Thursday, February 16, 2006

Making it in the USA

Greetings to Jordan's readers. I don't know more than the next person about occupational safety and health in general, but I do know a fair amount about Latino workers -- and much more since I read On the Corner, by Abel Valenzuela Jr., Nik Theodore, Edwin Meléndez, and Ana Luc Gonzalez. They drew a sample of metropolitan areas in the U.S., and then set out to identify every site within those areas where day laborers congregate, looking for work. These places are in front of home improvement stores, near expressway ramps, in parks, near gas stations -- unless the workers are lucky enough to have an organized site available, operated by a community organization. Employers looking for workers come by and negotiate on the spot, then the workers get in the back of the pickup and head off to the job site. Valenzuela et al estimate the day laborer work force on any given day in the U.S. at 117,600, but it's pretty clear that's an underestimate. Once they'd found the sites, the investigators interviewed a sample of the workers.

As I'm sure you've already guessed, the vast majority of these workers are immigrants from Latin America -- 59% from Mexico, 28% from Central America, 4% from South America. Most of them have been in the U.S. for less than 5 years, but 40% say they have been here longer. Two thirds of them have children, but it's not easy supporting a family on $700 a month, with no benefits, which is their median income -- although it tends to fluctuate a lot from month to month.

About half the time they get hired by householders, and the rest of the time by construction or landscape contractors, with a little bit of restaurant kitchen work thrown in. Some of them do skilled work as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, but of course they do a lot of low-skilled construction and landscape labor as well. Sometimes the employers don't pay them what they are owed. Sometimes the employers threaten or assault them. A lot of the time, they are injured on the job.

20% of the workers had been injured on the job, and two-thirds of those who were injured had missed days of work due to occupational injuries -- 61% of them more than a week, 33 days on average. Worker's comp? Forget about it. 6% of them said their medical care had been covered under their employer's workers' compensation insurance. Employers just threaten them with retaliation or non-payment of wages if they file a claim. And of course, nobody is paying them while they can't work. Most of them have never heard of OSHA and they get assigned to do the most dangerous tasks, with faulty or non-existent safety equipment, and no training. Valenzuela et al apparently didn't ask them about their immigration status (and they wouldn't have gotten true answers if they had), but it's pretty obvious what they think will happen if they complain.

As for BLS statistics on occupational injuries, those come from reports by employers. Think these incidents are in those reports? When you look at those lovely downward trends in occupational injuries in the BLS graphs, think about this picture:

Posted by Cervantes Stayin' Alive