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The global threats to workers' health and safety on the job.


AUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT OF EVERY WORKING PERSON IS TO BE ABLE TO return home at the end of the workday alive and healthy. For 6,000 workers in the United States in 2001, this right ended with their death on the job. Sixteen workers a day left home never to return. In the same year, there were over 100,000 deaths from occupational diseases and more than one million lost-time injuries (BLS website).

With China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and with average manufacturing wages of 20 to 25 cents per hour, it is widely predicted that China will become the "export platform" for the entire world in the coming years. In China during the first half of 2001, 47,000 workers were killed at work, according to official statistics, meaning that 258 Chinese workers left for work every day and were killed on the job (Kurtenbach, 2001).

The rate of acute poisoning accidents in Beijing has doubled since 1994, according to the city's health bureau, and about 2.1 million workers in the Chinese capital are exposed to toxic dusts, chemicals, and other airborne hazards at work (Han, 2002). In the developing world, it is estimated that for every fatality, there are 750 disabling injuries (Levine, 2000). Thus, for the first six months of 2001, 35.2 million Chinese workers were permanently or temporarily disabled at work.

Worldwide, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, there are two million fatalities on the job each year (3,300 deaths per day) and 160 million new cases of work-related diseases (ICFTU, 2002). Moreover, it is estimated that for each fatality there are 1,200 accidents resulting in three or more days off from work and 5,000 accidents requiring first aid (Takala, 2002).

The right to a safe and healthful workplace is under threat around the world as the globalized economy puts tremendous downward pressure on occupational health and safety regulations and their enforcement. "The global race to the bottom" affects developing and developed economies as transnational corporations roam the worldlooking for the lowest wages, the most vulnerable workforces, and the least regulation of environmental and occupational health.

The Global Economy

In 1999, 51 of the 100 largest economies on the planet were not countries, but rather multinational corporations (MNCs). The 500 largest MNCs account for 70% of world trade, including one-third of all manufacturing exports, three-quarters of all commodity trade, and four-fifths of technical and management services trade. These giant MNCs account for two-thirds of all industrial investment in "lesser developed countries" (LaDou, 1999). Now there are more than 60,000 MNCs with 700,000 subsidiaries around the world (Kearney, 2002).

Manufacturing in the new global economy has shifted from "well regulated," high paying, often unionized plants in the industrial countries to very low wage, unregulated, and nonunion production facilities in the developing world, each competing with one another for maximum "competitive advantage." Production is organized through long supply chains involving contractors, multiple subcontractors, brokers and agents, down to industrial homework, generating myriad components for assembly and shipment to the consumer countries. Nike, for example, contracts out work to 750 factories in over 50 countries, while over 20,000 factories around the globe make Disney-branded products (O'Rourke, 2001).

Around the world, some 27 million workers are in "free trade" or "export processing" zones that are frequently precluded by law from regulating wages, hours, and working conditions (Kearney, 2002). The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that at least 246 million children, five to 14 years of age, are working full or part time every day. The organization estimates that over 150 million people, some 70 million in China and 50 million in Africa alone, are working outside their countries or away from their home regions within their country (ICFTU, 2001). These extremely vulnerable workers make up a significant portion of the global workforce.

Never equitable, the world economy has grown increasingly unequal over the past decade, at the level of the individual and the population. According to the United Nations Development Program, the three richest individuals in the world have more assets than the poorest 48 countries, while the richest 200 people have more income than do the poorest 2.5 billion people on the planet. Forty percent of the world's population, almost three billion people, live on less than two dollars a day, with 1.3 billion living on less than one dollar per day. Worldwide, 840 million people are malnourished, 1.3 billion have no access to clean water, and 11,000 children die every day of starvation (Gates, 2001; Williamson, 2000). Not surprisingly, some 70% of the world's poor are women and girls (LaBotz, 2001).

The number of countries classified as "least developed," that is, having a per capita income of less than $900 a year or $75 a month, has doubled from 25 to 49 in the last 30 years, despite decades of aid, trade, and "development" (Associated Press, July 22, 2001). Eighty countries have seen real per capita income decline in the last 10 years (Gates, 2001).

