Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Immigrants’

American Workplaces are Safer...But Not for Everyone

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

kari-lydersenU.S. workplaces are getting safer, according to national Department of Labor statistics for the past two decades. But immigrant workers in the most dangerous occupations have not shared in the increased safety, according to statistics and a recent report by seven worker centers nationwide.

On March 9 Arise Chicago Worker Center released their study, done in conjunction with other workers centers, wherein 208 predominantly Chicago immigrant workers were surveyed about their workplace health and safety experiences.

About a quarter of workers reported suffering a work-related injury or illness; and a disturbing 41 percent said they had never received safety training on the job and 31 percent said they were not provided protective equipment. The workers, 88 percent Latino with an average age of 39, worked primarily in low-wage jobs in construction, restaurant, cleaning and maintenance jobs.

Construction is known to be a dangerous occupation, but the survey found even immigrant workers in the other seemingly less-dangerous fields suffered high rates of illness and injury.

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. Because of their immigration status and unfamiliarity with their rights, they often don’t complain. The survey found 59 percent of workers were not aware of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); and 87 percent had never filed a complaint against their employer.

Arise Chicago’s report says:

“Job ghettoes,” where foreign-born groups seeking employment provide a steady stream of workers to jobs that are undesirable to US born workers—in residential construction, agriculture, and service—tend to be the most hazardous jobs and the jobs that fly below the radar of wage and hour regulation. Lack of training and absence of OSHA-mandated engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment are further contributors. Finally, language, literacy, experience, and cultural factors may play a role.

Workers and immigrants rights advocates think official safety statistics for industries including manufacturing, meatpacking and construction greatly undercount injuries and accidents, for this reason. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

The GAO report says:

In 2007, there were approximately 4 million cases in which workers in the United States were injured or became ill as a result of unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, and more than 5,600 workers died as a result of their injuries…The rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses among private sector employers as reported by BLS in 2007 has generally declined since 1992; the rate of worker fatalities decreased from 1992 to 2001, and has remained relatively constant since 2002.

But…

OSHA overlooks information from workers about injuries and illnesses because it does not routinely interview them as part of its records audits…In addition, some OSHA inspectors reported they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after incidents are recorded. Moreover, many workers are no longer employed at the worksite and therefore cannot be interviewed. OSHA also does not review the accuracy of injury and illness records for worksites in eight high hazard industries because it has not updated the industry codes used to identify these industries since 2002.

Arise Chicago cites government statistics in noting that Latino workers are disproportionately impacted by workplace health and safety problems, in Illinois and nationwide. Foreign-born Latinos also suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos.

In Illinois, the fatality rate per 100,000 full time employees has decreased, on average, from 1997-2002. However, Hispanic workers have not experienced the same trend in the State. In addition, Hispanic workers’ average age at death, 34.9, was found to be approximately 10 years lower than non-Hispanic workers, 45.

To mitigate the injuries and illnesses suffered by low-wage and immigrant workers, Arise Chicago recommends increasing both workers’ awareness of their rights and enforcement by government agencies. Workers centers can play an important role, the study says, by offering workers information, support and advocacy. It also recommends support for the OSHA Susan Harwood Training Grants, meant to help improve workplace training and safety. These grants can go to unions, non-profit groups, employers groups and other entities.

The report also recommends increasing penalties for health and safety violations, which now often amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. And it recommends OSHA officials collaborate with workers centers and other community groups who have more grassroots contact with workers. And it says the Department of Labor’s two separate enforcement arms, the Wage and Hour division and OSHA, should cooperate more closely.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 25, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Temporary Workers on the Auction Block? And the Complicated Economics of Immigration

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

kari-lydersenImmigration reform experts propose tying system to labor market, and creating govt.-run auction for temp workers…While also touting economic benefit of immigrants.

DALLAS, TEXAS—Do immigrant workers—specifically, undocumented workers—contribute value to the economy through their labor, taxes and Social Security contributions? Or are they a net drain on government services and a big depresser of wages?

