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Executive Order May Improve Workplace Safety

Undocumented construction workers are at greater risk for injury and death because they are generally unwilling to risk deportation by reporting unsafe working conditions. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation by negligent employers who compromise workplace safety in their efforts to cut costs.

The recent executive action by President Obama could change things for some undocumented construction workers in New York City. Allowing people to remain in the country with work permits, will make workers safer. They will be able to report unsafe working conditions without fear of deportation; this will make all workers more secure.

Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are more likely to suffer fall-related deaths.  A study that measured such incidents showed that Hispanic workers, among whom are large numbers of undocumented workers, were far more likely to be killed because of falls on the job. However, it has been difficult to obtain an truly accurate report of the number of deaths and injuries from construction falls among this group of workers - such incidents frequently go unreported.

The timing of the president's action could not be better. Manhattan is experiencing an unprecedented construction boom, and there are jobs for all construction workers, both documented and undocumented. But competition is fierce, and employers often feel that hiring undocumented workers who are less likely to complain about poor wages and unsafe working conditions will give them an edge.

In fact, undocumented workers are a boon to the open shop and to employers who hire the least expensive labor they can find. The same employers also try to cut corners by skipping required safety training and postponing equipment maintenance, putting workers at further risk. And when workers are inevitably injured because of sub-standard working conditions, they have no support.  They have no union representatives protecting their rights and may not know that New York's Scaffold Law protects them just as it protects workers legally in the U.S.

Contractors who exploit undocumented workers are often unlicensed and uninsured.  Workers who are injured on the job have few resources, and employers often renege on informal promises made to injured workers. Language barriers make it even easier for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of undocumented workers. 

In addition to being afraid they will be deported if they complain or are injured, undocumented workers are often unaware of the safety regulations that should apply to them.  This means that even if they were willing to complain, they don't.  They don't have the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe. They don't get the required OSHA safety training.

Even if undocumented workers were properly trained, OSHA does not have the staffing needed to monitor every construction site in New York City.  This means that unsafe conditions can exist for months or even years before they are discovered, usually after someone is injured or killed.

Although the president's executive order will make a difference to some undocumented construction workers in NYC, empowering them to seek safe working conditions, it still leaves many others unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation.  And even if the law gave all workers the ability to complain about working conditions, there will still be employers who cut corners and ignore safety laws.  These workers may have only one option: taking legal action.