Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Down South, North of the Border

Yet more stories of dangerous working conditions for Hispanic workers -- in South Carolina and in Florida.

Can't live with 'em, but in South Carolina, you can't live without 'em
Hispanic Business Inc., a research firm and magazine publisher, estimates Spanish-speaking workers nationwide comprise nearly 16 percent of the construction industry work force, about 9 percent of manufacturing workers and 7.1 percent of agricultural workers.

"Our entire economy would be in a bind if we didn't have these guys coming from Mexico to do these skilled-labor jobs," said John Cone, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of South Carolina. "It's absolutely pulling the economy of this state along."
But unfortunately, as elsewhere in the country, their lives are dispensable
While the jobs they take tend to pay a decent wage, better certainly than fast-food restaurant work, many Hispanics also find themselves doing work that involves big risks.

Hispanic worker fatalities nationwide shot up 58 percent, from 533 to 840, between 1992 and 2002. One out of every 19,880 Hispanic workers died on the job in 2002, compared to one in 25,340 white workers and one in 28,643 black workers, according to government statistics.

While Hispanics officially made up only 2.7 percent of South Carolina's 1.97 million-member work force in 2002, 6.5 percent of the 107 workplace fatalities that year-- seven deaths -- involved Hispanics. That's down from 9.8 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2000. But the numbers underscore that Hispanics are dying in disproportionate numbers.

In one of the more notorious incidents, the government fined Burriss Electric Co. of Lexington $42,075 in the deaths last year of two teenage Mexican brothers, Rigouerto and Moses Xaca Sandoval. The boys, ages 15 and 16, were digging a trench that collapsed at a school construction site.
There are the usual problems: language, intimidation -- and a bit of "blame the worker:
"They're wanting to please their employers and going too far sometimes," said Danny Dilworth, risk control manager for the South Carolina Homebuilders Self Insurers Fund. "They're not going to look at their boss and say, 'I'm not going up there.' ... Even if the employer says to use the harness, that's not the way these guys have done it before."
Oh yeah, ever heard of training?

The real extent of the problem may never be known:
Worker compensation claims are a major source of abuse, said Hector Esquivel, a Hilton Head lawyer.

"Someone will get hurt on the job and the employer, knowing the worker is illegal, will threaten to call immigration (if the injury is reported)," said Esquivel
And I'm sure industry's reports to OSHA are no more accurate than those to Workers Com.

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach Post reacts to the killing of 8 migrant workers Thursday on Interstate 95 near Fort Pierce in a rollover accident. In some ways, those who lived through the crash may be better off than others migrant worker who are injured in Florida workplaces
Dozens of farmworkers have lost their lives the same way on Florida's roads. Hundreds of family members have been left without insurance or assistance to bury their dead. Migrants, often without legal status or advocates, are easy to ignore. Yet if the tragic aspect of this crash is similar, it may differ from the prototype in important ways.

Because Circle H leased the van, survivors and relatives may have recourse to seek compensation. Typically, growers deflect accountability by relying on subcontractors -- middlemen who transport workers to the fields. Hospital bills go unpaid because subcontractors carry no insurance and have shallow pockets. This time, the company may have to be accountable.
And it seems that this tragedy may be bringing Governor Bush's chickens home to roost.
The record of the grower also distinguishes this tragedy. Last month, Gov. Bush named Circle H President George Pantuso to the Florida Citrus Commission. The governor did so despite a recent U.S. Department of Labor case against Mr. Pantuso's grove based on 29 violations -- including failure to provide safe vehicles. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has cited Circle H for inadequate sanitation facilities and failure to validate driver licenses. What about Mr. Pantuso's record of not complying with rules and safety regulations suggests that he deserves a seat on a prestigious state commission?

After ignoring farmworkers' issues during his first five years in office, Gov. Bush last month proposed a modest reform bill that would toughen the licensing of subcontractors and require disclosure of pesticide use. But if the governor really wanted to get serious about ending abuse, he would hold growers responsible for safety and fair treatment rather than perpetuate a corrupt system that uses middlemen as fall guys. California set the right model for reform in 1999, when it placed tough regulations on growers in response to a van accident that killed 13. Regular inspections of vehicles and seat-belt requirements are sure to save lives.
But ultimately, Florida politicians -- and Florida voters -- have to decide which side they're on: saving a few pennies or saving lives:
As long as the goal is to produce produce at the cheapest cost, a price will be paid in human misery. Until the industry embraces reform or the Legislature and the governor demand it, until consumers accept citrus and tomatoes at $2.09 a pound instead of $1.99, last week's tragic scene is certain to repeat itself. Farmworkers will die in horrific crashes as long as Floridians' conscience will bear it.