Occupational Health News Roundup

At ProPublica, Michael Grabell investigates how U.S. companies take advantage of immigrant workers, focusing on Case Farms poultry plants, which former OSHA chief David Michaels once described as “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” He reports that Case Farms built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who often end up working in the kind of dangerous and abusive conditions that few Americans would put up with.

Grabell chronicles the history of Case Farms and how it first began recruiting refugees from Guatemala who were fleeing a brutal civil war in their home country. A former Case Farms human resource manager said of the new Guatemalan workforce in a book cited in the article: “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.”

The article begins with the story of worker Osiel López. Grabell writes:

On April 7, 2015, Osiel put on bulky rubber boots and a white hard hat, and trained a pressurized hose on the plant’s stainless steel machines, blasting off the leftover grease, meat and blood.

A Guatemalan immigrant, Osiel was just weeks past his 17th birthday, too young by law to work in a factory. A year earlier, after gang members shot his mother and tried to kidnap his sisters, he left his home, in the mountainous village of Tectitán, and sought asylum in the United States. He got the job at Case Farms with a driver’s license that said his name was Francisco Sepulveda, age 28. The photograph on the ID was of his older brother, who looked nothing like him, but nobody asked any questions.

Osiel sanitized the liver giblet chiller, a tublike contraption that cools chicken innards by cycling them through a near-freezing bath, then looked for a ladder, so that he could turn off the water valve above the machine. As usual, he said, there weren’t enough ladders to go around, so he did as a supervisor had shown him: He climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine “literally ripped off his left leg,” medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg.

Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.

Read the entire investigation, which was co-published with the New Yorker, at ProPublica.

In other news:

Washington Post: Drew Harwell reports that workers in the Chinese factory that produces Ivanka Trump’s fashion line work about 60 hours a week for little more than $62 per week. According to a factory audit, inspectors with the Fair Labor Association found two-dozen violations of international labor standards at the factory, where workers were getting at or below China’s minimum wage. The story comes as Ivanka Trump is positioning herself as an advocate for women in the workplace. Harwell reports: “Fewer than a third of the factory’s workers were offered legally mandated coverage under China’s ‘social insurance’ benefits, including a pension and medical, maternity, unemployment and work-related injury insurance, inspectors found. The factory also did not contribute, as legally required, to a fund designed to help workers afford housing, inspectors said.”

California Healthline (via KQED): Pauline Bartolone reports that advocates are calling on California lawmakers to approve a bill that would require cosmetic companies to disclose ingredients in products used in professional salons. The bill, which already passed the state Assembly health committee, would mandate product labeling that flags hazardous chemicals and require that manufacturers provide ingredient lists on their websites. Right now, federal labeling laws pertain to consumer products, but not to professional products used in salons. Bartolone reports: “Dr. Thu Quach, a researcher at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, says informing workers of potential risks is especially important given their level of exposure to salon products. Beauty salon workers may absorb chemicals both through their skin and the air they breathe, Quach said. A cosmetologist could apply a chemical-laden treatment to customers 10 times a day, or work in a space where chemicals are recirculating in the air all day, she added.”

Seattle Times: Janet Tu reports that a superior court judge has denied a motion from business trade groups to void the state’s new minimum wage and paid sick leave law, which Washington voters approved last year. In his ruling, the judge said plaintiffs had failed to prove the new laws violated the state constitution. The voter-approved initiative raises the state minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020 and requires paid sick leave for workers. Tu reports: “Judge Sparks wrote in a letter accompanying his ruling that he tries to adhere to the ‘bedrock principle’ that judges should not interfere with laws enacted by the people, whether through referenda or elected officials, unless there is a clear legal necessity.”

Reveal (Center for Investigative Reporting): Jennifer Gollan reports on Trump’s proposal to cut $60 million in grants from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Affairs, which addresses child and forced labor abroad. In the budget proposal, Trump suggests that the agency should instead focus on ensuring trade agreements are fair for American workers. Gollan cites a 2014 report on conditions inside Malaysia’s electronics industry as an example of the work the grants support. That report, which revealed highly abusive labor conditions, led to increased scrutiny of the industry and stronger safeguards against trafficking. Gollan writes of the proposed Trump budget cut: “The cuts would hobble one of the country’s key methods for combatting child and forced labor around the globe, and potentially limit the federal government’s ability to help countries comply with labor provisions in 13 free trade agreements. In addition, the cuts could effectively do the opposite of what Trump intends by forcing U.S. companies to increasingly compete with overseas companies that flout worker safeguards and pay meager wages.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.

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The times, they are a'changin'. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.

By Mentifex (Arth… (not verified) on 02 May 2017 #permalink

The article about the chicken processor leads to a difficult question: would it be better for all of the chicken to be processed by machines so no one is hurt, even if it means those people are out of work?

By JustaTech (not verified) on 04 May 2017 #permalink

Similarly, $62/week is a lot better than $0/week.
The more work that goes to China, the more wages increase, and the more the government can afford to pay people to implement the kinds of regulations and oversight that we have recently developed in our country.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 04 May 2017 #permalink