Throwaway workers: dangerous jobs take toll on illegal immigrants

Thanks to Jason Barab of Confined Space for alerting me to the publication of this report by Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little of the Chicago Tribune on the occupational injury and death risks of immigrant labor, especially illegal workers. This is not the first not the last news article to be written on this topic. The authors present case studies from around the country. Excerpts:

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.”

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.

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 aboveground. Usually, his team would use a backup 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 police, but his co-workers, hearing the approaching sirens, panicked and hid him in a nearby car. A bone was sticking out of his foot, so they covered it 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.