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Immigrant Workers: Impaled, Shredded And Buried Alive


A recent article in The Forward told an all-too-common story of immigrant workers in a meatpacking plant in Iowa:

One of those workers — a woman who agreed to be identified by the pseudonym Juana — came to this rural corner of Iowa a year ago from Guatemala. Since then, she has worked 10-to-12-hour night shifts, six nights a week. Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked. She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation.

Juana and other employees at AgriProcessors — they total about 800 — told the Forward that they receive virtually no safety training. This is an anomaly in an industry in which the tools are designed to cut and grind through flesh and bones. In just one month last summer, two young men required amputations; workers say there have been others since. The chickens and cattle fly by at a steady clip on metal hooks, and employees said they are berated for not working fast enough. In addition, employees told of being asked to bribe supervisors for better shifts and of being shortchanged on paychecks regularly.

"Being here, you see a lot of injustice," said Juana, who did not want her real name used because of her precarious immigration status. "But it’s a small town. It’s the only factory here. We have no choice."

Almost lost in the grand debate over immigration policy filling consuming the media and political campaigns is discussion over the work environment of the millions of immigrant workers in this country– both legal and illegal. But peruse a list of recent workplace fatalities and you’ll always find a high number of foreign names, workers from Central America, South Asia and Africa who fell from buildings, dismembered in machinery, crushed in trench collapses or shot in convenience store or taxi cab robberies.

Immigrants made up 14 percent of the U.S. workforce and work-related fatalities and injuries among these workers has been rising at an alarming rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workplace fatalities among Hispanic and immigrant workers is climbing far faster than their percentage of the workforce. 902 Hispanic workers were killed in 2004, the last year in which statistics are available. This compares with 794 in 2003 and 533 in 2002. 164,000 were injured on the job in 2004. According to an AFL-CIO analysis of BLS data, Hispanic construction workers were nearly twice as likely to be killed by occupational injuries as their non-Hispanic counterparts in 2000. While the share of foreign-born employment increased by 22 percent from 1996 to 2003, the share of fatal occupational injuries for this population increased by 43 percent.

Surprisingly, homicide, not construction work is the leading cause of traumatic workplace death for foreign-born workers in this country, accounting for one out of every four fatal injuries. The second and third most frequent types of fatal events involving foreign-born workers were falls to a lower level (15 percent) and highway incidents (14 percent).

The media began paying closer attention to the plight of undocumented workers two years ago with a series of award winning articles by AP reporter Justin Pritchard who told of how “The jobs that lure Mexican workers to the United States are killing them in a worsening epidemic that is now claiming a victim a day,” and described in gruesome detail how “workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are as young as 15.”

But the problem is not just limited to Hispanic workers. The death of Jian Quo Shen in a 2004 trench collapse in New York City revealed the underworld of a growing number of Chinese workers finding jobs in construction through help-wanted ads. The projects, often run by Asian construction firms, remodel or demolish parts of existing structures in order to convert them into buildings that can pack in higher numbers of low-income residents. Safety precautions, such as fall protection or trench boxes are generally ignored.

Most of the causes of the carnage among immigrant workers are also well known. The main reason is that immigrant are employed doing the most dangerous jobs in the most dangerous industries and tend to work in the less-skilled and more dangerous occupations such as construction laborers, helpers and roofers.

Between 1996 and 2001, private construction, retail trade and transportation and public utilities (counted as one industry) were the three industries in which fatally injured foreign-born workers most frequently were employed. Nearly one in four fatally injured foreign-born workers was employed in the construction industry. Another one in three was employed either in retail trade or transportation and public utilities. Industries with the highest fatality rates for foreign-born workers include mining, construction, transportation and public utilities and agriculture, forestry and fishing.

Reports by Human Rights Watch, the Government Accountability Office and the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program have shown that other causes for high rates of injuries and fatalities among immigrant workers include:

  • Lack of Knowledge About Safety and Health Hazards: The jobs that many immigrants do are new and they are not familiar with the hazards of the jobs. Furthermore, they generally do not know about OSHA or their right to request and inspection and have their name kept secret
  • Language Barrier: This goes deeper than inability to speak or understand English. Many immigrant workers are illiterate in their native language. Spanish language fact sheets don’t help in that situation.
  • Exploitation: Immigrant workers are frequently sent to do the most dangerous work.
  • Intimidation: This is closely related to exploitation. Immigrant workers are much less likely to call OSHA — assuming they know about their rights — than American citizens. If they are illegal, In addition, they often fear government officials, even those who are there to help them. This stems not only from the fears imported from their own country, but also fear of the "migra."

