Workers Tell Their Stories at COEH Symposium

Jose Padilla responds to questions at the 2010 COEH Symposium. (Photo by John Minardi)

Workers and community advocates were at the center of COEH's 2010 Symposium, Immigrant Workers II: Voices from the Workplace, putting a human face on health and safety issues confronting low-wage immigrants in California.

Other workers were remembered, such as 17-year-old grape harvester Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez who died while pregnant in Stockton, California, after working nine hours without breaks or water in heat that reached 95 degrees, and Irma Ortiz, 46, a Latina who developed an irreversable lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans from exposure to diacetyl, a product used in the flavoring industry. These injuries were preventable, said co-organizer Marc Schenker, COEH member and professor at the School of Medicine, UC Davis.

In his opening remarks, Schenker drew attention to the words on US currency, E PLURIBUS UNUM, to illustrate the symposium's theme of unity. "Out of many, One." He emphasized, "We come from many backgrounds to form one nation."

Schenker is director of the new Migration and Health Research Center (MAHRC), a joint collaboration launched in September 2009 by UC Davis and Berkeley. MAHRC focuses on research related to acute and chronic illnesses and injuries among migrating populations. It also fosters collaborations with Latin American and international research institutions, as well as local, state and federal governments.

Said co-organizer Robin Baker, director of UC Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP), "What we want to talk about today is the real story—working immigrants and the challenges they face."

Plenary speaker Maria Echaveste, lecturer-in-residence at the School of Law at UC Berkeley, focused on whether immigrant status is a factor in health risk. "When we look at safety and health of the immigrant workforce—do they suffer because of the industry they are in, their status as immigrant workers, or because as foreigners they have related issues like language?" Echaveste asked participants. "We won't come up with the right public policy unless we answer these questions."

Women's health and safety issues are critical to Echaveste. Though women comprised 46.5 percent of the total US labor force in 2008,1 she said little attention is paid to the invisible workers—housekeepers and nannies—who make other womens' participation in the workforce possible.

The Honorable Carlos Felix Corona, Consulado General de México en San Francisco, underscored how undocumented workers are key to the labor force in the United States. They also suffer the greatest number of labor injuries. In 2006, foreign born Mexicans represented 45% of all fatal injuries at work.2

Two influential agreements in 2004 between the Mexican government and the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration shaped new collaborations on outreach and training to help Mexican workers understand their rights for a safe and healthy work environment. "These agreements are examples of how we can work together, but it's not enough," said Corona, who invited participants to meet with representatives of the Consulate on hand to explore future collaborations.

Drawing analogies from current day China, Bob Spear highlighted the global nature of hazards to migrant workers. "The stable village population in the mid 1990's has now changed, and it's occupationally driven," said Spear, former COEH director and professor emeritus, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley. Literally millions of Chinese are migrating throughout the country to service new industries where they are now facing changes in lifestyle and occupational environments, similar to the migrant workers here in California.

Len Welsh, chief, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), said one of the barriers to immigrant health and safety is that workers don't know if they can trust the distinction between Cal/OSHA and US Customs Immigration and Enforcement. Workforce migration is a further challenge, added Welsh. Compliance officers follow-up complaints within three days, but sometimes the worker has moved on by then.

Although resources are in short supply, Cal/OSHA develops intelligence to conduct "sweeps" in agriculture to catch employers in the act of placing workers in unsafe conditions. Even now, California is one of only two states with a tracking methodology that measures how rules and enforcement affect injury, illness and fatality. "The step forward we made was historic," according to Welsh. He reported the downward trend in occupational fatalities from 12 in 2005, half being farmworkers, to none in 2009.

Immigrants like supermarket janitor Victor Enriquez, SEIU–USWW, and Khaled Hamoui from the taxi industry, brought sharp focus to the problematic conditions in which they work. "Money first, safety second,' explained Jose Padilla from the Bay Area Roofing and Waterproofing Apprenticeship program.

Suzanne Teran, coordinator of public programs at LOHP, and UC Berkeley alumnus Garrett Brown, a compliance officer for Cal/OSHA and COEH Advisory Committee member, summarized cross-cutting themes from the symposium's labor presentations: health disparities related to workplace exposure to chemical hazards, the lack of culturally relevant communications and the impact of corporate outsourcing on safety standards. 

"Over the last ten years, many companies have reduced their full-time, direct employees as much as possible, and now there are growing numbers of temporary agency employees who are essentially second-class citizens with lower pay and few benefits in the same work site," explained Brown. "Most of these workers are immigrant workers who 'fall through the cracks' between the temp agency and the site employer." Because there are only 200 Cal/OSHA compliance officers making workplace inspections in the state, Brown said the only way to effectively protect the health, safety and rights of all workers in California is to foster and promote genuine worker participation in worksite safety programs.

"We introduced something new to this year's symposium by having workers at the table," COEH Director John Balmes said in his closing remarks. They showed how the impact of a single voice can prove more powerful than any statistic.


1 US Department of Labor website

2 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, 2009, chart 12

back to top