Following a tragic industrial accident that took the lives of five Mexican nationals, U.S. Department of Labor officials launched a detailed workplace safety investigation. Despite findings of safety violations that placed workers at risk, many foreign workers refused to participate in the investigation. This phenomenon is fueling demands for labor officials to better protect noncitizens who fear retaliation for reporting safety and wage violations.
Tragic Accident Shakes Immigrant Community
Last year, in the “chicken capital of the world,” Gainesville, Georgia, a serious industrial accident took the lives of six people – five of whom were Mexican nationals. At least a dozen other workers were injured. Following an investigation into the incident, government officials determined the cause – a nitrogen gas leak – was preventable. According to the Secretary of Labor, Martin J. Walsh, “[s]ix people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable […] The bottom line is no one should leave for work wondering if they’ll return home at the end of the day, and the Department of Labor is committed to holding bad actors accountable.”
Following the incident, federal workplace safety officials proposed nearly $1 million in fines against the four companies involved.
Protecting a Vulnerable Community
According to a recent article by the Center of Public Integrity, survivors of the tragic incident were reluctant to accept medical aid or even speak to federal investigators. Even if the workers are not themselves undocumented, family members or co-workers might be, leading to legitimate fear of repercussions from becoming involved in the investigation. Accordingly, foreign workers in the United States are often disincentivized to report labor violations.
Some advocates are urging officials from the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to work together to offer immigrants incentives, including temporary work permits, for cooperating with investigators. Such permits would ensure that immigrant workers need not risk deportation if they report potential violations.
Reporting Labor Violations
A recent series, Cheated at Work, published by the Center for Public Integrity, dove into the issue and found similar issues for the immigrant population. Despite having full rights to confidentially report violations under the law, many foreign workers were not eager to do so. This phenomenon may be related to the fact that a guest worker’s visa is inherently tied to their employer. Workers fear that reporting violations may jeopardize not only their job, but their very presence in the United States.
The reality is that federal and state laws prevent workplace discrimination and offer remedies for violations of labor laws. Indeed, agencies are in place to protect workers regardless of their immigration status. These include the Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Their protections extend to foreign workers, guaranteeing minimum wage, overtime pay, breaks, tips, health protections, and safety protections.
The tragedy in Georgia highlights the real-life consequences of workplace violations. It should go without saying that workplace safety is crucial no matter one’s citizenship status. It remains to be seen whether government officials will consider extending protections to foreign workers who report labor violations. To learn more about this blog post, or if you have any other immigration concerns, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (484) 544-0022.