As states consider anti-immigrant bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, this question has been debated hotly by activists on both sides of the immigration reform debate and by economists and other academics. The need for federal immigration reform remains impossible to ignore.

At the Institute for Journalism and Justice’s “Immigration in the Heartland” conference in Dallas Thursday and Friday, experts tried to get beyond rhetoric and politics in ascertaining the concrete economic and fiscal impacts of immigrant workers on the U.S. economy. Among other things, they argued for a reformed immigration system that is strictly tailored to the current labor market, and a temporary worker system based on a government-run auction. They also stressed the importance of understanding the separate fiscal and economic impacts of immigration. The fiscal impact is the direct cost of services, while the economic impact includes the wide-ranging ripple effects of their roles as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Washington Post Writers Group pundit Ed Schumaker-Matos, a Cuban immigrant, cited World Bank, Social Security Administration and other figures while positing that immigrant workers mirror native-born workers in the fact that highly skilled and educated people contribute a net gain to the economy, while low-skilled immigrant workers cost more than they contribute on the fiscal level considering their use of social services, education and healthcare.

But he said the cost of low-skilled workers in using social services and in competing with native-born low-skilled workers must be considered in light of the fact that immigrants of all skill levels do much to grow the economy as a whole.

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And he said that as opposed to decades past where many native-born U.S. citizens were high school dropouts, today only a small fraction of the U.S. population qualifies as “unskilled” and hence in competition with unskilled immigrants for jobs. He noted that studies show immigrants are much more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to start businesses, and that their role as customers and the income they inject into the economy expands the economy and U.S. productivity as a whole.

And he noted that while low-skilled immigrant workers may be a financial drain on local or to a lesser extent state social services, as anti-immigrant critics often charge, their children are likely to obtain levels of education and skill that help compensate for their parents’ effect on the economy by contributing more in taxes than they cost the system.

He said:

Is it an investment in the future or a burden? You don’t say to the local white kids that they’re a burden – they are in fact – they cost more than they put in. But you think of it as an investment in the future.

He pointed out a similar double standard regarding the “stealing jobs” argument.

Just like with natural population growth, the more people you have the more the economy grows. But people don’t stop having children because they’re afraid they’ll steal jobs from their parents.

A recent report by the Dallas Federal Reserve, “From Brawn to Brains: How Immigration Works for America,” noted that only 11 percent of second generation immigrants lack a high school diploma, compared to 30 percent of first generation immigrants. The report says:

One silver lining is that these costs dissipate in the very long run as their descendants assimilate and “pay back” the costs imposed by their predecessors. Economic or educational assimilation is, therefore, a very important piece of the immigration calculation.

Shumaker-Matos added that a less-publicized part of the immigration debate involves (usually legal) high-skilled immigrants, especially in the sciences, who compete with highly educated citizens for those high-end jobs. He said that while high-skilled immigrants may drive down wages slightly in these jobs, the innovation and overall economic and technological growth they contribute expands overall economic efficiency and productivity.

Pia Orrenius—a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve, co-author of the aforementioned report and former advisor on labor, health and immigration to the Bush administration—said that high-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy while low-skilled immigrants are a drain, at least in the immediate sense.

In her recent book, Orrenius proposes an “employment-driven” immigration system that awards temporary work visas without a wait based on the immediate needs of the labor market; rather than the current legal immigration system that according to government figures awards 85 percent of green cards to family members and only 7 percent based on employment.

Orrenius said that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries including South Korea, her native Switzerland, Spain and Italy, which base their legal immigration system primarily on the needs of the labor market rather than family relationships and humanitarian concerns.

The Dallas Federal Reserve report said that:

Estimates from 1996—the most recent comprehensive estimates available—indicate that immigrants with less than a high school diploma cost $89,000 more than they contribute in taxes over their lifetimes, while immigrants with more than a high school education contribute $105,000 more in taxes than they use in public services.

