Now Where’s the Good News? Coffee and Doughnuts Just Don’t Cut It

Anyone who knows anything about the enforcement of legal standards in the workplace knows that immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are exploited by employers who do not comply with legal requirements governing wages, dangerous conditions and uncompensated workplace injuries, discrimination, and other labor laws. Workers who attempt to remedy such abuse routinely face physical and immigration-related threats and retaliation. So what should the government’s role be when it comes to addressing these problems? Can we agree on what it shouldn’t be: making that situation worse by exploiting the same fears and vulnerabilities as unscrupulous employers? Yet that’s exactly what the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency recently did in North Carolina.

In early July, 48 workers at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, saw a flyer for a workplace safety training. Not just any training, however, but one supposedly sponsored by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), at which attendance was mandatory. So they did what any good worker would do when asked to attend a required meeting (especially with free coffee and doughnuts offered): they showed up for it. However, instead of learning about how to reduce the number of workplace injuries, they learned all about hypocrisy and subterfuge.

For instead of a meeting led by OSHA bureaucrats, they encountered ICE officers who took them into custody for immigration violations (after finishing the coffee and doughnuts, of course). The 48 workers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ukraine, who were employees of private contractors doing roofing, electrical, masonry and other construction work on the base, now face deportation. (See News-Observer article.) All because they attended a mandatory meeting to learn about health and safety issues. I guess having workers in this country who follow their employers’ commands and want to learn how to avoid getting hurt or hurting others is a real problem: sounds exactly like the kind of workers we would want to get rid of.

You have to wonder who came up with this plan — hopefully it didn’t emanate from the ICE Office of Intelligence. But like every other not-so-bright idea coming from the government these days, ICE’s methods were justified in the name of national security. “When individuals use false documents to hide their identity, the security and safety of our country is at risk,” said Tom O’Connell, the ICE Resident Agent-in-Charge in Raleigh. (See ICE News Release.) ICE spokesperson Dean Boyd takes it even further (or deeper, as your perspective may be): “We believe it is a very serious vulnerability when there are illegal aliens working at Air Force bases, nuclear power plants, chemical plants and airports. They have access to some of the most sensitive work sites in the U.S. Our job is to take actions to immediately remove them from positions where they can do harm.” (See New York Times article.)

It gets even better: one worker who was there reported that an official stood up and said “I got good news and bad news. The good news is we are not from OSHA, and the bad news is we’re from the immigration office.” Not being able to give workers information that might keep them from getting killed or maimed, that’s good news? You’ve got to be kidding me.

And if you’re really partial to an Alice-in-Wonderland-like view of the world, you’ll also be happy to know that ICE did things this way out of concerns for the workers’ safety. About the ruse, ICE spokesperson Boyd said: “The primary reason to use tactics like this in federal law enforcement is to get people in a location where they can be arrested without running all over the place. That helps ensure the safety of these immigrants, the agents, the air base and the community at large.” (See New York Times article.)

Now, any effort to get employees to cooperate with health and safety trainings is at risk, as was pointed out by Allen McNeely, head of the North Carolina Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health division. “We are dealing with a population of workers who need to know about safety,” McNeely said. “Now they’re going to identify us as entrappers.” (See News-Observer article.) Yet another branch of the government, the Centers for Disease Control, has identified workplace health and safety issues of major concern to foreign-born workers. Between 1999 and 2000, while the number of occupational fatalities in the country decreased, there was a 5% increase in the number of fatalities among foreign-born workers, and a 12% increase in the number of Hispanic-worker deaths (even though the Hispanic/Latino workforce grew by only 6%). (See Hispanic Health Program report.)

Finally, there’s been some Administration conduct so outrageous that even the Department of Labor (DOL), headed by Administration loyalist Elaine Chao, even criticizes it. DOL, fresh from dismantling overtime in the name of reform, and rumored to be preparing something similar for the Family and Medical Leave Act, also oversees OSHA. OSHA responded to news of the sting operation with “[t]his is not something we were involved in, and we do not condone the use of OSHA’s name in this type of activity.” (See New York Times article.)

ICE and OSHA will have to duke it out over future stings: perhaps Jonathan Snare and Michael Garcia can arm-wrestle, or better yet, subject them to a real workplace hazard (toxic chemicals or a trench, anyone?) and see who survives longest. ICE’s Boyd concedes, “We certainly understand OSHA’s concerns about the use of their name,” Mr. Boyd said. “We’re putting in place procedures to ensure appropriate coordination.” (See New York Times article.) Sounds to me like ICE can’t wait to do it again, since it worked so well, and isn’t terribly concerned about the ramifications.

In the meantime, workers either won’t get the health and safety information they need, or they get fired for missing mandatory meetings. And they certainly won’t trust any government organization to actually help them: why should they, when things like this happen? Sorry, but we agree with Confined Space: that all sounds like bad news to us, even when accompanied by coffee and doughnuts.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: Short-Changed
hidden america: undocumented workers
in harm’s way: health and safety

Confined Space: the excellent blog on workplace health and safety issues that broke this story.
OSHA or Immigration: How To Tell the Difference
NY Times Covers Impersonation Story
Betrayal in North Carolina: Unions Condemn OSHA Impersonators
Stupid and Deadly: Undocumented Workers Lured into Arrest With Promise of Safety Training
What is OSHA doing About Immigrant Worker Safety?

AFL-CIO Statement

United Food & Commercial Workers Statement

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.