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Monday, Sep 7, 2009, 1:30 pm

New Report: Latinos Have Highest Workplace Fatality Rate

BY Rose Arrieta

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Across the board, labor standards for U.S. workers are eroding. Fewer unions, weak enforcement of labor laws and protections, and years of neglect have created an anything-goes workplace environment for unscrupulous employers.

Not surprisingly, the impact of lowered work standards hits vulnerable populations the hardest. Among them: Latino workers, who face the highest workplace fatality rate in the country, according to an in-depth analysis by National Council of La Raza.

The report, “Fractures in the Foundation: The Latino Worker’s Experience in an Era of Declining Job Quality,” states that at 4.6 percent per 100,000 workers, the Hispanic worker fatality rate surpasses that of many developing nations as well as the U.S. fatality rate.”

The report, released September 1, also found that Latinos are the lowest paid, face a higher rate of wage theft, and endure more dangerous working conditions than any other group.

The report’s authors found that almost 400,000 Latinos joined the workforce in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Many are in service industries and operate in a culture of fear because of their immigration status.
According to the report, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration documented a 6.4 percent rise in violations of standards and regulations since 2003, including “a rise in willful violations in which employers knowingly violate the law.”
426,000 Latinos work in agriculture, many of whom don’t even have enough water to drink. The report finds numerous violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which requires adequate drinking water and sanitation in the fields.

NCLR, which is the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., analyzed scores of documents and testimony detailing death on the job, occupations with the most Latino fatalities; workplace safety violations; wage theft, no compensation for workplace injuries; misclassifying workers as ‘independent contractors’ and thus being denied basic benefits; and hundreds of other statistics.

The report painted a bleak picture of the workplace in the U.S., an erosion of workplace safety and a disregard for fair pay for the general working population, in particular, workers of color and low wage jobs.

Janet Murguía, president and CEO of NCLR, stated when the report was released that: “Latino workers help us tell the story of what is happening to basic standards in the American workplace. … [it] is a shameful testament to how far our nation has regressed from the laws we enacted to protect all workers.”

Ted Smuckler, public policy director at Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, said, “Where there’s wage theft there are also the same bosses who compromise health and safety, who discriminate, who violate OSHA rules.”

He added, “I would like to point out with wage theft and all the other issues, that immigrants are very vulnerable but that the issue transcends to others. It’s a business strategy of employers to push down the standards in a race to the bottom. No group of workers is immune. Black workers, working students, middle class workers – millions of workers are impacted,” said Smuckler.

The report calls on Congress and the Department of Labor to beef up the number of workplace investigators to enforce labor law in high-risk industries such as construction, farming, factories, poultry and meat packing plants, as well as to start working with community based organizations and worker advocates who are ‘feet on the ground’ in terms of knowing what’s really happening in these industries.
The report also calls on employers who knowingly break the law to face stiffer repercussions including bigger fines and legal consequences and to restore funding for government outreach; and for comprehensive immigration reform “to make immigration policy more responsive to labor market needs, unclog naturalization backlogs, and incorporate stronger workplace protections.”

“In 2008, we estimate there were 750 Wage and Hour investigators for 135 million workers,” said Smuckler. Although the Labor Dept. is hiring 250 new Wage and Hour investigators, many more are needed.

For instance, a full-time OSHA worker, according to the report, has four times the caseload that his or her counterpart had in 1975. The report suggests increasing funding to hire more investigators and that emphasis be placed on hiring bilingual workers as well as devoting half of Wage and Hour resources to targeting high-risk industries.

The stories of worker abuse are endless. “Every time I think I’ve seen the worse case, something more shocking shows up,” said Smuckler.

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Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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