Monday, September 04, 2006

Throwaway Workers: The Immigrant Experience

The raging debate over this country's immigration policy tends to focus on how high we build the walls, and whether or when those who have been working here for years will be given the opportunity to become citizens. Lost in the debate is the issue of the work that the immigrants are doing, and how many get injured or killed.

Instead of talking about the fate of unions and trends in wages, Chicago Tribune writers Steve Franklin and Darnell Little are marking Labor Day 2006 by writing about actual workers -- telling the stories of "throwaway workers," Latinos who labor and die in the country's most dangerous jobs.
Before the accident, he had warned the owner of the small Diversey Avenue dry cleaner that the pressing machine was old and dangerous. But his boss told him to forget about it and Mario, fearful of losing his job, didn't say another word.

Then one day last winter the massive, steaming press collapsed on Mario's left arm, melting the skin, mangling his fist and costing him a $5.70-an-hour job. There was no health insurance, no worker's compensation benefit and no severance pay offered, Mario said.

"If you don't have papers, you work eight or 10 hours a day, six days a week, and you don't complain," said the muscular, middle-age illegal immigrant from Mexico.

Much of the furor over immigration reform has been about whether undocumented workers like Mario should be allowed to stay in the U.S. or made to leave. But beyond that debate lies an undeniable fact: They face disproportionate dangers on the job.
They note the disproportionately high injury and death rate of immigrant workers:
While non-Latino workplace fatalities dropped 16 percent between 1992 and 2005, Latino workers' deaths jumped 72 percent during the same time. Last year the fatality rate for Latinos was 4.9 per 100,000 workers, a rate unmatched by any other group. They accounted for more than 16 percent of all deaths though they make up only 13 percent of the workforce.

Of all the workplace deaths investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Chicago area in the last three years, half involved immigrants. Federal officials say nearly all of them were Latino.
...and why it's happening:
They are vulnerable because many are immigrants who are illiterate in English, have little understanding of American culture and are grateful for any job, no matter how dangerous. And because many are undocumented immigrants, afraid of being deported, they often don't ask questions and don't challenge the boss.

"They shouldn't be dying and they don't even have the same rights to complain. Being illegal, they fear retaliation. This is assuming that they know that what they are doing is dangerous," said Jordan Barab, a workplace safety advocate in Washington, D.C., and a former union health and safety expert.
And the exploitation doesn't stop after they're injured:
Lawyer John Budin, who regularly is consulted by injured workers, said it's common for bosses to refuse to pay medical bills or to warn undocumented employees against filing a worker's compensation complaint.

"I had a guy come in this week whose boss said, `I'll call immigration and get you deported back to Mexico if you file,' " he recalled in an interview last month. The worker, he added, is worried and thinking it over.
Language difficulties aren't just inconvenient; they can be deadly:
The failure to communicate may have been fatal for a 16-year-old Latino youth who fell from a construction project and hit his head in May 2004 in South Carolina. The construction boss told the crew chief to take him right away to a hospital. The boss later told federal officials that the crew leader usually understood English. But the leader took the youth to his home and gave him aspirin instead. The teen died that night.

"We have investigated a number of cases where the victim was Spanish-speaking and the training was only in English, and there was little or minimal attempts to translate it into Spanish," said Dawn Castillo, an official with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the research arm for the nation's worker safety and health effort.
The authors also examine the strange fact that while fatalities are going up for immigrant workers, injuries seem to be going down.
But James Platner, head of research for the Washington-area Center to Protect Workers' Rights, a construction union-backed organization, seriously doubts that.

The reality, he and others suggest, is that there is a vast undercount of the injuries because Latino illegal immigrants stray far from public facilities and do not report their wounds. If they do get care, they are often reluctant to explain where their injuries took place.

"It is hard to get the real story because they are afraid," explained Dr. Eileen Couture, head of clinical care at Cook County's Oak Forest Hospital.

"You say this [accident] has to be reported and they say, `You don't understand, I need my job. You don't understand, I have to feed my family.' You don't want them walking out, so it is a give and take."
The immigration debate will go on through this election season and beyond. But whatever side you take, remember that they came to this country to work; they didn't come to die.