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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Hispanic Workers' Safety Is Focus Of Summit
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao presents check at event criticized by unions.
By Cristina Elías | Sentinel Staff Writer
July 23, 2004
Amid speeches and protests, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration convened the first-ever National Hispanic Safety and Health Summit in Orlando on Thursday to discuss the on-the-job conditions faced by Hispanic workers across the country.
Although scheduled to showcase various best practices for reducing Hispanic fatalities in the workplace, the summit was eclipsed by political overtones in a presidential-election year when Hispanics are one of Florida's key swing populations.
The summit, organized in conjunction with the Hispanic Alliance for Progress, was packed with more than 500 people from various interest groups, including members of the construction and hospitality industries and representatives of religious organizations from across the nation.
"We are here because of the commitment of President [George W.] Bush to protect the Hispanic work force," said U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the summit's keynote speaker.
Chao reminded the audience about the various initiatives undertaken by the Bush administration, including the creation of a Hispanic Taskforce in 2001. She also noted that the number of Hispanic workers killed on the job fell in 2002 for the first time in seven years, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, while Hispanics make up 12 percent of the U.S. work force, they constituted a disproportionately high share -- 15 percent -- of all employee fatalities in 2002.
Chao used the Orlando event to hand over a check for $2.76 million to Esperanza USA, the largest faith-based, Hispanic nonprofit organization in the United States.
The three-year grant is in addition to other funds Esperanza has received to administer the Hispanic portion of Bush's Faith Initiative Capacity Project. The money will allow faith-based organizations in nine U.S. cities to work with at-risk Hispanic youth.
Two of the cities included in the grant's first year are in Florida: Miami and Orlando. In Orlando, the initiative is administered by Pastor Angel Rios of the Hispanic Association of Christian Churches of Central Florida.
Elsewhere in the Orlando Airport Marriott hotel where the check presentation took place, the summit was painted by labor leaders and others as an empty election-year stunt by the White House and the U.S. Labor Department.
In back-to-back news conferences, the local AFL-CIO chapter and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Nowprotested the lack of input from grass-roots and Hispanic organizations.
"This is a bosses meeting, not a meeting about workers," said Tirso Moreno of the Central Florida Farmworker Association. "They've left out the people who really work with the Hispanic workers."
Summit organizers paid scant attention to the protesters.
"We just had limited capacity for the event," said John Henshaw, an assistant OSHA secretary. "But they were invited to participate."
Summit speaker Jacob Monty, representing the Hispanic Alliance for Progress, decried the presence of organizations like La Raza at the competing news conferences.
"They are just too liberal," said Jacob, whose organization supported a Bush immigration proposal earlier this year that would have allowed some 8 million illegal immigrants to obtain legal status as temporary workers. "They don't represent all Hispanic viewpoints."
Not everyone with an interest in Hispanic workers' safety cared about Thursday's summit.
"This is just a political fight between Republicans and Democrats," Angel Camacho of the Florida Association of Truckers said of the summit and news conferences. Camacho chose to skip the event.
"We've been saying there's a problem for years," he said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction and transportation accidents are the most common cause of on-the-job deaths for Hispanic workers in Florida.
Florida ranks third among U.S. states in the number of work-related fatalities among Hispanics and sixth in terms of the percentage of Hispanics among all worker deaths.
"Florida has a large number of Hispanics in construction and, of course, language is one of the most important factors in worker deaths," said Maria Julia Brunette, a professor of worker safety at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department signed agreements with Mexico pledging to improve compliance with U.S. labor laws and, in the process, increase safety for Hispanic workers in the United States.
The declaration did not include additional funds or an increase in inspections and enforcement, however.