Vulnerable Workers in the Global Economy

Following a shift in the global economy, many U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. Workers in the developing world are finding themselves exposed to chemicals, high noise, unguarded machinery and other safety hazards.

Manufacturing in the global economy has made a dramatic shift in the last decade from relatively well-regulated, high-wage, often unionized plants in the developed world to very low-wage, basically unregulated, non-union production facilities in the developing world.

Last year, for example, 100 percent of television sets sold in the United States, more than 80 percent of other electronic products, 75 percent of toys, and two-thirds of the $180 billion U.S. clothing market were produced in the developing world.

Workers in these factories are often subjected to uncontrolled chemical exposures, high noise and temperature levels, unguarded machinery and other safety hazards, as well as ergonomic hazards from long hours of intensive manual assembly tasks. Worker training on the nature of these hazardous exposures and how they can be reduced or eliminated is virtually unknown.

Many countries, such as Indonesia and Guatemala, have limited or very general regulations on occupational safety and health, while other countries, like Mexico or China, have adequate laws that are simply not enforced in any meaningful way.

Reasons for Non-Enforcement of EHS Laws

Part of the reason for the non-enforcement of occupational safety and health laws is the lack of resources human, financial and technical in developing countries. Budget austerity programs imposed by international financial agencies force governments to slash public expenditures, including those for the recruitment, training and equipping of workplace safety inspectors. Corruption at all levels of regulatory development and enforcement is also a major factor working against workplace health and safety.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of political will to enforce existing rules or to create new ones. Many developing countries, such as Mexico, 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. So any policy that "discourages foreign investment" such as enforcement of occupational and environmental health laws is economic suicide and a political impossibility.

Many of the U.S.-based transnational corporations that dominate the global consumer market no longer own and operate their own factories. Instead, they are at the top end of a long production chain of contractors, sub-contractors, brokers, agents and on down to the level of industrial homework in workers' houses. Most of the corporate codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility departments that were developed in the wake of exposés of global sweatshops in the garment, sports shoe and toy industries do not have the funding or staff to have a meaningful and consistent impact on the plant floors around the world. Some of the corporate codes and monitoring mechanisms are nothing more than public relations exercises.

Economic Needs of Workers

For many workers in the developing world, their economic needs are so desperate they cannot refuse work, no matter how dangerous or unsafe. Forty percent of the world's population, almost 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, with 1.3 billion living on less than $1 a day. The number of countries defined as "least developed," those with 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. Eighty countries have seen a decline in real per capita income in the last 10 years.

Some 150 million workers in the world at least 70 million in China alone are "migrant" or "immigrant" workers working outside their home countries or regions. More than 30 million workers globally are employed in formal "export processing zones," like the "maquiladoras" in Mexico and Central America, where the application of national regulations and international conventions has been explicitly limited or prohibited altogether.

In addition, 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. In addition, the lack of labor rights and political freedom in many of the countries now producing for the global market means that workers cannot organize to protect themselves on any level.

Workers without the ability to safely organize in their workplaces have little ability to participate in plant health and safety committees, to set reasonable working hours and production goals, and to curb physical and sexual harassment on the job all issues with a direct impact on workplace safety.

Three Key Players

With this socioeconomic context in mind, strategies for improving working conditions in the developing world center on the three key players in occupational safety and health globally: employers, governments and workers.

If working conditions are to improve, then employers, from transnationals to local subcontractors, must actually implement their corporate codes of conduct, obey national laws and international norms, and adopt industry "best practices." Compliance up and down the supply chain can be motivated by the longstanding evidence that "safety pays" and, where necessary, the application of pressure from adverse publicity by anti-sweatshop campaigns.

Governments in the producing countries must allocate the resources necessary to develop an adequate regulatory framework and to actually enforce their own laws. In order to generate the political will and resources necessary to achieve these goals, big-picture issues like debt relief, technology transfer and professional development in the developing world must be addressed.

Moreover, governments must include protections of labor rights in trade and investment treaties now being negotiated around the world. These must include workplace health and safety protections that are at least as enforceable as treaty provisions protecting intellectual property rights. The core conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), with the addition of the key ILO occupational health conventions, are a logical starting point for a global floor of workplace safety norms.

An indispensable element for any effective workplace safety program is informed and empowered workers able to recognize hazards and to work with plant management to evaluate and correct the hazards. This requires that employers and governments promote worker education and seek meaningful participation of workers in plant-wide health and safety committees and other such venues for improving working conditions.

The Role of the Safety Professional

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals have a key role to play in facilitating this multi-level approach to addressing sweatshop conditions in the global economy.

OHS professionals can help build the capacity of plant-level managers, supervisors and workers through technical assistance, information and training. Professional associations can mobilize and focus the expertise and experience of their members in technology transfers, promotion of best practices, and research leading to effective control measures for new and newly recognized hazards.

As consumers and as citizens, OHS professionals can encourage employers and governments to meet their legal and ethical responsibilities, and to undertake new initiatives to prevent a race to the bottom in occupational health and safety as the economy continues to globalize and bring new, vulnerable workforces onto the world's factory floors.

Garrett Brown is the coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network in Berkeley, Calif.

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