Senate Hearing Reveals the Dark Side of the American Dream

March 1, 2002
Occupational Hazards attends a Senate hearing devoted to how cultural and language problems can hurt workplace safety for immigrants, who claim they are thought of as "disposable" by their employers.

A Senate hearing devoted to how cultural and language problems can hurt workplace safety for immigrants ended as it began, with two speakers saying precisely the same words:

"Immigrants have a disproportionate rate of accidents and fatalities in the workplace," the speakers said. "We are considered disposable and therefore easy to exploit."

Omar Henriquez, coordinator of immigrant and youth programs for the New York Committee for Occupational Health and Safety (NYCOSH), penned the words for his testimony as a witness at the Feb. 27 hearing.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) chaired the hearing (which was attended by Occupational Hazards) and he found the testimony, particularly the word "disposable," so compelling he used it in his opening statement.

Henriquez supported his statement with Bureau of Labor statistics as well as his personal experience of the hazards faced by workers cleaning up dust and debris - that may contain asbestos and other hazardous materials - in buildings adjacent to the World Trade Center.

Other witnesses talked about their experiences in the workplace.

"We are treated like garbage," said former garment industry worker You Di Liao, through an interpreter. Liao told of how she worked in sweatshop conditions, working 14-hour days before suffering a stroke and injuries in 1997 that kept her in the hospital for 40 days.

Liao complained about low wages, mandatory overtime and the fact that she and others like her have to wait four, eight, or even 12 years to receive workers'' compensation benefits.

In part because it drew a large crowd, Sen. Wellstone''s Employment, Safety and Training Subcommittee''s hearing was unusually informal in a number of respects. Wellstone encouraged people to sit in empty seats on the dais usually reserved for senators. The standing room-only-audience frequently burst into applause. And Wellstone interrupted the testimoney of John Henshaw, administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and politely asked him to wrap it up because of the long list of other witnesses.

Henshaw defended the administration''s approach to immigrant workers'' health and safety by pointing to the recently announced Hispanic initiative. (For more details on this program, see the article "OSHA''s Hispanic Worker Initiative: Lots of Bark, No Bite?")

The three senators attending the hearing, Wellstone, Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), praised the administration''s effort.

But Clinton, picking up on a point made by several witnesses, said she thought the administration''s initiative needed to be "deepened" to include immigrant groups speaking languages other than Spanish.

Enzi, who serves on the Senate''s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, expressed concern that small businesses may have difficulty obtaining the help they need in dealing with immigrant workers.

Wellstone told Henshaw it was a "profound mistake" for the administration to cut funding for Susan Harwood Training Grants from $11 million to $4 million. Henriquez said these grants have been used to reach immigrants and other, often overlooked, groups of workers.

Henshaw explained that the "wartime budget" made the cuts necessary.

It is all but impossible for Henshaw to appear on Capitol Hill without the subject of ergonomics coming up, and this hearing was no exception.

In response to a question from Wellstone, Henshaw assured the senator the administration''s long-promised "comprehensive approach" to ergonomics would be coming out soon.

These words did not satisfy Wellstone, who referred to the fact that it has been almost one year since the administration and both houses of Congress nullified OSHA''s ergonomics standard. At the time, the Bush administration and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao promised a new and comprehensive approach to ergonomics.

"We''ve become impatient and we want to see some action," said Wellstone.

by James Nash

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