The economic power of the MNCs also translates into tremendous political leverage and influence, which is frequently used to undermine existing regulations, prevent new regulations, and render toothless national and international regulatory agencies. At the same time, the top six corporations in the world have higher revenues than any government in the world, except for the United States. These six have more income than do 64 governments in countries with 58% of the world's population. For example, in 1998 Wal-Mart had sales of $119 billion, which exceeds the combined revenues of the governments of India ($52 billion) and Russia ($57 billion) for that year (Gray, 1999).

This, then, is the context for protecting workers' health and safety on the job. Ferocious global economic competition has spawned a relentless search by multinational corporations for the lowest production costs. The growing immiseration of the world's workers has created a huge pool of labor desperate for work and unable to refuse even the most dangerous conditions. Immensely powerful transnational corporations have the financial, human, and technical resources to intervene in the economic and political lives of any country on the face of the earth.

Impact of the Global Economy on the Developing World

The developing world has long been the dumping ground for toxic wastes from the industrialized world, as well as for pesticides and pharmaceuticals that have been banned by the United States and other governments (IJOEH special series, 2001,2002; LaDou, 1991,1996,1999; Castleman, 1999; Meeran, 2000; Markoff, 2002; Cauvin, 2002; Jeter, 2002; SVTC, 2002). In the last two decades, however, the economies of developing countries have expanded beyond natural-resource extraction to include increasing amounts of industrial production of consumer goods for markets in the developed world. In 2001, for example, 100% of television sets sold in the United States, over 80% of other electronics, and two-thirds of the $180-billion U.S. clothing market were produced outside the U.S. (Meyerhoff, 2001; O'Rourke, 2001). Low wages are a large part of the reason for the manufacturing shift to the developing world. In 1998, the average apparel wage in the United States was $8.42, while it was 69 cents in the Dominican Republic, 50 to 54 cents in Mexico, 23 cents in China, 10 cents in Indonesia, and just four cents in Burma (Myanmar) (NLC, 2001).

Reduced or no costs for environmental and occupational health protection is another significant factor in the global shift in production. Many countries, such as Indonesia and Guatemala, have extremely limited or very general regulations on occupational health and safety. Others, like Mexico and China, have legal requirements that are not enforced in any meaningful way. Part of the reason for non-enforcement is the lack of resources -- human, financial, and technical -- in developing countries. Austerity plans imposed by international financial agencies slash public expenditures and personnel in this area as well as in other government functions. Corruption at all levels of regulatory development and enforcement is also a major factor working against workplace health and safety (Stiglitz, 2002).

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of political will to enforce existing rules or to create new ones. Most developing countries are heavily indebted to private banks (overwhelmingly U.S. based) and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These countries are completely dependent on foreign investment to pay the interest, let alone the principal, on these debts. Thus, any policy that "discourages foreign investment" -- such as enforcement of occupational and environmental health laws -- is economic suicide and apolitical impossibility.

The lack of independent, member-controlled unions in countries like China, Mexico, or Vietnam means that the positive impact of unions in facilitating regulatory enforcement and management compliance with health and safety regulations is absent. Studies of the "union effect" on workplace health and safety in Britain, Canada, and the United States have documented that union-supported workplace health and safety committees have had a "significant impact in reducing injury rates" (O'Neill, 2002; Abrams, 2001; Ochsner and Greenberg, 1998; Reilly et al., 1995).

In addition, the lack of labor rights and political freedom in many of the countries now producing goods for the global consumer market means that workers cannot organize to protect themselves on any level. Workers' lack of political power or influence in society usually means inadequate health services on and off the job, repression against and reprisals for political organizing efforts, and a government subservient to foreign investors. Workers without the ability to organize in their workplaces have little ability to reduce working hours, to set reasonable production goals, and to curb physical and sexual harassment on the job -- all issues with a direct impact on workplace safety.