In other words, low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal drain, but overall, immigration need not be. High-skilled immigrants can offset the fiscal cost of low-skilled immigrants.

Orrenius, whose book was published by the pro-business, free market American Enterprise Institute, would like to see a system wherein the government would auction off permits for high-skilled, low-skilled and seasonal temporary workers, and employers willing to pay the most for the permits would legally hire workers. The permits would only be good for a year, with the number of visas constantly adjusted based on the labor market and economy.

She said that under her proposal, workers would be allowed to quit their jobs if they suffered exploitation or abuse of the type common under the U.S.’s current guest worker program. In that case workers would have to find a new employer who had also bought permits, Orrenius said, which she suggested would likely not be a problem in urban areas but could present problems in rural areas with fewer employers. She said immigrants could theoretically petition for green cards – with the numbers awarded also determined by the current labor market – after five or 10 years in the temporary worker program.

Though in theory this might protect immigrants from exploitation by employers, in reality such a system would likely be ripe for abuse, as many immigrants likely would be afraid of leaving their jobs for fear of endangering their visa. And employers unwilling or unable to pay for the permits would likely continue to employ undocumented workers.

Orrenius’ proposed system would allow reunification of spouses and minor children with no wait, but it would greatly reduce the number of other relatives of citizens or permanent residents – a move sure to be blasted by immigrants rights groups. She said:

With an employment-based system, legal immigration would act more like unauthorized immigration. It is demand-based, so it benefits native workers – you don’t want a lot of immigrants coming in when the labor market is doing poorly.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on March 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Labor Day's Legacy: A More Inclusive America

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Amy DeanAt some point in their lives, almost all parents think about making a will to ensure that their assets are passed on to the next generation. But material gains, of course, are the least of what we give our children. Far more important are the values we teach them.

This Labor Day, I propose we think less about the material gains that working Americans have secured for their families over the past century. Instead, we should consider the values that organized labor embodies that we might hope to pass along to our children.

What I inherited from my grandparents — and what I want to see the labor movement impart to the next generation — is a legacy of inclusion.

In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to this country as Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. Although they worked low-paying jobs in the textile and apparel sectors, they were deeply motivated by a vision of building a better society.

Part of their motivation was secular, and part came out of their faith. Their vision of creating a better America involved a politics of mutual aid and mutual support. Working with this in mind, they helped to establish some of the foundational institutions of our democracy. Their generation built hospitals and synagogues. They built public schools. And they built trade unions.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought me from meeting to meeting, where we would hear people talk and argue. They would discuss pooling their resources to take care of someone who was sick, or to bury the dead, or to help a family whose breadwinner had been suddenly thrown out of work. Those informal networks of support, which existed for generations, were the precursors to modern trade unions. In more recent decades, unions have been the means for employees to come together, work in their collective interest, and help provide one another with a measure of economic security.

The result has been profound. Because my grandparents’ generation built unions of textile and apparel workers — as well as unions in other industrial sectors of the economy — their children were able to go to college. Many in the next generation became educators and public servants, and they built organizations of their own. Today’s teachers unions and public sector unions stand in this same tradition of being a bulwark of middle class life in America.

On this Labor Day, we can witness a new wave of immigrants coming to this country with a vision of building a better life. They may come from different countries, their complexions may be different, and they may be more likely to work as janitors or housekeepers than as factory workers. But their hopes and aspirations are the same.

The question for us as a society is: Will we leave a legacy behind of inclusion and preserve our country as the place that the world looks to as a haven of opportunity? Or will we take America down a very alien path, close our doors, and become a nation laden with fear-mongering, scapegoating, and exclusion?

This is an especially important question for Labor Day, because organized labor has been the central institution in our country that has allowed previous generations of immigrants — people like my grandparents — to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. Today, as we work to create pathways that will allow newly arrived immigrants to weave themselves into the civic fabric of American society, a large part of our efforts must be to create a revitalized labor movement, one eager to welcome them into its ranks.

We need look no further than labor’s past to give us direction toward a more inclusive future.

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

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