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  • Emma Benjamin

Beyond the Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Unveiling Systemic Disparities Among Immigrant Workers in the U.S.

Photo by David Adams

On March 26th, 2024, the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland collapsed into the Patapsco River after colliding with an incoming cargo ship, taking with it the lives of six out of the eight construction workers who were fixing potholes on the bridge at the time. Since then, this tragedy has raised questions over not just the safety and well-being of the nation’s manual laborers who frequently work in risky conditions, but also of the potential disparities in such sectors, given that this group of workers was comprised of brothers, sons, uncles, and fathers that were all immigrants from Mexico and Central America. With foreign-born workers disproportionately employed in some of the most high-risk industries such as agriculture and construction, along with these workers often having to choose riskier jobs due to there being limited alternatives, the prominent issue of structural vulnerability and discrimination against immigrants surfaces amidst this tragic accident at the Key Bridge. This incident serves as a reflection of the broader systemic disparities faced by minority and immigrant workers, who are disproportionately found working jobs that jeopardize and neglect their well-being. 

A primary concern is that immigrant workers, especially those from Hispanic communities, are disproportionately represented in high-risk work sectors, which place vulnerable groups at a greater probability of facing a work-related injury. The graphic below illustrates that together, these groups accounted for 43 percent of farming jobs in 2017, which is every four in ten workers. Further, unauthorized immigrants comprised 15% of all workers in the construction industry at this time, which was triple their proportion in the overall workforce. The potential effects of such disparities can then be exemplified in looking at occupation-related injuries by demographic. A journal article in the California Law Review states how immigrant workers experience an estimated 300 more workplace fatalities and 61,000 more injuries annually than native-born workers. The disproportionate concentration of immigrant workers in high-risk sectors therefore underscores a critical labor market disparity, while also raising profound concerns about the systemic exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Figure from PEW Research

The intersection between the vulnerabilities faced by immigrants and their placement in hazardous and often poorly regulated jobs creates a complex dynamic of exploitation and risk. For instance, immigrants–specifically those that have an unauthorized legal status–frequently under-report workplace injuries and safety violations out of fear of legal repercussions and potential job loss. Employers may even exploit the threat of immigration enforcement to discourage undocumented workers from reporting abusive practices. Other factors, such as cultural or language barriers, might also heighten these workplace disparities. According to the CDC, the high number of work-related deaths among foreign-born Hispanics might be linked to the workers not being appropriately trained and supervised, along with language and literacy problems. Thus, one aspect of this problem is neglect and exploitation, specifically of susceptible populations, which exacerbates the already existing structural disparity faced by immigrant and minority workers. 

However, this recurring theme of neglect and hazardous conditions disproportionately posed on immigrant workers is not something new. Poor working conditions in sectors like agriculture and construction have been a persistent concern that underscores an ongoing neglect of worker health, while also highlighting the underlying structural racism that perpetuates inequalities in the workforce. The image below depicts a familiar scenario of the post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction efforts where immigrants, the majority being undocumented migrants, were the backbone of this rebuilding of New Orleans. Despite their contributions, just a third of the unauthorized immigrants even understood the hazards of the job–including asbestos and mold removal, whereas 65% of the immigrant laborers were aware of these risks. The further lack of safety training or protective gear reported by a majority of immigrant workers working on similar re-construction projects, surveyed by CJI and Public Integrity, also cited a lack of training on toxins or protective equipment which can be especially problematic with exposure to toxins such as asbestos as they can lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma among other illnesses. Thus, the high-risk level and lack of protection in construction jobs that extend far beyond the Baltimore Bridge collapse serve as a critical wake-up call for addressing these systemic issues.

