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Undocumented workers face worst hazards on the job
Injured and cast aside

November 3, 2006 | Page 6

NICOLE COLSON reports on how the epidemic of workplace injuries and deaths has hit immigrants the hardest.

GOING TO work can be hazardous to your health--that's the grim truth about U.S. workplaces today.

According to a study released in April by the AFL-CIO, on an average day in 2004--the latest year for which data was available--152 workers died as a result of workplace injuries and diseases, and another 11,780 were injured on the job.

In theory, workers injured while working are entitled to protection under the law--workers' compensation, for example, to provide for health care expenses, a portion of wages while they are unable to work, and restitution for preventable injuries.

But Corporate America is practiced at avoiding responsibility for on-the-job injuries--tying up compensation claims endlessly in court, lying about job conditions that workers are exposed to, or accusing workers of "faking" their injuries.

And for undocumented immigrants--some of the most vulnerable workers in the U.S.--the battle for justice when they are injured at work is even harder. Many employers view these workers as disposable--good enough to work for substandard wages under often dangerous and grueling conditions, but easily cast aside if they fall victim to on-the-job injuries.

Statistics show that Latino employees, in particular, face increased dangers on the job compared to other groups of workers. Of the foreign-born workers who were fatally injured at work in 2004, 60 percent were Latino, according to the AFL-CIO.

According to the Chicago Tribune, while non-Latino workplace fatalities dropped 16 percent between 1992 and 2005, Latino workers' deaths jumped 72 percent during the same time.

One reason is the disproportionate concentration of undocumented workers--particularly Latino immigrants--in the most dangerous and least regulated industries. According to the Pew Hispanic Trust, undocumented immigrants constitute a quarter of workers in the meat and poultry industry and more than half of workers in the agricultural industry--two of the most dangerous sectors of the economy.

According to a September report by McClatchy Newspapers, in one national study, university researchers surveyed 2,660 day laborers, most of them undocumented. One in five said they had suffered a work-related injury. Among those who were hurt in the last year, 54 percent said they didn't receive the medical care they needed, and only 6 percent got workers' comp benefits.

That includes men like Raul Rosas. Five years ago, Rosas was paralyzed when a tree he had been hired to remove fell on him.

"The guy he was working for didn't even want to call the ambulance," Ramon Canellada, a disability coordinator at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital on Chicago's South Side, told the Chicago Tribune.

Since he became paralyzed, Rosas has had to raise money for his own secondhand wheelchair by selling fruits and vegetables at a stand. He pays $300 a month to live in the corner of a basement apartment, which he shares with two other men. When interviewed by the Tribune, Rosas was ill--suffering from a stomach infection, but had no way to afford doctors' visits or medication.

Since the accident that paralyzed him, Rosas has not received workers' compensation, or any subsidized therapy or help paying for his medications--because he is undocumented.

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AS TIM Bell, executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, explained in an interview, "A lot of the workers that are hurt are temps, staffed by day labor agencies...The temps are put on a lot of the dangerous jobs, because the companies don't really have any incentive to provide safe working conditions for them, because [the companies] aren't responsible for workers' comp insurance, the temp agencies are.

"And the temp agencies are really good at getting the workers to be afraid to file claims, or keeping people in the dark about what their rights are. They move them from workplace to workplace, and workers have almost no information about health and safety, about what their rights are, and about what to do if they are hurt."

In theory, under most state labor laws, undocumented immigrants are entitled to compensation for on-the-job injuries. But some states--including Florida, Michigan and Kansas--allow companies to limit benefits or even fine injured workers who are caught using phony Social Security numbers--a common practice for undocumented workers to get work.

Also, small businesses, as well as much of the agricultural industry--with its disproportionate number of undocumented workers--are frequently exempt from having to provide workers' compensation.

Even when a business is not exempt, bosses will frequently accuse workers of lying about their injuries, or even threaten them with deportation if they file a claim.

As one worker at a Nebraska Beef meat processing plant in Omaha, Neb., explained to Human Rights Watch in 2003: "If you hurt your back or your shoulder, something they can't see, you go see the nurse. She tells you there's nothing wrong and gives you Tylenol and says go back to work. If you're still hurting, they send you to the company doctor. He says you didn't hurt yourself in the plant, go back to work.

"Then you go see a lawyer to file a claim. On the paper, it says you have to sign your real name and swear to it. A lot of people stop right there. Their work name is not their real name...So nobody wants to file even if they obviously get hurt in the plant. Then you go to a hearing in front of a judge. The company lawyers ask you how you got the job, are you here legally. People are afraid to answer."

As Bell added, "These are Spanish-speaking people. They don't get a lot of training on unsafe working conditions...Companies see them as people who aren't going to complain and are not going to file claims if they get hurt. They give them some pocket change, or they'll send them to a company doctor, and the company doctor will cover up what happened, and the worker won't be able to do anything."

Bell recounted one case from Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago. "A worker got killed--got run over by a forklift," he said. "It was a permanent worker. The company brought in a priest to give a mass, took up a collection from all the coworkers, so whatever the coworkers contributed to the mass, to help give the family, that ends it. It was like a total of $5,000 that they gave to the family."

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UNDER THE current system, according to Bell, "Immigrants go into the shadows. It makes them more exploitable and more afraid to complain...A more intelligent strategy would be to go after the companies." But politicians have shown little concern for the lives of immigrant workers.

In December 2000, when an organizing drive was underway at Nebraska Beef--which had a long record of workplace safety violations, including employing underage workers--the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) raided the plant.

When the raid occurred, one worker told Human Rights Watch, "There was a feeling of panic because so many of us are undocumented. We couldn't get out; the doors were blocked. A bunch of us hid in the coolers for more than two hours. We were freezing in there. Some other people hid in other places in the plant. We were the lucky ones. They deported more than 200 workers."

"The next day," according to another worker, "the company had us back at work with the lines going the same speed as before the raid. But we were missing more than 200 workers on the lines. They said they'd fire us if we didn't keep up."

While workers faced deportation, speedups and company retaliation, Nebraska Beef managers--who were alleged to have been transporting undocumented workers from Texas and Mexico, and providing them with fake documents--didn't even get a slap on the wrist.

In a sick twist, the federal case against three managers was dismissed--because the witnesses that prosecutors needed to make their case had all been deported.

Under the Bush administration, this pattern of punishing workers has continued. In July 2005, ICE agents posed as members of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. Four dozen workers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Ukraine were arrested when the turned up to a "mandatory" health and safety meeting.

According to Bell, the only way to end this kind of exploitation is if undocumented workers have equal legal rights with their documented counterparts. "If you put [undocumented workers] on the same playing field, with the same rights, then you don't have any incentive for employers to exploit them," he said. "You have to have a legalization program to raise standards for everybody--that's the bottom line."

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