Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Pineros: Newspaper Series Forces Change in Treatment of Immigrant Workers

These are hard times for workplace safety. The business-controlled Republican party controls the Presidency and both houses of Congress, allowing for almost no oversight to address how workers are treated, especially immigrant workers. Given those facts, as I've often argued, the most effective force for progressive change these days is the media.

Last month, the Sacramento Bee ran a three part series on the plight of the Pineros -- the immigrant workers who work in the pines -- and the horrible safety conditions they face every day on the job. They're in this country on legal visas and federal officials oversee the contractors that employe the workers -- often witnessing the hazardous conditions and abuse without taking any action.

As a result of the series, the head of the US Forest Service proposed sweeping changes last week to better protect migrant Latino forest workers from injury and abuse on the job, including demanding that agency personnel shut down unsafe job sites on the spot.
"My biggest frustration out of this is I want the Forest Service to have a culture of safety," U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said Wednesday in his first public comments since the series was published Nov. 13-15. "And that means safety for everybody."

Bosworth expressed concern that migrant workers were being hurt and exposed to abuse on jobs overseen by the Forest Service but that little was being done to correct the problems.

The Bee found that Forest Service job inspectors, formally called contracting officer representatives, often jotted notes about injuries, hazardous conditions and poor treatment in their work diaries but did not act on them. By contrast, errors in tree planting and thinning were quickly attended to.


Within days of the stories' publication, Bosworth sent a memo to regional foresters outlining his plans for corrective action.

"I do not expect everyone to become an expert in immigration law, on OSHA regulations or on the wage-and-benefits laws administered by the Department of Labor," he wrote. But when his employees "become aware of possible violations in any of these areas, I expect them to promptly report the situation to the appropriate oversight agency."

Bosworth also called for immediate action to prevent injuries and accidents. When migrant workers are discovered toiling without safety gear - a common occurrence on Forest Service jobs - "don't let them work," he wrote. "When these situations occur, (employees) must take action, just as we would with our own employees."
Of course, we've been here before.
Twelve years ago, a House committee report chastised the agency for tolerating abusive conditions among contractors employing Latinos on federal jobs.

A hearing was held. Reforms were promised. The problems endured. Georgia reforestation contractor David Ellis chalked it up to simple economics.

"The U.S. Forest Service is all about saving money and passes the buck to the Nation at large for their policy of hear no evil see no evil," Ellis wrote in an e-mail. "I have seen and heard with my own ears and eyes how the Forest Service (personnel) boast about saving money on contractors who housed Mexicans in tents on the job site, no water, no toilet, no shower, just the low bidder!"
Forest Chief Dale Bosworth's memo can be found here.