Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Immigrant workers and occupational safety and health

One of the great things about being a blogger who teaches in higher education is that you get to rip off your students. So thanks to Marlene for getting me a head start on this post. Revere has a post about poultry workers in the U.S. who haven't been informed about the risk of infectious disease from birds. I'm not sure how likely it is that bird flu is actually going to come to the U.S. via poultry, but here are a few facts worth remembering about the people who now bring you breakfast, lunch and dinner in the U.S.

The majority of agricultural workers in the U.S. are immigrants - no surprise. In states with large numbers of immigrants, they also predominate in kitchen work. About half of the immigrant workforce is Latino (people from the Spanish speaking countries of Latin America, predominantly Mexico but increasingly including Central and South America. Puerto Ricans are not considered immigrants, although they are Latino.) Foreign-born Latino workers suffer occupational fatalities at a rate of about 6.1/100,000, compared with 4.6/100,000 for all U.S. workers, according to an analysis by Scott Richardson. Latino men have a 50% higher risk for non-fatal occupational injuries than all workers. And the trend is for increasing rates of occupational injury and death among immigrant workers.

Not only do immigrant workers tend to be in dangerous occupations, they are often unaware that they in the U.S., there are laws establishing workplace safety standards. Undocumented workers, obviously, are generally afraid to assert their rights even if they know about them. Many are paid under the table and their employers do not carry workers' compensation insurance for them. If they are injured, the employer may get them some basic medical treatment, but they will not receive any disability pay or rehabilitation.

The U.S. makes only a symbolic effort to restrict illegal immigration because employers like having a ready supply of exploitable workers willing to work at low pay, in dangerous conditions, who are difficult to organize. By keeping the threat of deportation over the heads of undocumented workers who do surface, while making no real effort to discourage employers from hiring them, the government gives employers exactly what they want. The ethical analysis of immigration of unskilled workers is complicated, and the appropriate policy response is not obvious either. But the fact is, these people are here, getting themselves injured and killed to put chicken on your table.

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