Jobs that lure Mexican workers to the U.S. are killing them

March 14th, 2004 by Julie Ferguson

In documenting what is referred to as a “worsening epidemic that is now claiming a victim a day,” a study by the Associated Press (AP) is exploring the reasons why Mexican workers are about 80 percent more likely to die from a work injury than native-born workers, and more than twice as likely to die on the job as other immigrant workers.
Some of the investigations findings:

  • Mexicans now represent about 1 in 24 workers in the United States, but about 1 in 14 workplace deaths.
  • The death rates are greatest in several Southern and Western states, where a Mexican worker is four times more likely to die than the average U.S.-born worker. yet despite this, OSHA has only a single Spanish-speaking outreach worker in its eight state Southeastern region.
  • While Mexican worker deaths were concentrated in the agriculture industry overall, the construction industry was also deadly, and far more so to native Spanish-speaking workers, including Mexicans, than to native born workers.
  • Both AP and an OSHA spokesperson state that these accidental deaths are almost always preventable.

Why this troubling trend? According to the AP report:
“Public safety officials and workers themselves say the answer comes down to this: Mexicans are hired to work cheap, the fewer questions the better.
They may be thrown into jobs without training or safety equipment. Their objections may be silent if they speak no English or are here illegally. And their work culture and Third World safety expectations don’t discourage risk-taking.
Federal and state safety agencies have started to recognize the problem. But they have limited resources – only a few Spanish-speaking investigators work in regions with hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals – and often can’t reach the most vulnerable Mexican workers.
President Bush’s recent proposal to grant illegal immigrants temporary legal protections energized the national immigration debate. Yet in these discussions, job safety has been an afterthought. Meanwhile, Mexicans continue to die on the job.”

Indeed, it would seem that a guest worker program that lacks any provision for worker rights might actually exacerbate the problem. Immigrant workers are already reluctant to speak out about workplace safety violations or to report on the job injuries. This is due to several factors: many workers come from countries that do not have worker protections and do not know their rights here; language is often a barrier; some workers come from cultures where authority simply isn’t challenged, or where on the job risks are even greater than those they face here; and many immigrants are desperate to support families, so reluctant to come to the attention of authorities in any way. If employers are given the ability to revoke guest worker status, who will be protecting already disempowered workers from abuse of that privilege?

Are immigrants currently protected by workers compensation benefits, or does their alien status exclude them? According to the National Employment Law Project, most states do afford coverage:

“The majority of the states’ workers’ compensation laws include aliens in the definition of covered employees. Entitlement to lost wages under state workers’ compensation laws turns on state statutes and their definition of worker or employee. State courts in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas have specifically held that undocumented workers are covered under their state workers’ compensation laws.”
” … like Virginia, a number of other states also explicitly provide for workers’ compensation benefits for “lawfully or unlawfully employed” employees. They are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah.12 There is only one state, Wyoming, which has a statute specifically limiting coverage to documented aliens.”

What can we as an industry do about this troubling trend? Clearly, there are those employers who fall into a category of outright exploiters, and for those, nothing short of enforcement and meaningful penalties will suffice. OSHA is giving at-risk populations some attention in its 5-year plan, yet the agency’s enforcement efforts are stretched increasingly thin under the current administration. The insurance industry should play a leadership role in focusing attention on the issue, simply for reasons of good business sense if not for the moral imperative alone. And for responsible and well-intended employers, a solution begins first, with recognition and awareness of the problem, and second, with meaningful prevention and training measures.

Additional resources:
U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, Compliance Manual on National Origin Discrimination
National Employment Law Project – Immigrant Worker Project
National Immigrant Law Center
Workers Comp Insider – Mandatory English at the Workplace

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