Workers Pay the Price in an Era of Declining Job Quality

11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barbecues, beaches, and backyard games have been the traditional markers of Labor Day, but in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, loss has replaced celebration. Since December 2007, more than 6.7 million workers have lost their jobs, and countless others have lost their health insurance, retirement savings, and even their homes. As many Americans gathered around the grill to celebrate a day off, millions struggled to find a job to put food on the table and provide other basic necessities for their families.

In these desperate times, many workers have had to enter the low-wage labor market where they endure substandard workplace conditions, risking their health, safety, and lives. While their time at these low-quality jobs may end when the recession is over, for many others this is a dangerous and permanent reality. In too many industries, workers are paying the price for the neglect and sometimes outright disregard of basic labor protections that most of us take for granted. The foundation that we built as a nation to ensure that workers are safe on the job and paid fairly for their work is badly fractured.

A recent report from NCLR (National Council of La Raza), reveals that too often, when employers violate basic labor laws, workers pay the price --s ometimes with their lives. The report, Fractures in the Foundation: The Latino Worker's Experience in an Era of Declining Job Quality, describes how Latinos, who are more likely to die from an injury on the job than any other group, sound the alarm for what millions of workers endure as a result of dangerous, low-quality jobs. The occupational fatality rate for Latinos has remained the highest in the nation for 15 years. In 2007, 937 Latinos were killed by an injury at work. The Latino death toll exposes the state of decay in American workplace health and safety standards; overall, 5,657 workers died on the job in 2007.

When employers violate wage and occupational safety laws, they effectively devalue hard work and workers' lives. It is simply outrageous and unacceptable that a country like ours allows people to work to death.

Declining job quality has other costs as well. On an economic level, our society pays huge, if often hidden, costs for labor law violations and workers' deaths in the form of skewed competition, lost productivity, and rising health care bills. And on a practical level, in a tough job market, an increasing number of workers will experience the effects of the decades-long deterioration of job quality that millions of workers have endured for too long. The strength of our economy depends on the strength of our workforce. Workers, employers, and government all play a part in rebuilding a solid foundation of job quality for a better economy.

Latino workers help us tell the story of what is happening to basic standards in the American workplace. The daily reality of so many of our workers -- low wages, no benefits, and dangerous working conditions -- is a shameful testament to how far our nation has regressed from the laws we enacted to protect all workers. Congress and the U.S. Department of Labor must be held accountable for protecting workers through enforcement of existing labor laws, reform of outdated workplace standards, and investment in community-based organizations for worker outreach, education and empowerment. It is our duty to restore dignity to the American workplace through the protection of all hardworking Americans.