Intimidation Of course, we don’t really know the full extent of injuries (and possibly deaths) among undocumented immigrants. Undocumented workers are far less likely to report injuries, get workers compensation or complain about unsafe working conditions than white workers. Immigrant advocates warn that as soon as an undocumented worker gets injured, the employer often threatens to call immigration authorities if they report the injury. According to a recent Associated Press story:

Bob Hernandez, a community activist in Wichita who often works on behalf of injured Hispanic workers, said many companies hire undocumented workers in construction and other high risk jobs because they know they will not complain if they get hurt. "It is rampant, and that is why they do it," Hernandez said. "They know the jobs are dangerous. One way of getting around the liability is, hire someone who doesn’t have much legal recourse."

Some companies such as Gold Kist poultry company, which are not overly concerned about their employees’ legal status when they were hired, were suddenly outraged that they were "illegal" once they were injured and attempted to pay workers comp. Many immigrant workers aren’t even aware of their Workers Comp rights. A Massachusetts Department of Public Health Survey of 1,400 injured workers found that more than half of the foreign-born workers questioned had never heard of workers’ compensation, compared with 15 percent among U.S.-born workers. A UCLA study found that Hispanic workers were not familiar with governmental agencies that could assist them. Less than 10 percent had ever heard of Cal-OSHA and no workers surveyed had contacted CalOSHA for assistance.

Some are even trying to make the failure to pay workers compensation to undocumented workers official state policy. In South Carolina, legislators have attempted and failed three times to exclude undocumented workers from the workers compensation system. Just to add insult to injury, South Carolina’s workers comp law allows payments to foreign beneficiaries to be limited to 50% of what a Canadian or U.S. worker would receive. This is a state where only 2.7 percent of South Carolina’s 1.97 million-member work force were Hispanic in 2002, yet 6.5 percent of the 107 workplace fatalities that year– seven deaths — involved Hispanics.

An unintended (hopefully) consequence of the anti-immigrant fervor is that immigrant workers are not getting adequate care after they are injured, because they being arrested and deported if they call medical authorities. Last month, for example, an immigrant worker was seriously injured in Middletown, Connecticut after falling off a roof. He had no fall protection, even though OSHA requires guard rails and harnesses when working more than six feet off the ground. The man’s co-workers, who were also Hispanic males, tried to provide first aid themselves instead of calling 911. Thirty minutes after he fell, neighbors finally called 911. And the workers weren’t just being paranoid. Police arrived and called federal immigration authorities who took the men into custody.

Advocates for undocumented workers say the episode, which unfolded just before noon on Butternut Street, illustrates the vulnerability of those who have come to the United States illegally to find work. "This case is not an aberration," said Kica Matos, a lawyer who directs Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven-based immigrant advocacy group. "We deal with cases all the time with immigrants who were injured in the workplace." *** Maria-Cinta Lowe, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury, said the workers in the incident were on the job, had not committed a crime and should not have been detained, especially considering the chance of immigration law reform. "People are really afraid," she said.

Let Them Die?

Despite the clear moral problems with allowing any workers — "legal" or "illegal" — to work in unsafe conditions, to make it difficult to receive workers compensation, to fear reporting injuries or unsafe conditions, these stories in newspapers and blogs generate an amazing number of negative comments from people who seem to think "illegals" are getting what they deserve; that the penalty for working illegally in the United States should be death — execution by falling from a roof, or being crushed in a trench.

Their arguments can roughly be summed up as follows:

What don’t you understand about the word "illegal?" We should be using any means to deport them not encourage them to stay by making their workplaces safer. In fact, if we keep them out, or send them home, we’re actually protecting them. And why should we be spending our tax dollars to protect criminals or give them workers compensation? This kind of whining just shows why you liberals who support illegal immigration are soft on national security.

Aside from the obvious cruelty and lack of compassion, what we have here is a failure to understand that by making immigrant workers more afraid that they will be deported if they complain about unsafe conditions, or call OSHA or file a workers comp claim, they’re actually making the hiring of undocumented workers more attractive to employers, not less.

In addition, if employers are free to hire and abuse undocumented immigrants without fear that they’ll complain about their safety conditions, US-born workers will feel that they need to accept the same unsafe conditions or risk being replaced by undocumented workers who don’t complain. And finally, we’re dealing here with workers who arrived in this country after risking their lives crossing the desert in order to find a job. For better or worse, unsafe working conditions are just another risk that many of them will take in order to feed their families.

