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Ethnic workers face health risk

By Chloe Saltau, Social Policy Reporter, The Age,
Friday 10 March 2000

Women textile workers from non-English-speaking backgrounds are more vulnerable to occupational, emotional and reproductive health problems than other women in the industry.

A report, Working Women's Health - a statewide health service for immigrant women - concluded the occupational health and safety regulations catered mostly for men's needs and, in particular, neglected women from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

It also said that ethnic women who were injured at work rarely made claims for WorkCover, partly because of language difficulties and lack of access to information, which means that they are often forced to work until they are chronically injured.

Employers would rather push people to resign from their job by ignoring the doctor's advice of injury management or by humiliating them. Therefore, it is probable that many non-English-speaking-background injured people who want to keep their employment have to put up with being humiliated by their employers while they endure the pain from injury or disease, the report said.

In Australia, 65 per cent of textile, clothing and footwear workers are women and three- quarters are immigrants from non-English-speaking countries. The workers also have the second-highest rate of work-related injuries and illness in the manufacturing industry.

The report, Seamstress, was launched yesterday at a women's health expo in Collingwood to celebrate International Women's Day. It drew attention to the main illnesses affecting ethnic women in the textile industry - musculoskeletal disorders related to occupational overuse syndrome, work-related eyesight problems, industrial deafness and the damaging effects of dust and hazardous substances.

It showed musculoskeletal disorders worsened as women worked longer in the textile industry, and suggested ethnic women worked under enormous pressure at the bottom of the capitalist economic production chain to meet rush orders for retailers.

Ms Adele Murdolo, the Working Women's health coordinator, said it was crucial that industrial policies kept pace with the transformation of the textile industry - the downsizing of the industry since the mid-1980s and the massive shift from factory-based work to the outworking sector - which was having a serious impact on the health of female employees.

It is not acceptable that the direction in which our industries, our work practices and industrial policies are heading should impact so adversely on non-English-speaking background women workers' health, Ms Murdolo said. We should be making changes that improve our health status, not diminish it.

The report found that female outworkers from ethnic communities, who were generally paid low hourly rates, were the most vulnerable to work-related illness.