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Addressing Immigrant Workers' Hardships

From Newsday
August 25, 2002

By Wil Cruz and Daniel Barrick

Hundreds of immigrant workers testified yesterday before the officials from the government of Mexico and human rights groups in the first step in an investigation into allegations that New York is improperly delaying and denying the compensation claims of immigrants injured and killed on the job.

Representing more than two dozen countries, including Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, Poland, China and Japan, the workers spoke of injuries suffered on the job and the delayed or insufficient payments that followed. Many arrived at the hearings, held at Hunter College, in wheelchairs or with canes. Representatives from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the Urban Justice Center for Human Rights Documentation Project listened to the stories of the workers, many of whom testified in their native languages.

Shirley Brewster, 56, originally from Barbados, worked as a clerk for Manufacturers Hanover Trust. She was injured in 1988, when her chair connected with a faulty electrical outlet. The shock thrust her six feet, slamming her into a steel partition, knocking her into a coma.

"They fired me a week later," she said. "They didn't tell me, but someone else had my job. The accident destroyed my life totally."

She now lives in a friend's basement, unable to support herself on monthly Social Security checks of $797 and weekly workers' compensation payments of $60.

Ricardina Piedra, 57, an Ecuadoran immigrant from Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, arrived at the hearing in a wheelchair borrowed from a friend. She used to work at a Rockaways chocolate manufacturer as a machine operator. In January 1994, she slipped on an icy factory floor. She later had her kneecap removed and has had five blood transfusions, she said.

"My life is very sad," she said. "Workers' comp won't even give me a chair to use. There are times that I can't even go to the bathroom.

"I used to work hard," she said. "I used to live well. Now I'm miserable."

According to the New York State Workers' Compensation Board, a worker's benefits are based on the average weekly wage for the previous year, as well as the severity of the injury. Payments cannot exceed $400 a week.

A Newsday investigation last year found that New York has the nation's highest rate of immigrants killed on the job, with foreign-born workers accounting for nearly one-third of such fatalities. Survivors of the deceased are often overwhelmed by the intricacies of the benefits system.

Awilda Cordero, president of Emergency Rights Inc., a Bronx organization representing Latin American immigrant workers, said forums such as yesterday's would hopefully change that pattern.

"It gives them their right to speak out, whether they're legal or illegal," she said.

For immigrants, she said, "the fear is so bad, they could have a broken arm or a broken leg and they still won't look for help."

Xiao Ping Wu, 60, spoke in Cantonese of her experience as a garment factory worker, working 12-hour days, six days a week. She said she maintained that pace for 10 years before collapsing from exhaustion. Her hands and her back ached constantly and eventually prevented her from working.

"I was so scared, and I don't know what to do," she told the panel. Her weekly income of $150 has been reduced to $40 in workers' compensation payments.

"I don't think it's fair," she said, trembling in her chair.


Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.  

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