By Mike Elk
Today, the Trump Administration announced a series of moves designed to crack down on undocumented workers living in the country, promising in immigration-related executive orders to target and deport immigrants who have entered the United States illegally and foreign guestworkers that overstay their work visas.
While Trump made a lot of news on the campaign trail with pledges to deport undocumented workers, he later scaled back those calls, saying that he would focus on deporting those with criminal records. Trump’s advisors such as Western Growers CEO Tom Nassif have gone out of their way to assure agricultural interests that deportations of undocumented workers will not affect businesses.
Many workplace safety advocates worry that the increased criminalization of, and crackdown on, undocumented workers will lead to more latinos dying on the job, exacerbating an ongoing crisis of rising Latino workplace deaths.
Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of Latino workplace deaths spiked during the Obama presidency. More Latino workers died in 2015 than in any year since 2007.
The increase in deaths can be attributed to Latino workers’ fear of deportations and other consequences of speaking up about unsafe working conditions, according to Jessica Martinez, the co-executive director at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Because Obama deported record numbers of undocumented workers, workplace deaths rose too.
Martinez says that her organization expects the problem to get worse under Trump.
“When you combine the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump Administration with the likelihood of decreased enforcement [of OSHA regulations]], it’s a very scary situation,” says Martinez. “ Our fear is that fatalities will rise because of fear and also because of a lack of employer compliance.”
Jacob Horwitz of National Guest Workers’ Alliance fears that foreign workers, who obtain temporary visas to work in the United States says that these workers are also now more at risk.
“Whenever there is an increase in the criminalization of undocumented workers, it puts more pressure on workers to stay in the job that they are in, to not complain, to look the other way when there are hazards,” Robele says. “If you are choosing between saying that you are not going to go up on a rough in harness and potentially being deported and separated from your children most people aren’t gonna risk that.”
The U.S. grants approximately 500,000 new guestworker visas every year, covering industries from seafood to information technology, according to an analysis by the AFL-CIO. Under President Obama, the Department of Labor expanded rights of such workers, granting protections against deportation for reporting labor rights violations and outlawing practices that force guestworkers to take on excessive debt to be able to obtain a visa.
Under Trump, who has employed guestworkers at many of his hotels, Robele expects these protections may be lost, and that the exploitation of guest workers will get dramatically worse.
“I think there will be a huge expansion in the guest worker program and an attempt to roll back the rights that guest workers already do have,” says Horwitz.
Activists say that, with a likely weakened OSHA and undocumented workers heightened fears, it will be up to them to do even more education and organizing to make workers feel comfortable speaking up for safety.
“We are gonna have to fight everyday in the workplace, we are gonna have to fight in the courtroom, and we are gonna have to build alliances in the community to fight back for workers rights,” says Martha Ojeda of Interfaith Worker Justice. “If Trump is not gonna enforce, its gonna be in our hands to enforce the laws.”