Forty-eight immigrant workers were doing their best to follow the law when they showed up at what they were told was a mandatory OSHA training at their job site in Goldsboro, N.C. The immigrants, from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ukraine, were served coffee and donuts, then arrested and scheduled for deportation by fake OSHA inspectors. The impersonators turned out to be agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, carrying out a cruel and dangerous sting operation.
Who were the real lawbreakers? Impersonating an OSHA inspector is illegal, pointed out an outraged Jesse Rios. Rios, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, was an OSHA inspector himself and is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees
The head of the agency that set up the scam based on impersonating OSHA officers “should be fired for allowing this to happen, “ said Rios.
OSHA is charged with ensuring “every man and woman in the United States of America a healthful workplace.” But the Bush administration has little use for OSHA as an agency to promote the safety of the 100 million Americans in the work force it is charged with protecting. Its budget allows a meager $4 per worker to carry out its mission, and that allotment is being cut $12 million in the 2006 budget.
The U.S. continues to have a shockingly high rate of workplace deaths, a staff person for Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) told the World. Owens is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. In the last 20 years, 170,000 workers have died on the job. A construction worker in the U.S. is twice as likely to be killed on the job as a construction worker in Britain.
There are not enough OSHA agents for routine workplace inspections. “Random-type routine inspections have been curtailed,” said Rios. Rather, the agency depends primarily on worker complaints to uncover dangerous situations. In discouraging workers from complaining, the immigration agents’ abuse of OSHA puts the whole workforce in danger, he said.
The scam was particularly cruel because Latinos, especially immigrants, who are concentrated in hazardous jobs in construction, meatpacking, agriculture and manufacturing, have the highest rate of workplace injuries. Immigrant workers born in Mexico are 80 percent more likely to be killed on the job than their U.S.-born counterparts, according to a 2004 Associated Press study cited by Owens. This increased risk-of-death differential has tripled over the last decade. Owens was “appalled” at the North Carolina OSHA impersonation scam, his aide said, adding, “It will cause enormous damage.”
The Democratic staff on the committee are investigating the incident in order to put together a full report and to address the damage done. Owens is the sponsor of legislation to make killing a worker through willful violation of OSHA rules a felony for the employer. Currently, it is a misdemeanor, with a lesser penalty than harassing a wild burro on federal property.
The cruel irony of the OSHA scam is that lack of workplace safety training is a big factor in the high rate of death and injury to Latino workers. “Employers do not take the time to train them about the chemicals, tools and equipment they use,” said Rios.
Phony safety training may one day be all that’s available from OSHA to any American worker. Every year it has been in office, the Bush administration has proposed to entirely eliminate from OSHA’s budget the $10 million set aside for grants for worker safety training. In its place, they propose substituting Internet training. Up till now, at least, Congress has restored the funding.