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Latino workers are more likely to die on the job. Why?

Latino workers are more likely to die at work than anyone else, and immigrant workers can be particularly at risk.

Jesus Silva Romero fell from a thirty-foot sycamore. Abel Sauceda Quinonez was buried by a collapsing trench. Waheed Etimad was killed while driving an Uber when a van drove the wrong way up Highway 101.

“In 2017, we lost 376 workers,” said Jora Trang, a managing attorney at the labor rights’ organization Worksafe. “That’s more than one worker a day.”

While California has some of the toughest workplace safety laws in the country, the state still loses hundreds of workers a year to accidents. Advocates and state officials say almost all of those accidents could have been prevented.

“It has changed a lot over the years”

In an effort to raise awareness, Trang and other advocates commemorated Workers Memorial Day by setting up a makeshift altar in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Portraits of deceased workers were propped up on the plaza steps, and the event was attended by union representatives and employees from California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA).

Anthony Nuanes stopped by the vigil to pay his respects. A floor layer by trade, he’s a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “We're in the construction industry,” he said. That means “walking under scaffolds, walking on top of scaffolds, being around open wires.”

“When I first started, hardhats weren't mandatory,” he said. He pointed to the twin towers of Oakland’s courthouse. “I worked on that in the 80s, and we were in tennis shoes. There was nobody telling you to put on your safety glasses.”

These days, Nuanes says, employers are required to provide safety trainings. Construction companies also have to keep first aid kits on hand and provide workers with a certain amount of shade and water to prevent heatstroke. “It has improved a lot over the years,” said Nuanes.

In practice, these improvements are experienced by some workers more than others. In 2017, about half of all workers killed on the job in California were Latinos, who are over-represented in potentially dangerous industries like construction and manufacturing. Latinos die on the job disproportionately throughout the US, and the majority of those killed are also immigrants. Newcomers to America’s workforce aren’t always aware of their rights and are less likely to have union representation, which is connected to fewer workplace fatalities.

Workers in low wage industries, especially if they don't have union protection, can be subjected to a lot of hazards,” said former Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum, who was a featured speaker at the Workers Memorial vigil. “If they're too afraid to speak out, because they feel like they could be at risk of losing their jobs, then it can be a real problem.”

And when it comes to non-unionized, immigrant workers like day laborers? “They’re definitely robbing them with the underground economy, paying them cash, not paying into their workman’s comp,” Nuanes said. “Nobody cares about them as much, and that’s not right.”

“It’s hard to work, psychologically”

“It’s very hard,” said Mario Pina, “but at the end of the day, it’s honorable work.”

Pina recently started his own landscaping business, but before that, he was a jornalero, or day laborer, waiting on a street corner to be picked up for jobs. The work has been a gamechanger for his family in Mexico. He hasn’t seen most of his sons in fourteen years, but he’s put all of them through college.

Nuanes told me he didn’t personally know anyone killed on the job. Pina can think of plenty of people. “I saw someone fall out of a tree he was trimming,” he said. “When the ambulance arrived, they announced him dead at the scene.”

“I trim trees too,” Pina added, “so it was terrifying to go to back to work the next day. It’s hard to work, psychologically.”

Pina said he also knows people who’ve died in work-related car accidents. He’s seen day laborers cut their fingers on lawn mowers and chainsaws so severely that they couldn’t work normally again.

According to CAL/OSHA officials and day laborer advocates, most day laborers aren’t given safety trainings on the equipment they’re asked to operate. “Especially if it’s a small contractor on a shoestring budget, there could be corners cut,” said Cal/OSHA’s Juliann Sum. “Sometimes the employers don’t even know what the rules are.”

Pina finds this extremely frustrating. “I was in the Mexican military,” he said. “It took them six months to train me on those guns, because they knew I’d get killed if I wasn’t trained. Why should training on these machines be any different?”

Pina says day laborers need to know what their rights are and insist that their employers adhere to CAL/OSHA regulations. But low-wage immigrant workers face a range of barriers to labor organizing. While some workers join unions, many day laborers are afraid that employers could use their immigration status to retaliate against them if they organize too publicly. According to day laborer organizers, other workers face language barriers or can’t afford the union dues.

Still, workers like Pina have some options. On May 1st, International Workers Day, Pina walked over to the Oakland Street Level Health Project, an organization he’s worked with for years. A crowd of day laborers, domestic workers, and community activists were busy decorating neon protest signs at a fold-out table. Day laborer centers like this one connect workers with unions, state agencies and legal organizations to ensure their safety. The Street Level Health Project has a delegate on the Alameda Labor Council and has organized trainings with CAL/OSHA representatives.

The group walked together to Fruitvale Station and rode BART to Frank Ogawa Plaza. This time, the plaza was crowded. Aztec dancers performed next to picnicking families, and an aging Communist distributed newsletters to a Brazilian capoeira troupe. Activists made bilingual speeches about immigration issues and workers’ rights.

Pina says he marches in this protest every year, and he hopes that one day, it won’t be necessary.

Crosscurrents ImmigrationOakland
Teresa Cotsirilos was a reporter at KALW covering labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities.