Latino Workers At Risk

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For construction workers, grueling manual labor is just a normal workday, but no one expects to be seriously injured on the job. That was true for Luis Rodriguez. He was a working on a construction site in Texas when he was seriously injured by a drill. “The object cut through my pointer finger from side to side, right at the joint, it completely destroyed my tendons, there was no other solution other than to amputate.”

“I WAS FIRED”

Statistically speaking, Luis was lucky. Latino workers are 14 percent more likely to be fatally injured than all other workers in the country. The number is twice as high for Latino immigrants.

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They die in transportation accidents, they face violence on the job, some are injured by equipment like Luis and others suffer falls like Santiago Barrientos.

He was unloading heavy equipment in a Texas factory when he slipped. He felt a pop in his hip and he couldn’t sit, much less walk. He was crying out for help, meanwhile the other workers just laughed at him.

“I asked the boss to make report of my injury, he kept saying that there was nothing wrong with me,” says Barrientos, “The next day the doctor sent me to work, saying I could only 5 to 10 pounds – I was fired.” 3 years and 2 surgeries later, Santiago says he’s spent more on treatment that he ever earned on that job.

“WE’RE UNDOCUMENTED, BUT WE’RE HUMAN”

A recent report by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement found that these type of workplace injuries are more common with smaller contractors. Those happen to be the companies that are more willing to hire immigrant day laborers.

They don’t always provide the legally required training and safety equipment. Making it worse, immigrants are less likely to report unsafe working conditions. They’re afraid of employer retaliation and deportation. Luis Rodriguez says it’s because they don’t speak English and they don’t know that there’s help for them, “We have the same rights, we’re undocumented, but we’re human.”

It’s not just men who face tough working environments.The American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that Latina housekeepers have the highest injury rate in the country. Especially in the hotel sector, pain and injury are constant. And it gets worse.

Hector Sanchez is the executive director of the LCLAA. “Latinas have the highest levels of death and injuries at work, the highest levels of wage theft,” says Sanchez,“We found in a number of industries a drastic increase in sexual harassment and rape in the workplace.”

INJURED BREADWINNER, HURT FAMILY

When a breadwinner is injured, it affects the whole family. “My family was defeated because I didn’t work,” says Rodriguez, “There wasn’t any cash flow to pay rent, electricity, all that.” Rodriguez is back working now. Barrientos is still recovering, but when he gets back to work, he wants more than just a job. “I want people all over the country to listen to us, to support us, so that there can be good laws for everybody,” says Barrientos.

REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL

There’s optimism in their story too. On the local level, Rodriguez and Barrientos are now activists with the Worker’s Defense Project. Nationally, the Obama administration passed more laws to protect whistleblowers against employer retaliation, even when those whistleblowers are undocumented.

That’s in large part thanks to the work of OSHA and the LCLAA. “We can make sure that we have better working conditions for everybody working, the domestic workers, the restaurant workers, the retail industry, in agriculture,” says the LCLAA’s Hector Sánchez.

The challenge is not just institutional, it’s getting the word out, letting Latinos and Latinas know that even without papers, they have rights.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

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