Home Business & Industry Low Wages, High Risk: Immigrants in Danger

Low Wages, High Risk: Immigrants in Danger

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Immigrants tend to work in more demanding and dangerous jobs. Consequently, they tend to suffer disproportionate injuries and illnesses related to work when compared to other workers. Immigrants fulfil a crucial role in the American economy. If not for immigration, the US population would decline and, likely along with it, economic growth and opportunity.

Immigrants and workplace injuries

According to data from the American Community Survey and Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatal injury rate for Hispanics was 4.0 for every 100,000 workers, while it is 3.7 for White and 3.5 for Black workers. Immigrant workers comprise 15% of the working population, but make up 18% of the workplace fatalities. According to research conducted by Orrenius and Zavodny, 3,000 immigrants were killed while working, with homicide being the leading cause of workplace deaths.

Declining workplace fatalities but not among all workers

Since the 1970s, the United States has steadily reduced workplace injuries and fatalities. The most dangerous industries continue to be mining, agriculture, logging, and construction, but even among those industries, workplace deaths are on the decline. However, even as worksite safety improves, immigrants’ share of workplace fatalities has steadily increased, indicating that safety improvements don’t protect all workers.

From 1992 to 2005, the share of workplace fatalities attributed to immigrants has increased from 10% to 18%. Moreover, immigrants, particularly Hispanic workers, tend to concentrate in small businesses where workplace injuries are underreported; therefore, the full scope of workplace injuries and fatalities is likely higher. Immigrant workers may hesitate to report injuries for fear that they could lose their job or due to an inability to afford missed shifts. Immigrant workers tend to occupy positions that don’t offer life insurance or supplemental benefits, further compounding the economic pressures faced.

Finally, the power imbalance between immigrants and their employers is substantial. Many immigrants risk their legal status if they lose their job. Undocumented immigrants are even more reliant on their employers for income and protection. These power imbalances tend to suppress workplace injury reporting among immigrant workers. These factors suggest that immigrant workers suffer injuries at far higher rates than official figures indicate.

Immigrants work in riskier jobs

Immigrants tend to occupy jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and disgusting. These are jobs that native-born Americans eschew. For example, almost the entire California agriculture industry is populated by immigrant Latino labourers. These workers are exposed to pesticides, heat exhaustion, and other harsh conditions on a daily basis. These immigrant workers often suffer from ‘chronic kidney disease of unknown origin’, which research suggests is caused by heat exhaustion.

Research is inconclusive as to why immigrants tend to occupy riskier jobs. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that language barriers, legal status, skill, network, and knowledge of US labour markets and customs combine to pressure recent immigrant workers into more dangerous jobs. Some studies have found that the longer an immigrant lives in the US, the more likely it is that they will occupy safer job positions because they are more assimilated to US culture and customs.

Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.

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