There are many ways to measure inequality: the wealth gap, the achievement gap, the gender gap. But we face a hidden gap at work everyday—a safety gap, the line that measures our risk of death and injury on the job. And often, the gap tracks the country’s racial divide, with Latino workers on the wrong side.
According to an analysis of federal safety data by Buzzfeed, “between 2010 and 2013, the number of deaths among Latinos in the construction industry rose from 181 to 231. The number of deaths also rose in the industry overall, from 774 to 796. But Latinos account for this rise entirely: during the same period, deaths for non-Latino construction workers fell from 593 to 565.”
So the chances of surviving a day at work may turn on demographics, often at the expense of Latino workers who pay in life and limb.
The reasons are evident on any typical American street, when you take a look at who is doing yard work, stocking supermarket shelves or repairing your neighbor’s roof. Latinos and immigrants tend to work in low-wage, marginal jobs, often under extremely rough physical conditions, and safety risk comes with the territory. Meanwhile, systemic segregation in the labor force may fuel the erosion of labor conditions.
One demographic study found that from 1980 to 2010, the immigrant portion of the “low-skilled” workforce quadrupled to about half, including many undocumented workers, and this demographic shift was accompanied by “a striking deterioration in the working conditions of the low-skill labor market.”
The fallout is not just in the income gap, it is in the risk gap at work as well. Language barriers, economic disadvantage and lack of training are interlocking problems facing low-wage Latino workers, particularly in scarcely regulated jobs like farm work and construction.
And the poorer workers are, the harder it is to lift oneself out of the dirtiest and dangerous tier of the labor force.
As Occupational Safety and Health Administration chief David Michaels told NBC News last year, “There’s a clear correlation between low wage jobs and unsafe jobs…. Workers in low wage jobs are at much greater risk of conditions that will make it impossible for them to live in a healthy way, to earn money for their family, to build middle class lives.”
A recent report on worker fatalities in New York by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that in 2012, “Immigrant workers died disproportionately in construction”—a rate that reflected the heightened risks they faced due to language barriers, relatively low rates of unionization, and a tendency to be hired by “smaller construction firms and projects [that] were more likely to be cited for violations than the large firms that construct major high-rises and public projects.”
Those risks were among the factors that pushed Ricardo Gonzalez to his death in 2012: he plunged fifteen feet while working on a Queens building site. Despite five major safety citations, the employer’s penalty was calculated at less than $10,500, whittled down through an “informal settlement”—perhaps just a fraction of the value of the project that cost him his life.
In addition to gaps in safety training and regulation on work sites, sheer cruelty can be a factor as well. A worker interviewed in a study on safety education said alienation at work fed into the climate of risk:
The boss, many times, is only looking at a person working, but doesn’t give importance [to the worker] as a human being. Sometimes we’re treated like dogs. Like animals. Then you feel resentment towards that person, and you don’t want to share with them because they mistreat you. But if there is a little bit of consideration and trust then I will feel encouraged to share with them. But if you invite me, and treat me like an animal, I will never feel like even talking to you.
One worker talked about weighing the risk of standing up for their rights against the possibility of getting hurt or dying:
If the person goes to the steward and reports what happened, and a report is done with the problems, and sent to the federal office where they’re supposed to go, maybe this wouldn’t happen. But no one reports it. Everyone complains, but does nothing. Because of the fear of losing the job…. For Americans, that doesn’t exist, because they know their rights. The majority of Hispanics don’t know their rights. And even if they know their rights, they still don’t complain.
It’s reasonable for them to conclude it’s not worth it. Criminal penalties are extremely rare, federal fines for safety violations tend to be pitifully small, and litigation costs tremendous amounts of time and money. Worker Compensation systems are often fraught with bureaucratic delays and entanglements in the claims process.
But while many workers are left to fend for themselves in dangerous jobs, some seek protection through collective action. After Superstorm Sandy pummeled New York in 2012, for example, local grassroots worker organizations immediately rolled in to reach out to day laborers working on disaster sites, providing protective gear, safety training and social support. But a study by Baruch College researcher Hector Cordero-Guzmán concluded that the worker centers still lacked the sustained resources and institutional connections needed to address immediate and long-term safety needs. So the neglect of workers extended to neglect of the grassroots community groups that struggled to intervene.
“There is no way in which we would let parking tickets and parking violations to go unenforced the way that health and safety violations, and wage and hour violations, go unenforced,” says Deborah Axt, co-executive director of the worker advocacy group Make the Road New York. Although there have been promising community-based efforts by advocacy groups and unions to provide workplace safety trainings, she adds, “until penalties are real, employers [will calculate] that it is cheaper to violate the law, and just build some chance of getting some pathetic fine into your cost of doing business…. that will still be the thing that leads to workers’ deaths, to workers not even making minimum wage, and to this drastic income inequality that we see pervading our society.”
In a workforce where security of all kinds is stratified by race and class, safety protection just isn’t “cost effective” for these precarious jobs. But the risk disparities Latino workers face are an outgrowth of overarching social and economic gaps; it’s just that no one minds the gaps until the cost of low wages is paid in blood.