Sunday, February 03, 2008

Immigration in America: Creating a Disability Class

Today I was going through La Chola's archives and searching what she had to say according to topic. There was a post from back in November that I wanted to find because it had been on my mind. It was about "'privileged' illegal aliens". She quoted from an action alert put out by the United Farm Workers where an undocumented agricultural worker described the conditions where he worked.

“I have been working for Starrh and Starrh for five years”, Alejandro Gil told us. “The working conditions are awful. We are exposed to a lot of dust and we do not have any protection. In the last two or three days, I have been feeling a pain in my chest and my back when I breathe…The owner’s brother-in-law always puts pressure on workers. He wants more production. The brother-in-law always carries a gun on his waist to scare workers.”

“We never had bathrooms, fresh water or water to wash our hands. Sometimes we do not get any breaks. They put a lot of pressure on us to work faster. When I helped them packing hay, I worked up to 16 hours without breaks.” said Gerardo Negrete. “I am a sprayer and they do not give us what we need to protect ourselves from the chemicals. I have sprayed [pesticide] without gloves, masks or overalls. They only give those to us when we are close to roads where maybe some inspectors can see us…The foremen make fun of us for not having the protection we need.”

After reading this, I sat down and did some thinking about how stereotypes about immigrants are perpetuated in this society. Alejandro Gil, is only one person but his experiences are representative of the conditions that many--dare I say, most--undocumented workers are subjected to in the agricultural industrial complex. I can't stop thinking about the long-term effects of being subjected to such a toxic environment.

Society really is creating a disability class. It's kind of difficult for me to articulate the difference between the disability community and the disability class. I don't have a problem with an expanding disability community. In fact, I really want it to expand because I think that a lot of people could benefit by becoming a part of our community. However, what I do not want is for people to become a part of the class of individuals who are disabled by society because they were subjected to inhumane conditions.

After that, I thought about how there's all this talk about how much "illegals" are supposedly costing "us" (because, of course, they are not a part of "us" even though they live and work and die here, too) in health care benefits. Still, there's nary a mention of how much the exploitation of workers is causing many of these people to have to seek medical care in our health system. Who's going to calculate that?


BLESSD1 said...

Damn Bint...that is SO foul....I guess I don't even consider an issue of this nature much as it's something that sits just outside of my periphery. Thanks for placing it before me.

Lisa Harney said...

When it comes to this topic - immigrant workers - it's like every time you get through one layer, the next has something even more monstrous. :( It's hard to read BFP's posts about worker conditions, but it's stuff people need to know because it's hard.

And then, yeah, they're blamed for straining our medical system after we - well, other Americans - put them in a condition to need that care.

La Lubu said...

I think about this a lot, the creation of a disability class, because of the nature of my work. The first IBEW conference I went to had a seminar on disability in the workforce, so I went to it.

The woman leading the seminar asked the introductory question, "Why are there more disabled people in the workforce today?" Having been loaded for bear after hanging out till the wee hours with some other IBEW construction sisters from across the 6th district, I immediately answered, "Because of OSHA cutbacks and a lack of workplace safety!" which generated sour laughs of recognition from the construction contingent (most of the folks present were from the telecommunications industry, not construction). It wasn't the answer she was looking for (ADA and the fruits of disability activism), but she did concede that as a point---that the U.S. is going backwards in workplace safety.

It's something I try to emphasize to all the entering apprentices during orientation---that they aren't invinceable, that they can become permanently injured, that they can't count on their foreman or contractor to have their safety in mind. And I'm a union electrician---it's a helluva lot worse in the nonunion sector.

We are exposed to who-knows-what all through our working lives; asbestos, silica, benzene, you name it. I worked in a chemical plant once that basically had "danger, cancer causing chemicals ahead" signs posted up. (for the record, it was the plant referenced in this article; it no longer exists due to a massive explosion). I worked at an oil refinery where one of my jobs was changing out a motor on top of a cooling tower (a wet job. the cooling tower was operational, so it was a basically a cloud of mist.) My tools were pitted afterward. Water doesn't do that. My tool buddy (he was up there too) said that he saw company guys up there a week later with full protective suits on.

And if you get seriously injured, you get starved out. As the case slowly unwinds at glacial pace through the system, you are left with no income. The idea is to get you to settle for a relatively small cash amount, regardless of how the damage will affect you for the rest of your life (including the inability to work or find health insurance).

I'll shut up now. I can get up on a soapbox about this. For all the frothing at the mouth certain people are doing about immigrants, those selfsame people prefer exploiting immigrant labor in ways likely to lead to ill health or injury, precisely because they don't have the legal standing to fight back! It may be a grind for U.S. citizens to assert their rights and/or pursue a workers' comp claim, but it's impossible for the undocumented. And there's plenty of powerful people who like it that way.

(I tried to post something like this last night, and somehow lost the entire post! Yahhgggrrhhgg!)

bint alshamsa said...

La Lubu,

And if you get seriously injured, you get starved out. As the case slowly unwinds at glacial pace through the system, you are left with no income. The idea is to get you to settle for a relatively small cash amount, regardless of how the damage will affect you for the rest of your life (including the inability to work or find health insurance).

You couldn't be more right! My partner and I are experiencing this RIGHT NOW. He was the sole worker in our family until he got hurt at work. I'm not talking a little injury either. A client's dog knocked his head into the side of a truck, rendering him unconscious for nearly half an hour. He had swelling in his head and has suffered memory loss and depression ever since. A year ago, the insurance company cut off his worker's compensation saying that he no longer needed treatment, even though THEIR doctors were saying otherwise.

After unsuccessfully trying to get them to reinstate his benefits for a year, the courts wound up having to get involved. The judge forced a settlement causing them to re-instate his payments and treatment and give him back pay and penalties. We thought things were finally about to get better for us. However, the insurance company is still dragging its feet about paying what they've agreed they owe. They have thirty days to pay him before more penalties kick in and it looks like they fully intend on making us wait the entire thirty days, too.

This past year has been hell. They cut off his payments a few weeks before Christmas which put a serious dent in our holiday plans. We had no idea it would stretch on as it did. We've had to live off of my Social Security checks and financial contributions from our families and even then, it's meant we had to make drastic changes in how we live. I mean, his worker's comp didn't even amount to what he actually made each month because he used to make a lot of overtime when he was working. So, our budget had already been pared down a lot. When his comp payments stopped, we could have been left homeless.

Since the 2005 hurricanes, the courts have been so backed up that even after having the case expedited, the nearest date they could give us was an entire year later. I mean, if we didn't have the sort of support system that could afford to carry us for a year while this all went to court, we'd have had no choice but to take whatever the insurance company was offering. And what were they offering? Basically, they'd give him a few thousand in exchange for not seeking payment for any future medical treatment costs and forgoing the backpay that had accrued since they illegally stopped paying him. In other words, accept about ten grand, which wouldn't even cover the medical bills we'd had to pay for on our own, or wait until the courts got around to hearing the case.

And this was a case where my partner was clearly injured and entitled to benefits. Even the judge said it was so clear cut that if the company didn't agree to pay what we were asking, then she'd order them to pay everything we asked PLUS every dime in penalties that she could possibly fine them. I don't know what we'd have done if we didn't at least know that at some point, we were likely to be compensated. A permanent injury like this and no comp payments could have forced us into a homeless shelter or forced him to have to try and work despite his brain injury. I kind of think that this is what they wanted because then it would have made it seem as if they were right in claiming that there was no need for them to pay out anything more.

Workers who don't even have the benefits that the awful insurance companies and courts can provide are basically fucked. I don't know of any nicer way to put it than that.