Temporary and migrant workers face greater dangers and are injured more often in the workplace than regular and permanent workers. According to Sarah Paoletti, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Transnational Law Center, these types of workers face multiple systemic problems which make them more vulnerable to workplace accidents and that also leave them less likely to report unsafe conditions and accidents to authorities and less likely to seek medical help for their injuries.
"There are systemic issues we could point to about why they're in more accidents, but there are also workplaces that are more dangerous than others," Paoletti said in an interview this week with Raw Story.
"You have a host of stories where immigration status is being used to deny particularly undocumented workers their full rights and benefits," she said. "When you take that into the temporary worker arena, there's a whole other layer of problems."
For example, in one case where workers attempting to unionize reported retaliation to the National Labor Relations Board, the company, Hoffman Plastics, brought visa fraud charges against one of the complainants. In the resulting lawsuit, Hoffman Plastics v. the National Labor Relations Board, the employee was found guilty and deported with no regard to the legitimacy of his claim against the company. The Supreme Court confirmed this decision and decided in favor of Hoffman in 2002.
According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, that decision has had a chilling effect on workers' willingness to speak out and has thereby stripped millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. of their ability to file complaints or receive redress for their grievances, turning "a crisis in immigration policy into a human rights problem."
Temporary workers often work in a kind of legal limbo between citizen worker and outside contractor. Many come to businesses through staffing agencies which removes another layer of accountability from employers who can claim that errors in training or lack of safety precautions are the fault of the staffing agency, which operates independently.
In the March 26 story "Death of a Temp Worker," the Center for Public Integrity and Chicago's WBEZ recounted the injury and subsequent death of Carlos Centeno, a Mexican national, was working at the Raani Corp. plant in Bedford, Illinois. Centeno was scalded over 80 percent of his body by a boiling solution of water and acid in an explosion.
Centeno had been provided no safety gear or training. After the accident, supervisors allowed him to lie screaming and in pain, not putting him under the chemical safety showers at the scene, and finally deciding to send him to a nearby clinic nearly 40 minutes after the explosion. Clinic workers immediately called paramedics, who were horrified at what they found. Centeno died at Loyola Hospital in Chicago three days later.
In Florida, a Puerto Rican temporary laborer named Edgardo Toucet suffered a severed penis and testicles and was torn nearly in half in an accident with an "industrial peeler" machine at a carpet factory in 2010. Toucet was not issued safety gear or warned of the hazards of working with the machine, the safety features of which had been disabled.
When asked how these types of stories keep happening, Paoletti pointed to a recent NPR story about two teenagers who died while working in a grain silo in Mount Carroll, Illinois in 2010. Similar deaths have occurred for years, in spite of companies being cited for safety violations.
Even after workplace accidents that result in death and permanent disability, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency in charge of workplace safety, is a largely toothless organization.
"We don't have criminal prosecution powers," OSHA administrator David Michaels told NPR. "We do everything we can within the current regulatory framework. We issue large fines. We go after companies we think are scofflaws. We do repeat visits to the worst companies."
Companies have a legal right to challenge their citations and the amount of their fines. Too often fines get watered down to almost nothing, as in the Illinois case, in which the initial fine of $555,000 was cut nearly in half.
They key to bringing about greater safety and less risk for these workers, said Paoletti, is getting people to understand that migrant workers and low-wage U.S. native workers face many of the same workplace struggles. To do that, people must raise awareness.
"I do think there needs to be more telling of the stories that link the migrant worker to other American workers," she said. "And yet, we either tell the story of the migrant worker or we tell the story of the white American worker. I think more needs to be done to tell the story of how the exploitation of one has a negative impact that results in the exploitation of the other."
"We need to talk about low-wage worker rights as low-wage worker rights," Paoletti concluded, "and talk about the right to work with dignity in a different way so that we change people's perception on basic, fundamental rights in the workplace and who's entitled to them. Those are universal rights."