Many immigrants take on tough jobs and this is where occupational safety and workers' compensation come into that picture.
A manual labor workforce with little education and poor English language skills creates challenges for the employer acting in good faith. For the exploiter, those challenges create an opportunity.
It is no accident that the Raeford, N.C.,-based poultry processing firm, House of Raeford Farms Inc., recruited Hispanic workers to fill its production line jobs.
According to a report by the Charlotte Observer, House of Raeford had a predatory safety and injury policy, highly successful until an investigative reporting team blew the whistle.
The company's 800-worker plant in West Columbia, S.C., reported no musculoskeletal disorders for more than four years. Its Greenville, S.C., plant reported no lost time accidents for seven million work hours.
A lightning fast return-to-work program hauled workers back to work hours after surgery. At least nine workers had suffered amputations or bone fractures.
The newspaper reported that the company dismissed some workers' requests to see a doctor, even when workers complained of debilitating pain.
It is unfair to equate this abusive employer with many others who train and supervise immigrant workers across a language divide. To illustrate, in 2006, 46 percent of the U.S. workforce had limited English proficiency.
Yet the employer must do more than think it is acting in good faith. It must be vigilant about cultural miscues, wayward first-line supervisors and slippery or incompetent suppliers. And it may have to act within an industry initiative.
To be sure, many employers try to prosper by treating workers like replacement parts. They hire workers on the cheap and then abandon those who fall by the wayside.
Doctors in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine are citing more instances of employers trying to improve their injury logs by pressuring doctors to treat in certain ways.
Protecting workers, day by day, remains the employer's burden and industrywide initiatives to address immigrant workforces can work. They work in Las Vegas and they also work in Florida's agricultural industry, thanks in part to the Socially Accountable Farm Employers, a nonprofit organization that provides independent auditing and certification of fair, lawful farm labor practices.
We are an immigrant nation. Eight of 20 world cities with at least one million foreign-born residents are located in America. We keep on importing more workers, workers we need to fill our labor shortages.
Foreign labor has become virtual. Overseas support staffs are helping workers' comp claims staffs. Nurses in the Philippines are doing utilization reviews for American insurers. They are very small in number but they confirm the porosity of national borders.
We are a nation made exceptional not by laws, skills or power but by a covenant which binds together immigrants. The House of Raeford case is a tear in that covenant and we must do better.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is a Vermont-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
September 1, 2008
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