What Is OSHA Doing?

To its credit, OSHA is aware of the safety problems with immigrant workers and has taken some steps to address it. Unfortunately, it’s been more like one step forward and two back.

As far back as the late 1990’s, the Clinton administration began targeting the Susan Harwood Worker Training grant program toward unions and non-profit organizations that showed that they could work in high risk and immigrant communities. The five year grants were awarded to organizations that could actually establish relationships with immigrant churches and community organizations, and not just translate factsheets into Spanish.

In February 2002, OSHA announced an initiative to address the increased safety and health risks of immigrant and Hispanic workers. Despite its best intentions, however, the AP’s Pritchard found two years ago that federal and state OSHA programs were having trouble hiring Spanish-speaking inspectors – even in states that hive high numbers of immigrant workers such as California and North Carolina.

And at the same time OSHA was allegedly attempting to address the immigrant worker safety problem, the Bush administration was attempting every year to eliminate the Susan Harwood training grant program. And every year the Congress has refused to eliminate the program, extending the orginal grant program to the present.

Another area where OSHA is hurting, instead of helping immigrant workers is its failure to issue a standard that would be particularly significant for immigrant workers who work in dangerous industries like meat-packing, poultry and construction: the Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment standard. The proposed rule which would require employers to pay for the safety equipment that must be provided by employers under OSHA standards, went through the rule-making process during the Clinton administration and has long been ready for final action.

Despite a petition from the AFL-CIO and Congressional Hispanic Caucus to issue the final standard, OSHA has continually put off action. Most recently, acting OSHA Administrator Jonathan L. Snare testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee that he could not give “a specific time, whether it’s several months or several years down the road.” And whatever good things OSHA actually does threaten to be undone by the part of the federal government in charge with controlling illegal immigration.

Last year, immigrant workers at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina were ordered to attend a mandatory safety training the following morning. When they arrived, however, the doors were locked and the "OSHA Trainers" revealed themselves instead to be agents of the the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. The immigration agents took into custody dozens of undocumented workers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ukraine. Coverage in the workplace safety blog, Confined Space, led to protests by labor unions and front page coverage in the New York Times. Even OSHA strongly objected to the impersonation of its inspectors. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez Thompson explained the problem:

Not only do such tactics scare workers away, making it less likely that workplace dangers will be exposed, but these tactics don’t comply with the government’s own policies. It is OSHA’s policy to keep the identity of those who file complaints confidential and not to collect data concerning citizenship status. The reason for these policies is simple: if workers believe that they or their families are at risk of being deported, they will not speak out about dangerous or unhealthful conditions. ICE’s actions not only undermine OSHA’s mission, but they also seriously erode the trust between agencies charged with protecting workers and the immigrant community.

Despite the protests, ICE at first stuck to its guns, citing national security concerns and the importance of such tactics in keeping employers from hiring undocumented workers. Finally, they backed down and promised to stop impersonating OSHA. But the damage may have been done.

What Are Unions Doing?

In many industries, such as meatpacking, the influx of immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, corresponds to the decline in union representation, and a resulting decline in wages, benefits and safety precautions. According to a report by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service,

in 1980, 46 percent of workers in the meat products industry were union members, a figure that had remained stable since the 1970s. However, by the end of the 1980s, union membership had fallen to 21 percent. Declining rates of unionization coincided with increases in the use of immigrant workers, higher worker turnover, and reductions in wages. Immigrants make up large and growing shares of the workforces at many plants. Labor turnover in meat and poultry plants is quite high, and in some worksites can exceed 100 percent in a year as workers move to other employers or return to their native countries. The frequent movement of immigrant workers among plants and communities limits the opportunities of unions to organize meat and poultry workers.

Understanding that exploitation of immigrant labor — even undocumented immigrants — woudl undermine the pay and working conditions of all workers, the labor movement, which had been strongly in favor of immigration controls, decided that it made more sense to ensure that undocumented immigrants have the same rights that legal immigrants and American citizens enjoy — and then organizing them.

Although their working conditions and pay cry out for improvement, immigrant workers are generally more difficult to organize. A recent article about conditions at an Iowa meatpacking plant told of an organizing drive that had failed even though workers complain about lack of training, short paychecks, not being paid on Jewish holiday, barely any break or lunch time, low wages and safety problems.

Spanish-speaking community leaders in Postville said that last year’s union drive failed for the same reason that the grievances have not been made public before: The workers have a well-developed fear of being fired or deported. Many of the workers are undocumented immigrants, according to numerous workers, community leaders and the local priest.