Working Conditions

The actual working conditions in plants in the developing world vary, depending on the country, the industry, and the ownership or management of the factories. One scenario is the maquiladora assembly plants on the U.S.-Mexico border, which are directly operated by U.S.-based "Fortune 500" companies. Many of these corporations claim to have "one global standard" for their facilities around the world. However, many academic studies, government reports, and worker testimony from the border indicate that the reality on the factory floor is often very different (Kourous, 1998; Lemus and Barkin, 1998; Frumkin, 1999; Takaro et al., 1999; Brown, 2000a and 2000b; The Economist, 2001; Greider, 2001b; Nauman, 2001).

Lacking in many maquila plants in Mexico are: effective safety programs and employee training, engineering controls or personal protective equipment for chemical exposures, machine guarding, effective controls for noise, heat stress, and ergonomics, and often the trained professionals needed to develop and manage safety programs. These conditions have been documented in numerous reports and in complaints filed under the "labor side agreement" of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Lemus, 1995; Brown, 1999, 2000c; Human Rights Watch, 2001; Greider, 2001a; Gallagher, 2002).

Conditions in contractor plants in the developing world, or those operated to produce for the domestic markets there, are generally worse than the maquiladoras. In 2001, an official Ministry of Labor report from El Salvador stated that forced overtime, substandard wages, excessive production quotas, abusive and unsafe working conditions, and an animus against labor unions prevailed in the country's 229 contract garment factories that export to the United States. The report noted a widespread perception among workers that labor inspectors are corrupt and said that there is an "urgent need for a leap in the quality of the work of the Ministry of Labor in its principal activities" (Kaufman and Gonzalez, 2001; Brazil, 2001).

In China, an official Ministry of Health survey found that over the last two decades, over 20 million township businesses have been created and that 60% of these have "minimal industrial safety measures" (Xinhua News Agency, 2002). One estimate from 2001 was that at least 50,000 fingers, hands, and arms were amputated in Chinese factories during the previous year (Kurtenbach, 2001).

Han Zhili, director of a citizen's rights center in China, was quoted in an official newspaper of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security as stating:

Our labor relations are going back in time, back to the early days of the industrial revolution in 19th-century Europe. Many of the enterprises set up with investment from Asian countries, along with privately owned Chinese enterprises, have reduced working conditions to a situation comparable to the initial period of capital accumulation that accompanied the appearance of capitalism. Workers are forced to labour long hours for very low wages and even to sign "life and death" contracts with employers. The problem is particularly serious in the southeast coastal regions and in Taiwanese and South Korean-owned factories (Pringle, 2001).

One marker of the poor state of workplace safety in the developing world is that hundreds of workers die every year in factory fires, especially in Asia. Even simple "life safety" measures had not been followed in industrial blazes in Thailand (the 1993 Kador toy factory fire killed 188), Bangladesh (the 2000 Chowdhury Knitwear fire killed 52), and in the dozens of factory fires in China during this period.

In addition to these new industrial enterprises, there are longstanding issues of occupational health threats in agriculture (especially pesticide exposures), mining and oil, fishing and forestry, and child labor in economic sectors such as Asian rug production and African cocoa cultivation (where de facto slavery still exists) (See IJOEH special series, 2001, 2002; Fassa et al., 2000; Biggs, 2002; Hiba, 2002; ILO, 2002.)

Community Health Threats

A final aspect of occupational health in the developing world is the ubiquitous "community exposure" associated with the operations of new industrial facilities. Plants that do not devote adequate resources and efforts to protecting worker health rarely protect the surrounding community from ground, air, and water pollution.

According to Mexico's National Institute for Statistics, Geography, and Information Systems (INEGI), the average amounts of soil erosion, solid waste generation, and air pollution have increased 63% since 1988, when Mexico first began large-scale integration into the global economy. Real spending on environmental protection has declined by 45%, or $200 million, since 1994 when NAFTA went into effect, and the number of environmental inspections has declined by over 40% in the same period, according to INEGI (Gallagher, 2002).

Workers in Mexico's maquiladoras or those at Union Carbide's Bhopal, India, plant often live immediately adjacent to the worksite, in part because wages are so low that they need to be able to walk to work. Not only do workers in the community suffer the catastrophic effects of disasters like that at Bhopal, but they also regularly receive a "double dose" of toxic exposures -- at work and in their homes and communities.