Photograph from the Center for Public Integrity

In exemplifying the systemic neglect and structural biases pointed at this demographic of workers, the Baltimore Bridge incident opens the door for discussion of how these issues seep into other sectors as well, mainly farming. The reality for many agricultural workers in the U.S. demonstrates this, as a large percent of farmworkers often live in dilapidated and overcrowded housing conditions provided by employers. These housing conditions range in issues such as rodent infestations and poor water quality due to electrical problems and lack of heat. Common conditions of the job, such as working overtime in fields without rest, are associated with diseases such as chronic kidney disease (CDK) and acute kidney illness (AKI) as well). The disproportionate exposure of immigrant workers to hazardous conditions has even become increasingly evident in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are immigrants generally represented more in frontier occupational jobs like agriculture or healthcare, but the aforementioned housing arrangements which impose congested indoor housing environments on the majority of immigrant farm workers additionally play a role in this. All these factors are perpetuated by the insufficient regulatory protections and efforts present for these workers, circling back to this broader pattern of neglect toward the well-being of immigrant workers in these fields. This disregard mirrors systemic failures seen in other infrastructure crises such as the Baltimore Bridge incident. Hence, the collapse serves as a talking point that extends to a highly complex and expansive web of systemic neglect. 

These dynamics reveal the urgent need for policy interventions that ensure safety and justice for all laborers, irrespective of their origin. Currently, laws that protect immigrant workers from hazardous working and housing conditions are lacking in effort and regulation. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), along with the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), are responsible for enforcing such safety standards at work and fair pay regardless of immigration status; however, these organizations have shortcomings due to funding and regulations, which could account for much of the neglectful oversight of these industries. The Economic Policy Institute details this, reporting on the severe understaffing and wage decline of WHD employees tasked with enforcing these standards, along with the stark 60% decrease in investigations as a result from 2000 to 2022 for farmworkers in the figure below. This dramatic reduction in enforcement of sectors like agriculture that have historically been lacking in oversight; however, this has also exhibited disproportionate rates of occupational illnesses and fatalities naturally highlights a troubling trend, especially considering the intersection of an already vulnerable demographic. Further research also found that there was not only a lack of language capabilities of OSHA inspectors, but a lack of translators or interpreters in the US health care systems as well, meaning that communication barriers in conjunction with lack of insurance, sick leave, and transportation dually pose a barrier to adequate healthcare for (im)migrant farmworkers that are already subject to high-risk work environments. Thus, this issue goes beyond these industries; instead, this systemic neglect does not just reflect a failure to enforce labor standards—it highlights and exacerbates the structural inequities that disproportionately affect this already vulnerable demographic within the workforce.

The solution therefore lies in two parts. First, OSHA and WHD need to enhance outreach, training, and education programs for immigrant workers and their employers to ensure job safety rights are being followed, while also simultaneously preventing job hazards and protections. This assistance should extend as well into other sectors such as transportation and healthcare for immigrant workers, as these standards for safety are impacted by similar barriers (i.e. language, citizen status, etc.). The second line of action is providing the proper resources and funding to ensure these departments can effectively carry out this oversight. This includes not only increasing the budget and staffing levels to allow for more comprehensive inspections and enforcement but also developing stronger penalties for those who repeatedly violate labor laws. By imposing more stringent sanctions, particularly on repeat offenders, it sends a clear message that non-compliance with safety and labor standards will not be tolerated. Together, these steps might significantly bolster the enforcement capabilities of OSHA and WHD to ensure better protection for all workers, while simultaneously removing the aforementioned barriers and promoting equity for vulnerable worker demographics.

Ultimately, these essential front-line jobs, vital for the functioning of our society and our economy, frequently jeopardize the health and well-being of immigrant workers by exposing them to significant risks without ensuring proper protections. Beyond the Baltimore Bridge collapse, there is a track record of neglect and undervaluation of this demographic that needs to be invested in. The current laws and regulations set in place to do so are not yet equipped to tackle these systemic disparities or the linguistic, cultural and legal barriers that have penetrated both these work industries and health care. Comprehensive policy interventions and dedicated resources are therefore crucial to safeguarding the rights and well-being of these essential workers, ensuring that their contributions are respected and their lives valued within our society.


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