March 21, 2002, 10:48PM

Show respect for those who do our dirty work


WHAT do cleaning toilets, washing plates and picking vegetables have in common? Undocumented immigrants do these jobs that everybody needs, no one wants to do and few people appreciate. If the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported everyone who got into this country without the nightmare bureaucracy of getting a visa, we would have a national disaster of overflowing toilets, moldy dishes and tomatoes left to go rotten. President Bush recognizes this problem. He is in Mexico now talking with President Vicente Fox about solutions to the crisis of "illegal aliens." One proposal is to let the United States import Mexicans to do our dirty work and then send them home when they're done. They would not have the right to vote or organize unions. They would work for one boss who could fire them and blacklist them at his or her personal discretion. Such a program is already used by big agribusinesses such as Mount Olive Pickle in North Carolina -- the state with the largest worker-visa program, also known as the H2A program. Many undocumented workers came here legally through this special program and are now "illegal" because they fled abhorrent work conditions to find better jobs. Agriculture has always relied on this type of worker but now poultry, meatpacking, construction and other industries are not far behind. What many people fail to understand is that a lot of undocumented workers here have been displaced because of U.S. trade policy. Many small corn farmers in Mexico come to the United States in search of work after U.S. government-subsidized corn hit the Mexican market at prices so low Mexicans can't compete. Likewise, many coffee pickers from Central America arrive when dozens of developing countries, upon advice from creditor banks in Washington, throw all their resources into coffee, causing a surplus that crashes the price and lays off millions of workers. When undocumented workers come here, they do not come to leech off government programs. The father usually comes first to work 12-hour days, six days a week. When he can travel back, he does. If it is not safe for him to get back, he tries to earn enough to pay the $3,000 to $4,000 it costs to smuggle each of his family members across the border so they can be with him. People who serve this country by working hard should be able to do so without fear of deportation. This fear has prevented several million hard-working people from protesting when they're not paid on time, when they face sexual harassment or assault in the workplace and when they want to form a union in order to negotiate reasonable wages and working conditions. Our immigration laws should reflect what our country preaches on economics. Free trade must include freedom to travel to accommodate an open labor market. U.S. foreign-aid agencies should help Latin American countries develop strong economies instead of giving taxpayer money to corporations that buy out their farmland, strip mine their mountains and suck oil from their soil. As a second-generation American of Mexican decent, and a friend of many economic refugees from Mexico, I have spent my entire adult life organizing the farm laborers I grew up working with. As Langston Hughes once wrote about his people, "We, too, are America." We're here; we do your dirty work. Show us some respect. 

Velasquez is the founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO.

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle


 March 26, 2002, 8:19AM

Hispanics die disproportionately in workplace 

Efforts aimed at reversing trend 


While on-the-job injuries and illnesses have decreased, Hispanic workers are dying disproportionately in the workplace, and the Labor Department is trying to reverse that trend. 

Overall, the incidence rate for on-the-job injury and illness dropped 31 percent between 1992 and 2000. And the number of fatal workplace injuries dipped by 2 percent from 1999 to 2000, while in the same time overall employment increased, according to John L. Henshaw, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' report on fatalities for 2000 shows that 815 Hispanic workers, including 494 foreign-born workers, died as a result of job-related injuries, an 11.6 percent increase from the previous year, according to Henshaw, who made his comments before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training on Feb. 27. 

Hispanics accounted for a disproportionate number of workplace fatalities in 2000, according to OSHA. About 13.8 percent were Hispanic, a group that makes up only 10.7 percent of the work force. 

Hispanics are disproportionately employed in the nation's most dangerous industries. The construction industry, for example, represents about 20 percent of all fatalities but only 7 percent of total employment, according to Henshaw. 

And Hispanics comprise almost 15 percent of construction employment, well above their representation overall. 

E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO in Houston, said he'd wager that a lot of the construction-related injuries occur on residential building sites. 

And immigrant workers are also seen by many employers as "throwaway workers," undeserving of the same safe workplace everyone else expects, Wortham said. 

For example, Wortham said, it isn't unusual to see Hispanics in safety training at Ship Channel businesses. 

But they're watching a safety video in English, a language many don't speak, he said. 

Too many times, Hispanic construction workers are so worried about job security that they don't report safety problems, said Jim Lefton, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in Houston. 

Earlier this month, OSHA and the Hispanic Contractors of America signed an agreement to promote safe and healthful working conditions for Hispanic construction workers by creating the Hispanic Workers Task Force. 

The group established a toll-free number for Spanish speakers; a national clearinghouse for training programs, such as videos and written publications, in Spanish; and a Spanish Web site for employees and employers. 

The group also compiled a list of Spanish-speaking employees in federal and state OSHA offices and is strengthening OSHA offices' contacts with police and emergency medical providers. 

And there are private efforts being made. 

Associated General Contractors is putting about 50 workers a month through a free eight-hour safety awareness course that is taught only in Spanish. The program, which has been going on for about a year, is a partnership between the Houston association and the local OSHA office.

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle