December 26, 2014

Obama’s Immigration Plan Could Cut Injury Risk for Undocumented Workers

By Jonathan Damashek

Posted in

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In areas such as Manhattan where skyscraper construction is booming, President Barack Obama’s immigration order could be a lifesaver for undocumented workers.

Obama’s executive action, which protects 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation through work permits, could give undocumented workers more leverage in fighting for safer working conditions that could reduce injuries and fatal construction work-site accidents, according to an article in the New Republic.

Undocumented Latino and immigrant workers often put themselves in greater danger of workplace injuries because they are fearful of being fired or deported by construction bosses if they speak out about unsafe work conditions, according to a 2010 study in the American Journal of Internal Medicine. The study found Hispanic workers are 30 percent more likely to be injured on the job than their white counterparts nationwide.

In New York State, meanwhile, 60 percent of fall-related deaths or injuries involved immigrant workers from 2003 to 2011, the Center for Popular Democracy found.

Even those figures are likely to be low because many illegal immigrant workers fail to report injuries out of fear they’ll be fired or deported.

The problem is especially prevalent in Manhattan where nine skyscrapers are under construction and three new World Trade Center towers are standing to replace those that fell on 9/11. Competition for jobs is fierce, too, as contractors look to keep costs as low as possible. Non-union work sites are likely to tap into the undocumented worker field and then cut expenses further by eliminating safety training and equipment, according to the advocacy group of the New York Center of Occupational Safety and Health.

As a result, undocumented workers often go without basic protection such as helmets, harnesses and secure scaffolding. And if they do get hurt, construction companies can, more or less, pretend they don’t exist because they have little legal footing.

The president’s executive order could give workers a foundation to protect themselves from unsafe work conditions and to seek proper health care if they do get hurt on the job.

Enforcement lacking

Though Obama’s order could provide illegal immigrants with more protection, more enforcement of safety regulations is needed as well. Too often, undocumented workers are poorly trained on safety requirements and can’t communicate their concerns or fears because of language barriers.

For example, construction workers in New York State are required to take a 10-hour safety-training course from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Employers are supposed to be held responsible for fall-related injuries through the state’s Scaffold Law.

But OSHA is short of the staffing needed to inspect construction sites thoroughly, and its fines and orders don’t go far enough in stopping violations, according to the New Republic article.

Fake OSHA-10 training certificates are spreading throughout work sites, even as a Public Citizen report showed 72 percent of New York City’s work-site deaths in 2011 and 2012 took place where workers received no state safety training.

The Worker’s Justice Project based in Brooklyn is trying to bridge the gap for undocumented workers and give them the same safety protections as workers receive on union construction sites. The group makes safety audits and negotiates with contractors for better wages.

Until undocumented workers have legal protections on construction accidents, they will always be an easy target for exploitation. President Obama’s executive order could set the course for making their lives safer on the job.