council of La Raza, criticize the proposal as
limited to creating a potentially huge new guestworker program for immigrant workers with no meaningful access to permanent visas or a path to citizenship for those working, paying taxes, and raising their families in the United States. Immigrants would be asked to sign up for what is likely to be second-class status in the American workforce, which could lead to their removal when their status expires or is terminated.
The business community, as might be expected,
welcomed the plan as a way to create a stable workforce and alleviate labor shortages for low-wage and dangerous jobs that Americans disdain in agriculture and the hotel, health, restaurant and construction industries.

"We have a problem with projected job growth and a diminishing workforce, and the economy can't expand unless we have workers to fill available jobs," said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But Bush's other constituency, the right-wing ideologues (not to be confused with the previously mentioned business crowd) is violently opposed, figuring we have too many law-breaking persons of the dark-skinned persuasion over here already.

And everyone, from right to left dismiss it as an election-year stunt designed to attract Hispanic voters that has little chance of passage before the election.

Let's start at the beginning. In a nutshell, the Bush plan would give three-year visas to illegal immigrants already working in the United States as well as to foreign applicants who are newly hired for jobs here. Under Bush's plan, foreign workers would be legal for three years and then could renew their status at least once. Workers would have to be sponsored by an employer and businesses would have to show that no Americans want the jobs available before they bring in temporary workers from abroad.

First, it's important to understand, as economist/blogger Max Sawicky notes,
Bush has not delivered an immigration proposal. He has a policy to facilitate the ability of employers to reach out to workers in foreign countries and to hire or continue employing those who are here illegally....Immigration means people coming here with their families to legally work and live indefinitely, as well as have an opportunity to become citizens.
So we have a "guest worker" program that supplies cheap, legal labor to employers. Immigrant "guest" workers are (temporarily) legal, they don't have to fear the migra and they can freely come and go across the border.

For Confined Space readers, of course, the real question is "is it good or bad for workplace safety and health?" Good question.

As you are probably aware, immigrant workers have a disproportionately high workplace injury and death rate. (I've written about the problem a number of times: here, here, and here.)

What are the factors that make work dangerous for immigrant workers? Immigrants are disproportionately represented in dangerous industries (construction, manufacturing, and agriculture) and in hazardous occupations within those industries. They are the ones climbing the scaffolds and going down into the trenches. They are cleaning out the sumps in manure pits. They are the "invisible" workforce, working in the kitchens, laundries and sweatshops that no one ever sees, and that OSHA rarely inspects.

They are also disproportionately represented among temporary workers, part time workers, and workers in the informal economy. Their high turnover is related to higher injury rates as most injuries occur during a worker's first year on the job. Language problems mean they can't read warning labels on containers or safe operating instructions on machinery.

In addition, they are much less likely to report injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions because they are often unaware of their legal rights under OSHA or workers compensation. If they are illegal, they are obviously even less likely to come forward to complain about unsafe conditions or to report injuries or illnesses.

(For an excellent study of workplace health and safety issues among immigrant workers check out VOICES FROM THE MARGINS: Immigrant Workers: Perceptions of Health and Safety in the Workplace an in-depth ethnographic study of 75 immigrant workers in six industries in Southern California.)

Does Bush's immigration policy make these workers any safer? At first blush, newly legalized workers may be more likely to report injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions if they don't have to fear expulsion. But the proposal requires workers to be "sponsored" by their employer. What's to keep an employer from suddenly deciding that he has a few less openings to sponsor if a worker complains about safety and health conditions? No sponsor, hasta la vista baby.

And will they be doing safer jobs? The fact is that "no Americans want" these jobs because theyare the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs that exist. That will not change. Will the jobs suddenly become safer? Will OSHA start inspecting them more often? And what effect does the danger and low pay of these (now legal) jobs have on the wages and working conditions of other jobs that -- for the present -- American will still do?

And how would the proposal address immigrants' lack of knowledge about their OSHA or workers compensation rights? Would employers suddenly start training immigrants about their right to file a complaint with OSHA? About their right not to be retaliated against? Mandated training about workplace rights might make a nice amendment to such a bill, but I've seen no indication that the Congress, the Administration or their business supporters would be anxious to go in that direction. In fact, as we have seen, OSHA has attempted to cut worker training funds in every Bush budget. And will OSHA make sure that all training that is done is conducted in a language understood by the workers? Will OSHA finally hire significant numbers of inspectors who speak the language of the newly legal immigrant workers?

There is little doubt that a three year vacation from fear of immigration authorities, and the ability to travel back and forth across the border will improve the lives of many immigrants. But ultimately, the only thing that will protect the lives and health of immigrant is a real right to organize and strong enforcement of workplace laws for ALL workers in this country.