November 9, 2001

Commentary

Latinos face danger on the job

By Linda Chavez-Thompson

The price of coming to America should not be death in a dangerous workplace.

The fatality rate for Hispanic workers in the United States is 20 percent higher than for other workers, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Many Hispanics at highest risk are immigrants who end up working in construction, meatpacking and agriculture.

It's only partly true that these industries are inherently more dangerous.

But it's also true that these jobs become more dangerous when employers hire immigrants and then refuse to provide safety training or allow them to speak freely about working conditions or to join co-workers in making the workplace safer.

The first step to ending deaths and serious injuries among Hispanics and immigrant workers is to ensure that immigrant workers have the same rights and freedoms as other employees. This means training workers to report on dangerous conditions. Currently, thousands of immigrants are lured to the United States by employers who know their new hires don't have legal documents. These employers are fully aware that their workers are less likely to raise concerns about hazardous working conditions because they fear being fired or deported.

But to their credit, some employers have tried to address the problems. Some construction companies create Spanish-language videos on the dangers of construction work, and some employers hire supervisors who can speak Spanish and warn of hazards.

However well intentioned, such moves are not sufficient in making jobs safer for immigrants.

We must also improve national employment policy toward immigrants. Employers who hire immigrant workers should be responsible for following federal job-safety laws, and they should face stiff penalties for failing to do so. And immigrants who currently must live in the shadows of our society because they don't have legal documents should be granted legal status without being chained to a particular employer in the fashion many current guest-worker proposals suggest.

Immigrant workers are a major part of our economy and society, and millions of immigrant families are paying taxes and are contributing to our communities. They have dreams for their children and concerns for their own safety just like everyone else.

We are a nation of immigrants. If we are to remain the beacon of freedom we claim to be, the price of getting to America should be commitment, hard work and contributions to community, not death.

Linda Chavez-Thompson is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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