Migrant Labor and the Occupational Health Standard in the United States
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, most farmworkers in the United States—72 percent—were born in foreign countries. By far the most common nationality for migrant labor in the U.S. is Mexican: 68 percent of all farmworkers in the country are Mexican-born. Farming isn’t the only industry dominated by this type of labor, either. According to the Chicago Tribune, immigrants also account for 31 percent of workers in the hospitality industry and 22 percent of workers in the foodservice industry.
Migrant labor is clearly a driving force behind several of the biggest and most important industries in the United States economy. Despite the critical roles migrant workers play, they are often exposed to a disproportionately high level of workplace risk. In fact, these workers are statistically more likely to be injured or killed on the job compared to non-immigrants.
The Risks Migrant Workers Face
One of the most-repeated theories about the growing utilization of this type of labor in the United States is immigrants will “take jobs that non-immigrants won’t.” These jobs are often considered to be undesirable due to factors like low wages and long hours. Many of them also involve hefty amounts of physical labor or work in environments or situations that are inherently riskier than any office desk job.
These elements all contribute to the occupational health and safety of migrant workers, but they don’t explain by themselves why migrant workers are at a higher risk than non-immigrants. There are workplace hazards involved in any job, from slipping on wet floors to lifting heavy objects. These risks are essentially universal and could theoretically impact anyone—from non-immigrants working high-paying office jobs to migrants working on construction sites.
Why Migrant Labor Presents Additional Hazards
There are several reasons this form of labor tends to be less safe, and they almost all have to do with a cultural divide. These risks include:
- Language and cultural barriers
- Documentation status
- Lack of education
- Overexertion or long hours
- Contractual terms
- Employer ethics
Migrant workers are often unaware of what their legal rights are under the law. Even for undocumented immigrants, the United State Constitution provides protections against abuse, exploitation, sexual harassment, underpayment, unsafe workplace conditions, and more. Unscrupulous employers will often exploit migrant workers, either assuming they don’t know their rights or won’t speak up for fear of getting fired or deported. These circumstances lead many migrants to work without contractual wage guarantees or for less than minimum wage. They also frequently lead to human rights violations, including extremely long work hours, physical hazards, health hazards, and a lack of workplace standards.
Making Migrant Labor Safer
By far the biggest danger for migrant workers is a lack of ethics. Ethical business owners will seek to offer safe working conditions, fair compensation, reasonable hours, and legally-compliant standards for all employees—migrant or not. Even in safer workplaces, though, accidents happen that put migrant workers at risk. Many migrants, unlike their non-immigrant counterparts, do not have health insurance and cannot pay for medical care. As such, even minor workplace injuries or work-related illnesses can be a big problem for laborers.
The good news is help is out there. Recently, Mexico hospitals have been stepping up to aid in medical repatriation for migrant workers. By repatriating Mexican-born immigrants to their home country for medical care, these hospitals can provide more affordable care in a high-quality environment.
At Allista, we have been working with patients, patient families, and Mexican hospitals to build a better and more ethical standard for medical repatriation. With migrant labor continuing to grow in the United States—and with risk levels still high for Mexican immigrants taking jobs far from home—we believe we are playing an essential role in protecting a group of people for whom protection is often hard to find.
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