Undocumented employees may have more rights than they think.
In 2021, an incident occurred in Gainesville, Georgia, in which half a dozen chicken-processing workers died after nitrogen gas used to freeze the poultry leaked into the factory in which they worked and asphyxiated them. Five of the six individuals who lost their lives were Mexican nationals. After the tragedy, there was a pervasive hesitancy and fear by the family members of those who had perished to come forward with complaints. Much of this hesitation stems from a mistrust in a system in which loved ones might be sent out of the United States if they draw attention to themselves.
Because of the fear that the current system has created, advocates are asking the Labor and Homeland Security officials to grant temporary protection from deportation to undocumented workers who cooperate with investigations such as what occurred last year. In this way, they hope that survivors are willing to help substantiate workplace deficiencies.
“If undocumented workers are victims of crimes, officials could also help by more often obtaining residency visas for those who cooperate with investigations,” said Shelly Anand, a former Labor Department attorney with Sur Legal Collaborative. “A lot of workers that we met were women. They were having issues with their lungs and headaches and PTSD. Some would say they would close their eyes, and they could still hear the screaming and see their dead co-workers.”
Half a year after the plant tragedy, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed $600,000 in penalties against Foundation Food Group, responsible for its operation. It found a total of 26 violations and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also fined three other businesses a total of about $400,000, because, as OSHA explained, these companies, “failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak, or to equip workers responding to it with the knowledge and equipment that could have saved their lives.”
Foundation Food said it “took no actions to intimidate employees and considered aspects of the OSHA citations unjustified and unsupported by the facts.”
In another similar story, a crawfish worker in Louisiana attempted to inform OSHA in 2020 that she left her job temporarily in order to seek medical care because she had COVID-19. She said she feared receiving inadequate care if quarantined due to her immigration status. After a thorough investigation, OSHA said it found “insufficient evidence that she was unfairly fired” from her position.
A study published in a 2020 issue of Advocates’ Forum stresses that “undocumented workers do have rights and protections. Federal and state laws prevent workplace discrimination and offer remedies for employer violations. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all enforce workplace protections regardless of immigration status. Undocumented workers are entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, breaks and tips and are protected under health, safety, and anti-discrimination laws as well.”
These protections are applicable regardless of citizenship status and should be encouraging to anyone who has undergone a workplace grievance that needs to be adequately addressed. However, dispelling the fear felt by most of those who remain undocumented is complicated and requires more substantiation of trust.