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No Choice: Immigrant Workers' Health and Safety

Risha Foulkes,
Women's Rights Project
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April 30, 2010

Kavita is a manicurist in a nail salon. She’s worried because some of the salon products she uses on clients have been giving her frequent headaches and asthma attacks. Should she:

  1. Tell her supervisor so that her employer can provide better training on chemical safety, improve the salon’s ventilation, and try to purchase less toxic products;
  2. Remain silent because she is an undocumented immigrant and will likely be fired if she makes any trouble at work; or
  3. Quit her job because she is pregnant and her employer routinely fires pregnant women anyway, making it useless to ask for better working conditions.

The obvious answer in this hypothetical multiple choice question is A. But in reality, the options for low-wage immigrant workers are usually limited to B and C. This past weekend, I joined members of the Nepali community organization Adhikaar at a conference on immigrant workers’ health and safety in New York. It was clear from the presentations by Adhikaar and other workers’ organizations that immigrant workers face pervasive intimidation and discrimination in the workplace.

It is shocking that a country that values “justice for all” would allow two de facto classes of workers to exist—those who can avail themselves of laws and regulations on workplace safety, and those whose immigration status makes such protections meaningless. In 2002, the Supreme Court decided the Hoffman Plastic case, prohibiting legal remedies to undocumented immigrants who were fired due to union organizing activities. Not surprisingly, the already-tenuous position of immigrant workers in the American workforce plummeted after the Hoffman decision. Some courts have extended the Hoffman ruling to prevent undocumented immigrants from successfully bringing other labor rights claims, and even claims based on sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination.

Workers and organizers at the New York conference painted a disturbing picture of how such forced silence affects low-income immigrant women’s health, safety, and dignity at work. Nail salon workers, for example, work long hours in poorly-ventilated environments, handling a variety of chemicals that have been linked to short- and long-term health problems that include cancer. Many members of Adhikaar are nail salon workers who work alongside other Chinese, Korean, and Latina immigrant women in New York’s nail salons. Something they all have in common is a high rate of respiratory issues, headaches, nausea, and reproductive health problems.

The ACLU is working to end this two-tiered system of labor rights. Our strategies to improve nail salon workers’ rights have included administrative advocacy and community outreach to advocates and workers. As advocates for equality, we must ensure that immigrant workers’ voices are heard, so that women like Kavita don’t have to risk their health and lives in order to make a living.

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