Sunday, September 03, 2006

Fear of retaliation trumps pain - Deaths, injuries on the job soar for illegal immigrants

While fewer American workers are killed yearly on the job, that’s not so for Latinos. An explosion of immigrant workers has created a throwaway workforce. Hungry for money, they take the most dangerous jobs. They rarely complain, and when hurt, rarely get help. An occasional series about workers at risk.

Fear of retaliation trumps pain - Deaths, injuries on the job soar for illegal immigrants
By Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 3, 2006

Before the accident, he had warned the owner of the small Diversey Avenue dry cleaner that the pressing machine was old and dangerous. But his boss told him to forget about it and Mario, fearful of losing his job, didn't say another word.

Then one day last winter the massive, steaming press collapsed on Mario's left arm, melting the skin, mangling his fist and costing him a $5.70-an-hour job. There was no health insurance, no worker's compensation benefit and no severance pay offered, Mario said.

"If you don't have papers, you work eight or 10 hours a day, six days a week, and you don't complain," said the muscular, middle-age illegal immigrant from Mexico.

Much of the furor over immigration reform has been about whether undocumented workers like Mario should be allowed to stay in the U.S. or made to leave. But beyond that debate lies an undeniable fact: They face disproportionate dangers on the job.

For most Americans, the workplace is a much safer place than a decade ago. This is not the case for many Latinos, who remain trapped in an earlier, more brutal era of industrialization. They lead throwaway lives and their plight is nearly invisible because so many live in the shadows.

Over the last decade Latino workers' fatality rates have soared, outstripping their share of the workforce. With more Latinos on the job, many suffer a hefty dose of injuries from some of the most dangerous jobs, according to government statistics and interviews with union, workplace safety and public health experts, as well as workers.

They are vulnerable because many are immigrants who are illiterate in English, have little understanding of American culture and are grateful for any job, no matter how dangerous. And because many are undocumented immigrants, afraid of being deported, they often don't ask questions and don't challenge the boss.

"They shouldn't be dying and they don't even have the same rights to complain. Being illegal, they fear retaliation. This is assuming that they know that what they are doing is dangerous," said Jordan Barab, a workplace safety advocate in Washington, D.C., and a former union health and safety expert.

Because they are not part of mainstream society, there is no clear picture of how many undocumented Latino immigrants are injured or killed on the job. Any statistical evidence is incomplete. But Latino illegals are widely assumed to constitute the bulk of the nation's estimated 7.2 million unauthorized workers, and most experts say they have driven up the casualty count.

Those who know most and are willing to talk are the doctors who try to mend them, the compensation lawyers who try to get their medical bills paid, and the helter-skelter network of day laborer centers and others who strive to find them help and protection.

At Stroger Hospital, Dr. Rachel Rubin, the head of occupational health, reached through recent hospital files and pointed to a number of injuries suffered by Latino workers.

Here was a construction worker who didn't have the right lifting equipment to raise a wall with two others on a very windy day. Half of the workers were missing that day, but the crew still had to do the same work. A wall landed on one man, and he had to be pulled from under it. His back was badly hurt.

Here was a worker who wasn't told to wear a hardhat. A brick, falling from the fifth floor, hit him on the back of the head. He suffered severe headaches and back pain.

Here was a worker on an aluminum ladder installing siding at a commercial construction site. He had no safety equipment, no training and no boss to explain what to do on the job. He got an electrical shock and fell face down from about three stories. It was his first day on the job. He had bad burns and multiple injuries.

The tragedy of such cases, Rubin said, is that they represent many others "who are exploited and put into dangerous situations without appropriate training."

Lawyer John Budin, who regularly is consulted by injured workers, said it's common for bosses to refuse to pay medical bills or to warn undocumented employees against filing a worker's compensation complaint.

"I had a guy come in this week whose boss said, `I'll call immigration and get you deported back to Mexico if you file,' " he recalled in an interview last month. The worker, he added, is worried and thinking it over.

First instinct is to hide

When Antonio Cabrera, a 25-year-old Guatemalan, was badly injured in a Chicago construction accident, he was so petrified he hid instead of getting immediate help.

Eager for work and in debt $6,000 to the coyote who had smuggled him to Chicago, he took a painting job on the North Side last spring. The pay was about $7 an hour. Back home in rural Guatemala, where his wife and four children still live, he had earned $4 a day as a farmer.

It had started to snow, and he was the last of the painters to quit, suspended in a swing three stories above the ground. Usually, his team would use a back-up rope for safety, but this time, for some reason, he said there wasn't one for him.

As he began to lower himself, the rope broke and Cabrera plummeted to the street, landing first on his left foot. Passersby called the police, but hearing the approaching sirens his colleagues panicked and hid him in a nearby car. A bone was sticking out of his foot, so they covered it over with a blanket.

When police arrived, he and his co-workers insisted he was OK and did not need any help.

They feared being turned over to immigration officials.

"I was afraid and they were afraid, too," he recalled.

