Immigrant Rights In The Workforce

Immigrants are an imperative part of the American workforce and have been for centuries. In 2017, there were at least 28 million immigrants reported in the United States labor force according to the Migration Policy Institute, and over half of them were employed in jobs that could be hazardous for their health.

Unfortunately, some employers believe that immigrants do not deserve the same rights as American born workers simply because of their citizenship status. Consequently, immigrant workers may also believe they have no right to speak out regarding unsafe working conditions or to seek legal representation if they are injured due to negligence on the job.

Just because an immigrant is employed in a job that is dangerous does not mean they should expect to be injured. It’s important for all New York State and New York City workers to know that they are protected under the law from unsafe and unhealthy work conditions. Spreading awareness regarding the rights of immigrant employees could not only reduce these harmful behaviors but give a voice to a working population that has been severely neglected and taken advantage of in the past.

Higher Risk Jobs

About 17 percent of the American workforce is made up of immigrants and more come to this country looking for work every day. According to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (N.Y.C.O.S.H.) the number of migrant workers in the U.S. almost tripled between 1970 to 2017. Because of certain factors such as citizenship status, educational deficits, and language barriers, immigrant workers ages 16 and older tend to be employed in more hazardous and dangerous jobs than American born workers.

The Migration Policy Institute illustrates these labor trends between immigrant and American born labor trends in 2017 analysis on the United States labor force:

Immigrant Workers:

  • Management, Business, Science and Arts: 33%
  • Service: 23%
  • Sales and Office: 16%
  • Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance: 13%
  • Production, Transportation, and Material Moving: 15%

American Born Workers:

  • Management, Business, Science and Arts: 39%
  • Service: 17%
  • Sales and Office: 24%
  • Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance: 8%
  • Production, Transportation, and Material Moving: 12%

The number of immigrant workers in occupations that are more physically demanding and dangerous are significantly higher. Migrant workers were more commonly seen in positions such as construction,  roofers, electricians, roofers, carpenters, mechanics, maintenance workers, power-line installers, manufacturing,  and farming, where exposed to hazardous materials and machinery was more prevalent.

Higher Work Fatality Rates

While immigrant workers make up nearly one-fifth of the American workforce, they are involved in almost one-third of annual workplace fatalities. According to an N.Y.C.O.S.H. report examining workplace injury and fatality statistics in the New York State construction industry titled It’s No Accident,  there were 196 worker fatalities nationwide in 2012 and 64 of these workers were immigrants.

The disproportionate rates of fatalities, as explained by Annual Reviews, is most certainly linked to the higher rates of exposure to several different occupational hazards, including:

  • temperature related illnesses from working outdoors (extreme cold or extreme heat);
  • exposure to pesticides;
  • exposure to hazardous chemicals;
  • physical injuries from repetitive motions, fast-paced work, or heavy lifting;
  • high workplace demands and stress of losing employment;
  • lax safety standards; and
  • workplace abuse by coworkers or supervisors.

When taking a look at the causes of these worker fatalities, the N.Y.C.O.S.H. report showed that the immigrant construction deaths were all caused by common workplace accidents in the industry including transportation, slips, trips, and falls, and contact with objects or equipment. These accidents are known for decreasing in numbers when proper safety measures and training are put in place, leading to the belief that immigrant employees are not receiving the same safety precautions their coworkers are to help keep them safe on the job.

Unique Occupational Risk Factors

Even in a safe working environment, immigrant workers can be at unnecessary put at risk of injuries or adverse health consequences of the workplace. Annual Reviews reports that migrant workers are more likely to face challenges at work such as:

Language Barriers: Immigrants who are unable to communicate effectively with their supervisors may not know how to report unsafe working environments or behavior of other employees.

Negative Work Culture: Work environments that are segregated between American born and foreign-born workers can create a divide in camaraderie at the workplace. In jobs such as construction where mentoring is extremely important, migrant workers may not receive the same advice and guidance as to their coworkers due to language barriers or prejudice in the workplace.

Toxic Political Climate: Immigration is consistently a hot topic in politics and can cause added stress for employees who face discrimination from supervisors, coworkers, customers, or other individuals they interact with at work. While undocumented workers face high risks of hate crimes and discrimination, documented immigrants can receive the same treatment only by assumptions that they could be undocumented.

Exploitation: In cases of undocumented workers, some employers take advantage of the fear that these workers will not complain about unsafe working conditions to avoid the possibility of losing their jobs or risking deportation. These employers exploit workers by expecting double the amount of work for little pay and do not put the effort or funds into safety training that could protect their lives on the job.

Unfair Wages: Migrant workers who are both documented and undocumented may not stand up for their rights to fair wages. Undocumented workers are two times as likely to experience wage violations than documented workers but both commonly hold back complaints to avoid causing future consequences such as termination from their jobs.

Lack of Health Care: Immigrant workers often lack access to health care that they would need in the case of a work accident or injury either due to lack of knowledge or lack of documentation. If injured at work, they may not seek treatment which could lead to significant long-term health conditions or even death.

Inadequate Safety Training: Safety training that can protect immigrant workers from occupational injuries may not be available to them due to negligent or discriminatory behaviors by supervisors, or could be provided but misunderstood due to lack of adequate training materials for foreign-born employees. An employer who makes it a priority to provide safety training may not be aware they are presenting material in a confusing manner and employees may be too uncomfortable to ask for additional clarification.

Know Your Rights

All workers in the New York State and New York City have the right to a safe workplace, regardless of their immigration status. There are several laws in place to protect the best interests of migrant workers from harmful discriminatory practices at work, but little awareness in the communities they would benefit most.  According to the New York State Department of Labor, immigrant workers are entitled to all the same safety standards as American born employees, including:

  • Report unsafe or unhealthy job conditions;
  • Work in a safe environment free from known hazards;
  • Refuse to do a job that could pose an imminent danger;
  • Contact OSHA to file a complaint;
  • To be educated about hazards in their workplace;

Most importantly, immigrant workers have the rights to report unsafe and unhealthy working conditions without retaliation or discriminatory acts by their employers. A person’s citizenship status has no bearings on whether their lives deserve to be put in danger and employers should be protecting every employee on their worksite sufficiently and equally.

Resources For NY Workers

If you or a loved one are looking for more information and support on your rights as an immigrant worker, NYC Consumer Affairs offers several resources for workers to explore throughout the city where they can find guidance with topics such as education, consumer rights, healthcare, and tips on consumer protection.

Immigrant workers in New York State can also reach out to the New York State Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs. This department serves as the first point of contact for immigrant, refugee, and limited English speaking workers who are looking for advice and support when it comes to their employment rights. Through outreach presentations in immigrant communities and a toll-free hotline, DIPA offers guidance in addressing issues such as:

  • payment wages and wage supplements;
  • minimum wage disputes;
  • wages under work contracts;
  • child labor laws;
  • illegal kickbacks;
  • work hour disputes; and
  • tip appropriate and retaliation.

For more information DIPA services, visit the New York State website.

New York City and Long Island Worker Advocates

At the law firms of Siler & Ingber, our dedicated team has been standing up for the rights of immigrant workers in New York City and Long Island for over 20 years. We understand the complexity of these types of personal injury and employment discrimination cases and the laws associated with protecting the rights of migrant works in our communities. If you or a loved one has been injured or killed due to negligent workplace practices, our winning team of personal injury attorneys is here for support. Contact us today at 1-877-LAW-4343, or reach out online to schedule an appointment.