The overlap of occupational and community/environmental exposures occurs in the developed and developing worlds. Immigrant farm workers in California bring home pesticides on their clothing, while other immigrant laborers in the U.S. who remove asbestos in construction sites without the legally required controls bring home asbestos fibers on their clothing. Family members of asbestos-exposed workers in Los Angeles have developed cancer and died, while residents of California's "Silicon Valley" and Anniston, Alabama, have developed serious illnesses from industrial pollutants in the groundwater from semiconductor and chemical manufacturing plants in the area (Grunwald, 2002; Girion, 2002; Bailar et al., 2002; SVTC, 2002).

Impact of the Global Economy on the Developed World

The shift of manufacturing out of the industrialized world into developing countries has had an immediate and ongoing impact on workers' health and safety in the developed world as well. "A race to the bottom" has been generated by economic pressures to cut all production-related costs, including occupational and environmental regulatory compliance. Regulatory agencies' enforcement capacities have been systematically weakened via political campaigns by corporate lobbyists and business-backed politicians.

This has been most clearly seen in the downward pressure on regulations and enforcement in the United States. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been almost completely unable to promulgate any new occupational health regulations for more than a decade. In March 2001 the U.S. Congress, supported by President George W. Bush, repealed a regulation on workplace ergonomics that had been in the making for over 10 years and that addressed the largest single source of worker injuries and disabilities in the U.S. In April 2002, OSHA announced a voluntary ergonomics program that contained no new enforcement provisions (OSHA, 2002; Greenhouse, 2002).

OSHA is enforcing outdated, 34-year-old "Permissible Exposure Limits" (PELs) for chemical exposures to workers. The chemical exposure limits now in force, in 2002, are the same 1968 "Threshold Limit Values" (TLVs) of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), which were incorporated into federal law in 1970 when OSHA was formed. An attempt by OSHA to update the PELS to the 1989 ACGIH TLVs was challenged by business groups and overturned by the federal courts in 1991. No other action has been taken by OSHA since then, nor is any update activity currently planned. The Bush administration plans no significant rule-making activities on either health or safety standards, according to its proposed agenda, and has shelved more than a dozen initiatives pending under the Clinton administration (Dawson, 2002; Nash, 2002; Meister, 2002; Jordan, 2002).

The number of workplace health inspectors, as well as personnel for wage, hour, and jobsite discrimination investigations, have declined over time, and the ratio of inspectors to workers is now well below that obtaining in the 1950s at the time of President Eisenhower (Ross, 2001). In California, the world's fifth-largest economy with 1.1 million workplaces and 16.6 million workers, there were only 185 Cal/OSHA field inspectors to enforce workplace health and safety laws in March 2002. This means that every health and safety inspector is responsible for 89,730 workers and 5,946 workplaces. There are 60% more fish and game wardens in California than workplace safety inspectors. By way of comparison, the ratio of inspectors to workers and workplaces in British Columbia, Canada, is one inspector to 9,549 workers and 845 workplaces (Beck, 2001).

The lack of updated standards and new rules to address newly recognized hazards, plus the lack of resources (human, financial, and technical) for enforcement activities, clearly indicate that even a rich and powerful government like that of the United States is headed in the same direction as developing countries like Mexico, Indonesia, and China. The global "race to the bottom," combined with declining rates of unionization in the United States (where only 10% of private-sector workers are represented by a labor union), means that workers in nonunion workplaces are less able to protect themselves against cost-cutting policies that weaken job safety. Even unionized job sites are under tremendous pressure to "cooperate" in reducing production and compliance costs -- or face the prospect of job losses when plants close and move offshore (Bronfenbrenner, 2000).