Cabrera was lucky because he did go to the hospital and his medical bills were covered by the painting company's health insurance. Contacted by the Tribune, the painting company owner would not discuss the incident.

But advocates would question how workers who are so vulnerable they would run at the sound of a police siren could be considered full participants in the workplace system and thus take advantage of its protections.

All Cabrera wants is to heal and go back to work.

A sampling of injury reports in federal files tells many of these kinds of stories of inexperienced and illegal workers getting killed and injured.

In suburban Maryland in May 2004, a 15-year-old from Guatemala was sucked into landscape cleaning equipment and killed. Federal officials say the teenager had never been told how to use protective equipment or how to turn off the machine.

In South Carolina, 15- and 16-year-old brothers, illegal immigrants from Mexico, were killed minutes after they began working on a trench in 2003 when the walls caved in.

Language barrier can be fatal

The failure to communicate may have been fatal for a 16-year-old Latino youth who fell from a construction project and hit his head in May 2004 in South Carolina. The construction boss told the crew chief to take him right away to a hospital. The boss later told federal officials that the crew leader usually understood English. But the leader took the youth to his home and gave him aspirin instead. The teen died that night.

"We have investigated a number of cases where the victim was Spanish-speaking and the training was only in English, and there was little or minimal attempts to translate it into Spanish," said Dawn Castillo, an official with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the research arm for the nation's worker safety and health effort.

Jorge Mejia was doing day construction work in Chicago, hired off the street, when he nearly lost an eye in a fall. He said bosses rarely told him about the dangers of the job, and that day he recalls not wearing any protective equipment. And the boss, who did not speak Spanish, did not urge him to wear any.

There were four of them, standing on a scaffold and trying to reach the building. But the crew was not close enough, so three workers leaned toward the fourth as he stretched toward the facade.

Just then the scaffold flipped over, and Mejia fell backward, tumbling three stories and hitting the dirt with his back and head. At the hospital, he realized he could only see shadows with one eye.

His back also was badly hurt, and he can no longer lift objects the way he once did. His muscular build is deceptive and helps him get jobs.

Because of his health, he stopped working full-time. He takes easier jobs two or three times a week, but his earnings are not the same as before.

Despite his back pain and fear of going blind in his right eye, he plans to stay and keep sending money home to his family in Mexico.

"Here I can make $200, $300 in a few days. That's better than $40 a day in Mexico."

When these workers get hurt, they aren't the only ones to pay for their injuries.

Public health facilities have to swallow the emergency room bills of injured undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for government support. And then the workers' families have to arrange their own therapy because they cannot receive such support.

And the toll grows.

While non-Latino workplace fatalities dropped 16 percent between 1992 and 2005, Latino workers' deaths jumped 72 percent during the same time. Last year the fatality rate for Latinos was 4.9 per 100,000 workers, a rate unmatched by any other group. They accounted for more than 16 percent of all deaths though they make up only 13 percent of the workforce.

Of all the workplace deaths investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Chicago area in the last three years, half involved immigrants. Federal officials say nearly all of them were Latino.

Confusingly, government figures show Latinos' injuries declining for the last few years, though hardly as much as for others.

But James Platner, head of research for the Washington-area Center to Protect Workers' Rights, a construction union-backed organization, seriously doubts that.

Injuries likely undercounted

The reality, he and others suggest, is that there is a vast undercount of the injuries because Latino illegal immigrants stray far from public facilities and do not report their wounds. If they do get care, they are often reluctant to explain where their injuries took place.

"It is hard to get the real story because they are afraid," explained Dr. Eileen Couture, head of clinical care at Cook County's Oak Forest Hospital.

"You say this [accident] has to be reported and they say, `You don't understand, I need my job. You don't understand, I have to feed my family.' You don't want them walking out, so it is a give and take."

Since 1997, Latino workers in Illinois have had an injury rate twice that of others, said Dr. Linda Forst at the University of Illinois at Chicago, relying on figures from the Illinois Trauma Registry. Latino workers' rate of amputations for fingers or hands is three times that of others.

As experts explain, some of the surge in workplace tragedies can be tied to the explosion of Latinos in the nation's workplaces and the presence of so many illegal workers. Two out of three Latinos who died on the job last year were foreign-born.

In the case of Mario, the injured dry cleaner, the State Workers Compensation Commission recently ordered the employer to pay his $10,000 medical bill plus four months of disability pay. His lawyer has been trying to collect the money.

"They [the employer] say they won't pay. They plead poverty," said attorney James Geraghty, to whom Mario was referred by other immigrants.

The owner of the dry cleaning business could not be reached, while a daughter, working there, would only say that the accident was Mario's fault.

Meanwhile, Mario, who asked that his full name not be used, is both scarred by the accident and devastated that he can't go back to the work he enjoyed.

"It changed my life," he said glumly in a relative's basement where he has been living. "I was happy before, cleaning, pressing clothes. Now I'm afraid of heat. Now, I can't do anything."



Post a Comment

<< Home