Undocumented Workers' Health Jeopardized at Ground Zero
By Haider Rizvi
Hundreds of undocumented Latino workers participated in removing rubble and cleaning up in the World Trade Center area after the Sep 11 attacks. Many were not provided with protective equipment and are still suffering the health effects of the site’s contaminants. Now they want compensation.
NEW YORK, (Tierramérica).- Just a block away from Ground Zero, where the giant twin towers of the World Trade Center stood prior to the Sep 11, 2001, attacks, thousands of tourists line up every day at a makeshift platform to take a look at the ruins.
However, very few of the wealthy tourists, coming mostly from Europe and different parts of the United States, can endure the bitter and poisonous-smelling odors for very long, and the leave after just a few minutes.
But the hundreds of people working day and night removing the debris and still finding the remains of human bodies can neither complain nor leave the site.
As members of local and national unions, these Ground Zero workers have all the safety equipment necessary to protect themselves from the adverse affects of toxic dust and gas.
But hundreds of their colleagues who cleaned the debris and dust from the buildings adjacent to the World Trade Center site have not been so fortunate. They were hired by private companies and not provided with specific safety training or protective equipment.
Is it their fault? Many of these workers came to "the land of the free" from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America in search of a better economic life, but without having work authorization permits. In other words, they were undocumented workers who live in constant fear of deportation.
Labor rights groups say they found more than 600 immigrants working in questionable conditions within days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Many of them still continue to suffer from fever, headaches, nosebleeds, coughing, nausea, chest pain and other respiratory illnesses.
One of them, Angel Quiroga, died Oct 19, 2001, a day after he had been rushed from his worksite a few blocks from the World Trade Center rubble to the hospital after he complained of lightheadedness.
Activists say the private companies hired undocumented workers through subcontractors who did not warn them about the dangers of toxins and contamination in the Ground Zero area. And some workers reportedly did bring their own protective equipment, but their bosses snatched it away to use the items themselves.
Some immigrant workers told union leaders that they were promised 7.5 dollars an hour, but many said they had to wait several weeks for payment, even though they had completed their job to the full satisfaction of their questionable employers.
"I met hundreds of workers who were doing clean-up jobs at corporate offices in lower Manhattan. It was very rare to find anybody receiving safety equipment," Luna Yasui, a lawyer at the National Employment Law Project, an organization that has been defending labor rights in the United States for three decades, and is investigating the abuses at Ground Zero.
She told Tierramérica that none of the workers were informed that the work they were doing "could be dangerous to their health."
Environmental organizations say the dust in the buildings surrounding the World Trade Center site contained low concentrations of toxic substances, including asbestos, fiberglass and lead.
Any fine dust, even without toxic substances, can cause respiratory irritation and asthma, warns the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a US government agency that monitors work environments.
Asbestos, which is related to several types of cancer, is the contaminant that most worries the specialists. But there is no consensus. Some believe the asbestos levels at Ground Zero have been relatively low.
Others, like Philip J. Landrigan, of the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, are skeptical: "nobody can predict the long-term consequences for the health of the workers.
The concern about the future effects of exposure to contaminants in the Ground Zero area is such that at least 700 New York firefighters who suffer from various respiratory ailments decided earlier this year to hire attorneys in order to protect their right to sue for damages later on.
Meanwhile, the Latin American Workers Project, a non-profit organization founded in 1990, says it is still helping the undocumented immigrant workers affected by toxins to find jobs and obtain health care. The Project maintained a mobile medical unit near the World Trade Center for about six weeks in the aftermath of Sep 11.
"I think there are many victims of Sep 11. The day laborers were hired by the private companies, and they became victims, too," said Java Goldberg, who works for the Project. "Many of them were teenage boys and girls. These private companies have no respect for human lives."
A few weeks after the attacks, the office of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer began investigating how the cleaning companies hired immigrant workers and put their health in jeopardy, but little headway has been made.
"I am really concerned about these workers' health, but I am not allowed to speak to the press," an investigator at the Attorney General’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Tierramérica.
Juanita Scarlett, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General, said that one of the investigations was over and that some workers were compensated for their ailments, although she refused to give details about the other cases that are still unresolved. Nor would she name the companies involved.
But a member of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of 200 unions and more than 400 doctors, lawyers and safety activists, said, "the situation remains very much the same."
Goldberg also contradicted the official claim, saying, "We haven't heard of any worker being compensated."
* Haider Rizvi is an IPS correspondent.