Recent reports by the news media on working conditions in the United States highlight the impact of globalization on workers' health and safety in the world's most developed economy. Articles have been published on the soaring rates of workplace fatalities among immigrant and non-English-speaking workers in construction, services, and manufacturing (Maier, 2001, 2002; Hopkins, 2002; Greenhouse, 2001), the reemergence of industrial "home work" even in Silicon Valley's high-tech semiconductor industry (Ewell and Ha, 1999), and brutal working conditions in the long-distance trucking industry, "sweatshops on wheels" (Thomas, 2001).

The Way Forward

Although the threats to workplace health and safety are growing, so is an international response by community-based organizations, unions, students, religious groups, human rights organizations, environmentalists, and occupational safety and health professionals. These growing efforts indicate that there is hope for resolving the "crisis of health and safety" in the world's workplaces. The Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters, one meaning "danger" and the other "opportunity." The "danger" in the present situation is obvious. A global race to the bottom in terms of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions is accelerating as workers are forced to compete with one another in providing the world's "lowest cost" production facility. There is the increasing inequity of toxic exposures as the developing world acquires toxic work processes as well as toxic wastes from the developed world. There is the combination of occupational and environmental exposures in both the developing and developed worlds.

Nevertheless, there are also growing "opportunities" for worldwide actions to bring about a safer and healthier future. Possibly the only positive aspect of NAFTA has been the explosion of cross-border organizing by environmentalist, labor, community-based, religious, and women's and human rights groups in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. The problems created on the border by globalization are being addressed globally and through joint campaigns for environmental protection and support for workers trying to protect their health (Merideth and Brown, 1995; Bacon, 2001; MHSSN website).

Worldwide corporate campaigns against companies like Nike, Liz Claiborne, and Disney have led to small but meaningful improvements in the working conditions in some of their hundreds of factories around the world. The student-based "anti-sweatshop" movement has led to modest improvements in factories in the developed and developing worlds.

Many occupational health and safety professionals have taken the opportunity to become "part of the solution rather than part of the problem" through collaboration with workers and their organizations in the U.S. and throughout the world. In Oakland, California, occupational health professionals from the University of California at San Francisco and the state Department of Health Services are working with the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) to meet the needs of Asian garment sweatshop workers in a community-based health clinic and an ergonomics project to design worker-friendly sewing machines and work stations (AIWA website). In Los Angeles, California, health educators at the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) at UCLA are providing trainings and information to dozens of Latin and Asian garment workers in Los Angeles' 6,000 sweatshops by working with the Garment Workers Center in the city (Sweatshop Watch website).

Occupational health professionals who are members of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) have worked for nine years with community-based organizations of maquiladora workers in Mexico to provide trainings and technical assistance. Over the last two years, the project has expanded to include capacity-building health and safety trainings with labor unions and nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and southern China (MHSSN website). Members of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) worked on a national task force to write a strong anti-sweatshop "White Paper," which was approved by the AIHA's Board of Directors in March 2001. They are now trying to implement it in collaboration with international institutions (such as the International Occupational Hygiene Association and the International Labor Organization) and with community-based organizations representing workers throughout the world (AIHA website).

The global threats to workplace health and safety have never been greater, but the opportunities for meeting those threats are also more numerous today than ever before. Current avenues for change include:

* Citizen efforts to push the U.S. government to include an "upward harmonization of regulation" approach to all international trade and investment agreements, to improve national legislation, and to help transfer health and safety technology and skills to countries in the developing world;

* Consumer efforts to push the transnationals to mobilize the financial and human resources necessary to ensure safe, healthy, and just workplaces in their facilities worldwide; and

* Occupational and public health professionals' efforts to support the work of local organizations of workers, their families, and their communities in the developing and developed worlds to improve working conditions and labor practices around the world.

In a global economy where all parts are irrevocably linked to all others, those of us concerned about safe and healthful workplaces must work together for a world where the "race to the bottom" does not consign the vast majority of the world's people to lives spent locked inside unsafe factories and adjacent poisoned communities.


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GARRETT BROWN (P.O. Box 124, Berkeley, CA 94701-0124; e-mail:, a Certified Industrial Hygienist, is coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, a member of the International Affairs and Social Concerns Committees of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and a member of the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association.
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Author:Brown, Garrett D.
Publication:Social Justice
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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