A hundred years ago “The Jungle” was self-published by 27-year-old Upton Sinclair, after rejections from publishers uninterested in a grim novel dedicated to “the workingmen of America.” To research his exposé of squalid working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking factories, Sinclair conducted his own hazard recognition walkarounds. Dressed in shabby clothes and carrying a lunch bucket, he wandered the vast Armour facilities unquestioned by what little security existed at the plant.

Jurgis Rudkus, a young, married immigrant from Lithuania, works 12-hour shifts in “The Jungle,” sweeping slop and the entrails of butchered cattle into a hole in the floor. The slaughterhouse is dark, filthy and unheated. “The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks, and these would be covered in blood and frozen,” wrote Sinclair. “By night-time a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant.”

Rudkus sprains his ankle on the floor and spends three months in bed. When the factory refuses to take him back, he finds work at a fertilizer plant, “the foulest place in all Packingtown,” where chemicals seep into his skin and Rudkus “smells as foul as the muck.”

Flash forward

It’s Saturday morning, April 22, 2006. A 20-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, Milton Rocano, climbs into the back of an empty open-top tractor-trailer at a waste recycling transfer station in Brooklyn, N.Y. Without warning, he is buried alive in a cloud of construction debris dumped by a co-worker who doesn’t know he’s there. The truck dumps the debris and Mr. Rocano’s body in a landfill, where it is found three days later after the company and police had tracked it there, as reported in The New York Times.

“It was dirty work he did not want to do forever,” a friend of Mr. Rocano told the reporter. “It’s like he was a dog that was just finished off,” said his sister.

Paying the price

This past August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of on-the-job fatalities among Hispanics or Latino workers reached its highest level (917 fatalities) since the census was started in 1992. Workers at the “bottom of the economic ladder are paying a heavy price,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

“Today’s report is positive news for our nation and all workers,” commented OSHA chief Edwin Foulke, citing an overall decrease in job-related deaths. Alluding to the increase in fatalities among Latinos, African Americans, farm workers and workers under age 20, Foulke added, “there is still more work to do.”

OSHA, to its credit, has been doing more in recent years to reach out to Hispanic employers and workers in particular. It has a Spanish-language website, OSHA en Español. Compliance assistance tools have been translated into Spanish. The agency provides Spanish-speaking operators on its toll-free “800” telephone number. Training grants are offered to nonprofits to train workers and employers in Spanish to recognize and prevent workplace hazards, and a number of Spanish-language training videos are available.

Of course there is broad reluctance to identify dangerous hazards and negligent employers. “It is not like we are getting any calls or complaints from the community,” OSHA regional chief Michael Connors told the Chicago Tribune in a September 4th report.

And trust among members of the Latino community wasn’t helped last year after Homeland Security officials posed as OSHA representatives, called a “mandatory” safety workshop in North Carolina, and then arrested the workers who showed up.

Statistics underscore the need for much more (and honest) outreach action, beyond what OSHA’s limited resources can achieve. A New York Times page-one story August 15th reported immigrants living in U.S. houses rose 16 percent since 2000. The number of immigrants now living in the U.S. — 35.7 million — is larger than the population of California. Most continue to come from Mexico. But a more recent development has immigrants fanning out throughout the country. Texas, New York, Florida and California have had the largest foreign-born populations, but now states like Georgia, Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts and Montana all show gains in immigrant populations.

Back to the slaughterhouse

In tiny Postville, Iowa, more than half of the 2,500 residents are Hispanic, according to an article published this past May in The (Weekly) Forward. The lure? Employment in a large meat plant. The reporter spoke with a Guatemalan woman who works 10-12 hour shifts at the plant, six nights a week, for wages between $6.25 and $7 an hour. Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked.

“America has always been built by people… willing to do jobs that other people are not willing to do,” the plant manager told the reporter. “That’s how this country is growing.”

That quote could be 100 years old.

Of the 15 industries employing the highest percentage of foreign-born workers, half are low-wage services, including landscaping, domestic household work, car washes, shoe repair and janitorial work, according to a report in the summer 2006 issue of the City Journal. The article estimates 100,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants work as day laborers, many doing home-improvement projects for homeowners or small contractors. (Some years ago I watched a young Mexican plaster sheet rock seams in our newly enclosed carport, working at night by the headlights of his pickup. His wife and baby sat in the front seat, waiting for him.)

Street corner scrubbers

More than 600 people, most of them undocumented Latino immigrants, were hired from street corners to scrub dust off buildings surrounding ground zero after 9/11. They were not told by the private contractors, or by the city, of the dangers involved and were never given PPE, reports The New York Daily News.

In August, New York Governor George Pataki signed three bills to benefit workers, firefighters, policemen and volunteers who became sick breathing contaminated particles working at ground zero. But many ill immigrants are in danger of being left unprotected. To qualify for benefits they must prove they worked there, and many of the day laborers have no proof. Employers, aware they broke laws by hiring the workers and placing them in dangerous working conditions, are reluctant to help their former employees, according to the Daily News.

A hundred years after “The Jungle,” the OSHA chief has it right, regrettably: there is still more work to do. But to Milton Rocano’s sister, Manhattan street corner scrubbers, and a Guatemalan in Iowa, that’s old news.

— Dave Johnson, Editor