Migrants exposed to higher risk in the workplace

Migrants to Australia are more vulnerable to hazards in the workplace than Australian-born workers, a Curtin study has revealed.

Working conditions for the 200 million migrants worldwide have been examined and found wanting in several industrialised countries, including the United States, Canada and Spain, but until now, the workplace safety of migrant workers in Australia had not been explored. Given the number of migrants working in Australia, this is a significant oversight.

“Australia is a nation of migrants,” says Curtin Associate Professor Alison Reid, an expert on epidemiology and biostatistics. “Foreign-born workers make up thirty-five per cent of the current workforce.” With funding from the Australian Research Council, Reid and her team are leading research in the field. “Globally, the majority of migrant workers do the 3Cs – cooking, caring and cleaning – and 3Ds – dirty, dangerous and demeaning – jobs,” she says.

The team decided to examine the exposure of migrants to two types of workplace hazard: carcinogens and psychosocial factors. Common workplace carcinogens include diesel engine exhaust and environmental tobacco smoke, while psychosocial hazards involve precarious work, bullying, racism, job strain and underemployment.

The team conducted three national surveys in several languages to see whether there were variations in exposure among foreign and Australian-born workers. Workers from Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic-speaking backgrounds were contacted, as well as workers born in the Philippines, India and New Zealand and Australian-born workers of Caucasian ancestry. The findings revealed significant differences in exposure levels.

Arab workers were twenty-two per cent more likely to be exposed to diesel engine exhaust than Australian-born workers in the same occupation, suggesting that Arab workers are given the more hazardous tasks. In addition, forty per cent of workers who completed the interview in a language other than English were exposed to carcinogens, compared to twenty-nine per cent of English speakers.

All groups reported exposure to psychosocial hazards, with workers from New Zealand, the Philippines and India citing low job security and Chinese workers reporting low levels of autonomy. Workers from the Philippines were found more likely to work as labourers, despite more than half completing tertiary education.

Reid also looked at fatalities and hospital admissions for work-related injuries and whether they differed by country of birth.

“In contrast to many other countries, we found that Australian-born workers are more likely to die from a work-related injury than workers from other countries,” she said. “The only exception was men and women from New Zealand who are more likely to be killed from a work-related incident than Australian-born workers.”

The research also found that workers born in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany were more likely to die from malignant mesothelioma - caused by exposure to asbestos - than Australian-born workers. “Workers from these countries most likely came to Australia as part of an Assisted Passage Scheme,” Reid explains. “They would have been placed in government-sponsored employment to build Australia’s infrastructure. These workers had to stay in these jobs, for a minimum period of two years, in order to migrate permanently to Australia.”

The study identified a number of factors which influence the vulnerability of a migrant worker to occupational hazards. These include the migration process and the migrant’s education, skillset and English language proficiency. Its findings highlight a lack of knowledge among migrants around their rights, entitlements and hazard identification. The research has led to SafeWork Australia launching a work area to examine occupational health and safety for migrant workers. Read more: Curtin University media release.

Being bullied by colleagues does most harm

European researchers have found that while most bullying is perpetrated by supervisors and managers, workers are more likely to be affected if they are bullied by their co-workers. The researchers suggested this may be due to the 'surprise factor' of being bullied by a colleague.

In interviews with 2,172 German workers, the researchers from Germany's Federal Institute for Occupational Safety wanted to test their theory that being bullied by a superior is more detrimental to a worker's health than being bullied by co-workers, and was a cause of depression. Previous studies, they said, suggested the health effects of bullying differed based on "perpetrator type" and corresponding response strategies from affected workers.

However, the results, including five-year follow-up data, show that while bullying from superiors was more common, it was not more detrimental to victim's mental health than bullying by colleagues, and "the opposite might even be the case". "The risk for depressive symptoms at follow-up was two-and-a-half times higher among employees being severely bullied by co-workers than among their non-bullied counterparts," the researchers found. "Neither occasional bullying nor severe bullying by superiors showed a significant effect after five years."
Read more: Stefanie Lange, et al, Workplace bullying and depressive symptoms among employees in Germany: prospective associations regarding severity and the role of the perpetrator, [Full article] International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, online first November 2019, doi: 10.1007/s00420-019-01492-7 Source: OHSAlert.

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