"If you’re not treated well at work, you tend to keep your mouth shut and go deeper until it becomes, well, unbearable," said Father Floyd Paul Ouderkirk, Postville’s Roman Catholic priest. Ouderkirk previously had ministered in other Iowa and Texas slaughterhouse towns. In those other plants, Ouderkirk said, the workers had been less afraid to speak up and had labored in more tolerable conditions.

Workers also reported that management threatened to fire them or call immigration if the union won the campaign.

The labor movement is divided, however, about the best way to move forward. The AFL-CIO is heavily involved in the current immigration debate, calling for an immigration system that protects all workers within our borders—both native-born and foreign. The federation’s policy focuses on the reasons why people are coming to the U.S – the failure of Latin American country’s economies due to the North American Free Trade Agreement — that is causing Latin American workers to flock to the United States in a desperate search for jobs to support their families. The AFL-CIO is opposing the guest worker program supported by the Bush’s administration and the Senate in a recently passed immigration reform bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy and Republicans John McCain:

We’ve seen employers turn tens of thousands of permanent, well-paying jobs in the United States into temporary jobs through the use of various guestworker programs. The temporary guestworker jobs come with few or no benefits, lower wages and often are staffed through temporary agencies, whose fees come out of workers’ pockets. The foreign workers recruited to fill these jobs remain legally tied to the employers that recruited them and are thus naturally vulnerable to exploitation.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose memberships included large numbers of immigrant workers, on the other hand, is supporting the Guest Worker program. SEIU heads the Change-to-Win coalition, the group of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO last year. While both SEIU and the AFL-CIO any immigration program should be accompanied by full protections and the promise of a path to citizenship, SEIU believes that guest workers program is the best way to move forward, while the AFL-CIO things a guest worker program will just create a group of second-class workers.

But a shocking series by the Sacramento Bee last year showed that just because immigrant workers are here legally doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be abused. The Bee reported on the 10,000 “pineros” working in the US forests who are hired legally on H2B visas, at the invitation of the federal government, to plant trees across and thin fire-prone woods out West as part of the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative. The story told of immigrant forest workers who

are gashed by chain saws, bruised by tumbling logs and rocks, verbally abused and forced to live in squalor. Rainstorms pummel them. Cold winds sweep over them. Hunger stalks them. And death claims them. Across Honduras and Guatemala, 14 guest workers lay in tombs, victims of the worst non-fire-related workplace accident in the history of U.S. forests.

The paper reported that federal officials overseeing the work witness the mistreatment and wretched working conditions. But they don’t intervene. And, where government oversight of contractors exists, it’s often inconsistent.

Community Activity

The good news is that there are more community groups working to ensure safe working conditions for immigrant workers. In Boston, a project called Project COBWEB (Collaboration for Better Work Environment for Brazilians in Massachusetts) has been organized to educate and organize immigrant teens about the workplace violence hazards of retail work is being organized. Organizers include parents of teens who have been killed, staff from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the Massachusetts Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health (MASSCOSH).

Some community coalitions are working with the federal government as well. Justice and Equality in the Workplace, is a Houston based coalition organized in July 2001 to help inform Hispanic immigrants about their rights as workers and to uncover illegal employment practices and discrimination.

The coalition is made up of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance and Wage and Hour Division, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Mexican, Colombian, Guatemalan and El Salvadorian consulates, the City of Houston, the Harris County AFL-CIO, the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Hispanic Contractor’s Association in Houston, the Associated General Contractors of America’s Houston chapter, the Houston Chamber of Latino Business Owners and, lately, OSHA. The coalition uses billboards, fliers and videos to advertise a central telephone number for immigrants to call if they are being mistreated or become aware of violations.

The tips are then passed along to the EEOC’s Houston office, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and OSHA. The program has been effective, leading to discrimination lawsuits, payments of back wages and OSHA investigations. 


Because of the inherent problems with OSHA, immigrants legitimate fear of their employees and immigration authorities, the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program study found that the best solution may be for OSHA and state authorities to provide grants and other resources to organizations that workers trust:

community-based organizations, clinics, and worker advocacy groups that work with, or provide services to, immigrants. This will allow them to provide training and educational materials for immigrant workers and also serve as an extension of governmental workplace health and safety agencies by reporting possible labor law violations and injury/illness cases.

Ultimately our worth as a compassionate people depends not so much on whether we let immigrants across our borders, but how we treat them when they get here. Right now, we’re not doing too well.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space .

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Jordan Barab

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