Occupational Health News Roundup

At San Jose Mercury News, Louis Hansen reports on the “hidden” workforce of foreign workers that helped expand a Fremont plant for car manufacturer Tesla. The story begins with Gregor Lesnik, an unemployed electrician from Slovenia, who, according to his visa application, was supposed to work in South Carolina. Hansen writes:

The companies that arranged his questionable visa instead sent Lesnik to a menial job in Silicon Valley. He earned the equivalent of $5 an hour to expand the plant for one of the world’s most sophisticated companies, Tesla Motors.

Lesnik’s three-month tenure ended a year ago in a serious injury and a lawsuit that has exposed a troubling practice in the auto industry. Overseas contractors are shipping workers from impoverished countries to American factories, where they work long hours for low wages, in apparent violation of visa and labor laws.

About 140 workers from Eastern Europe, mostly from Croatia and Slovenia, built a new paint shop at Tesla’s Fremont plant, a project vital to the flagship Silicon Valley automaker’s plans to ramp up production of its highly anticipated Model 3 sedan. Their story emerged from dozens of interviews conducted by the Bay Area News Group, and an extensive review of payroll, visa and court documents.

Yet neither the contractors involved nor Tesla itself have accepted legal responsibility for the hiring practices, long hours and low pay. While most of the imported workers interviewed for this story said they are happy with their paychecks, their American counterparts earn as much as $52 an hour for similar work.

Hansen writes that Lesnik and workers like him came to the U.S. on a B1/B2 visa, which allows people to come into the country for pleasure and limited work purposes. However, Hansen interviews a number of people who say that the B1 visa system is in need of serious reform — he writes:

Critics say the B1 system appears to be broken. While consular officers check to see that workers will return home, less attention is paid to the work they perform in the U.S.

“It’s the wonderful world of unregulated visas,” said Daniel Costa, an immigration law and policy researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank funded partly by labor unions.

Jay Palmer, a former manager and whistleblower on his Indian technology and outsourcing company Infosys, said an employment contractor can make more profit on B1 workers compared to higher paid H-1B visa holders. For example, a company can charge its client $100 an hour for each laborer under a B1 visa, and pay the worker a fraction of the amount, he said. “It’s extremely simple,” said Palmer, now a consultant who advises companies and whistleblowers. “It’s low risk and high reward.”

To read Hansen’s full investigation, visit the San Jose Mercury News.

In other news:

Chicago Tribune: Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz reports that a bill providing basic labor protections to domestic workers in Illinois recently passed through the state’s Senate with a unanimous vote. The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would ensure house cleaners, child care workers, cooks, drivers and other domestic workers receive the protections of minimum wage laws as well as proper breaks during their work schedules. The bill would also protect domestic workers against sexual harassment and prohibit employers from paying an “oppressive and unreasonable wage.” Now, it’s up to Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the bill. Elejalde-Ruiz interviewed Wendy Pollack, of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, who said of domestic workers: "Right now they're exploited and abused. And we are talking for the most part about women with their own children, taking care of other people's children."

Huffington Post: Michael McAuliff reports that members of Congress are trying to use a Zika funding bill to weaken federal trucking safety rules. Last week, the Senate passed a measure that would allow truckers to drive 73 hours and do more than eight hours of related work each week — the measure was attached to a giant spending bill that also included Zika funding. If enacted, the measure would stop the Obama administration from trying to enforce a 2013 regulation that capped truck drivers’ working hours at 70 a week and ensured they got two nights off in a row. (That rule, though briefly enacted, was also blocked in a 2014 spending bill.) McAuliff writes: “The White House has threatened to veto the Senate spending bill, in part because of the rest rule rollback. But the prospect of a veto is less likely with the Zika measure attached.”

Slate: Elissa Strauss reports that many more Americans are deciding to file suit over caregiver discrimination in the workplace. She writes about new research from the University of California Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law that finds a 269 percent increase in lawsuits involving such discrimination in the last decade, with two-thirds of such cases involving pregnancy and maternity leave. Lawsuits over pregnancy accommodation and breastfeeding spiked dramatically as well. The factors behind the lawsuit spike include more double-income households and a rising population of elderly adults who require caregiving. She writes: “Above all, these lawsuits reflect a shift in expectations among employees about their employer’s ability to make family care compatible with their professional life.”

The New York Times: Babeland, an adult toy store with locations in New York City, has become the first adult sex shop to unionize after a majority of employees voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, reports Rachel Abrams. Employees said the pro-union vote would help them address wage and training issues, as well as issues related to harassment from customers and workplace conditions for transgender employees. Abrams writes: “The employees have advocated better training and support from management to deal with problematic customers. They had pushed for caller ID, for example, to help weed out the threatening phone calls workers said they received on a daily basis. Two of the three stores now have caller ID, Babeland said.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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