THE BLOG

Make Workplaces Safer With Immigration Reform

05/01/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

One positive side effect of Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform would be an increase in workplace safety and a reduction in the staggering number of fatalities, injuries and illnesses suffered by workers on the job in the United States.

The debate over the most sweeping reform to our nation's immigration system provides added significance as we commemorated Workers Memorial Day on April 28, remembering those who were killed, injured or became seriously ill because of their job.

While it is uncertain what the final language will look like before the bill goes before the Senate and House for a vote, one thing is for sure: reform that will bring millions of workers out of the shadows and into the light will make workplaces safer for all workers -- immigrant and native born.

Over the years we have worked hard to make work safer for men and women and workplace fatalities and injuries have declined significantly. But despite our best efforts, far too many working people -- fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters -- get up and go to work only never to return to their families and loved ones.

On average in the United States, 13 workers die every day on the job as a result of workplace injuries. That's 4,609 workers across the country -- 117 in Illinois -- who lost their lives on the job in 2011 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Latino and other immigrant workers disproportionately hold riskier jobs and are at an increased risk of job fatalities. In 2010, the job fatality rate for Latino workers was 3.9 per 100,000 workers, compared with the overall rate of 3.5 per 100,000.

For latinos born outside of the U.S., the statistics are even grimmer. A 2002 study of immigrant workers in Chicago by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers found that undocumented workers more often experience unsafe working conditions than immigrants with legal status. Of the 729 Latino workers who lost their lives on the job, an overwhelming majority of fatalities -- 500 -- were among immigrant workers.

Sadly, immigrant workers are often taken advantage of by employers because they may lack documents, are unable to speak up because of limited English proficiency or are unaware of their rights as individuals working in the United States. Even sadder still is that fear of retaliation from their bosses or fear of deportation prevents them from reporting safety concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (OSHA underfunding is another story all together; the agency can inspect workplaces -- like the Texas fertilizer plant where an explosion this month killed 14 workers -- an average once every 129 years.)

Comprehensive immigration reform would give millions of workers legal rights and protections to stand up against such abuse as wage theft or safety violations. While the roadmap to citizenship would take several years to complete, immigrants navigating the system would have immediate legal protection and access to new and expanded work visa programs.

Whistleblowers would have added security to speak up to their bosses or even report them to state and federal authorities. Giving immigrant workers a voice at work would not only make their own workplaces safer, but would also have a ripple effect through entire industries, making work safer for all workers.

There are many reasons why comprehensive immigration reform is so badly needed. Making work safer for millions of workers is just one. But it's important to remember as we reflect on the full impact that this broken system has on our economy and our communities. The time for reform is now.