Study exposes Asian, Latinx workers’ hardships in workplace

Infographic depicting data on CA worker safety concerns during pandemic
Mai Chiamthamachinda/Staff

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A study conducted by UC Berkeley researchers under the Asian Law Caucus found that some essential workers in California were not provided necessary protective equipment such as masks and gloves during work hours, in addition to not being paid minimum wage.

Some of these workers, many of whom are low income and Asian or Latinx, were allegedly penalized for speaking out against poor working conditions and lack of protective equipment, according to the study.

“Too many workers lack adequate COVID-19 protections and those in lower-wage industries are disproportionately impacted,” said co-author of the study Alejandra Domenzain in an email.

Researchers issued a 28-question survey over the course of a couple of months and focused on 636 low-income workers, who identified as mainly Asian and Latinx. Many of the respondents worked in restaurant, janitorial, hospitality and domestic and home health care settings, according to Domenzain.

Half of the respondents reported fear that catching COVID-19 would render them unable to support themselves and their families, Domenzain said. Additionally, many workers did not voice their concerns about working conditions for fear of punishment or unemployment.

“Workers are not raising concerns about COVID-19 protections with their employer because of a fear of retaliation or a lack of confidence that the employer will address the problem. For some who do speak up, that fear and skepticism are borne out,” Domenzain said in the email.

Despite laws requiring employers to provide the necessary training and information about possible hazards, one in five respondents of the survey reported not receiving any information on COVID-19 protocol within the workplace, according to the study.

Those that enforce COVID-19 guidelines are also vulnerable to violence and conflict, according to Domenzain. Workers responsible for enforcing COVID-19 guidelines can also potentially face backlash from co-workers, customers and others.

“Safety in the workplace has always been a critical issue for low-wage workers. The concerns, however, are heightened during the pandemic, when essential workers are disproportionately exposed to increased levels of exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” said campus Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies associate professor Lok Siu in an email.

The study noted that rights for low-wage workers have ushered in a “new urgency” for change due to the pandemic displacing millions of essential workers while also worsening health risks and financial struggles.

To help bolster the rights of essential workers, the study provided recommendations, including expanding equitable access to COVID-19 protective measures, strictly enforcing labor laws and accountability, improving awareness and strengthening worker representation.

“The report shows that, despite these circumstances, many companies continue to put their bottom line above the safety and wellbeing of their workers, and some even go as far as retaliating against workers who ask for protective gear and/or silence workers when they fall ill,” Siu said in the email.

Contact Audry Jeong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @audryjng_dc.