Archive for the ‘workplace safety’ Category
Friday, December 18th, 2015
For the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed—and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers—is expected to be finalized in February.
The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.
According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.
“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica—particles small enough to inhale—a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.
OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8-hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.
Blocking the new standard?
Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill—the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget—was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.
“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.
The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.
In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.
But as NIOSH itself has written:
There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.
“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.
“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.
But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.
Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health
But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.
Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.
“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”
And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies”—and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.
So what’s likely to happen?
“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.
But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”
About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Grossman. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
Monday, April 28th, 2014
On the one-year anniversary of the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory in Bangladesh—one small component of the multi-billion dollar global garment industry—labor groups around the world are taking to the streets, chanting “never again.” In Bangladesh, family members of the over 1,100 garment workers killed joined former workers and protesters outside the site of the collapse, while activists in London formed a human chain on the city’s busiest shopping street to urge local retailers to be more transparent about working conditions in their supply chains.
In the year since the collapse, advocates say they have successfully shifted the conversation about responsibility for factory production conditions to the multinational corporations themselves—such as Benetton and Nordstrom, both of which had tags found in the Rana Plaza wreckage. The groups have also begun to facilitate a dialogue around the ways in which corporations profit from low wages and corner-cutting on safety for the production of the cheap, fashionable clothes they peddle.
But while the media may recognize that the responsibility for garment workers belongs to the multinational companies that outsource to them, few corporations have taken part in the concrete steps championed by advocacy groups to help victims. For example, a compensation fund for victims was set up to enable retailers to donate to the impacted workers, but only $15 million—one-third of the $40 million goal—has been raised by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which chairs the fund.
The corporate community’s inaction has left survivors scrambling to make a living without adequate healthcare or wages, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Another round of interviews conducted by ActionAid, a global NGO, interviewed 1,436 survivors and 786 family members of workers who died in the Rana collapse. The study found that two-thirds of them had trouble buying food, and half found it difficult to make rent. Almost three in four hadn’t been able to work, and 76 percent were still receiving medical treatment.
Rabeya Begum was one of the 2,500 workers rescued from the rubble. In December, Begum lost both of her legs due to injuries she sustained in the collapse. But because her legs were removed months after the incident, Begum missed out on the government compensation program meant to provide a guaranteed income to workers who had lost limbs in Rana Plaza. Without a guaranteed income, she has been relying on donations to survive, but says that money will soon be gone as well. “ I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” she told Human Rights Watch.
The ILO’s Convention 121 dictates the compensation due to an injured worker based on their loss of future earnings, as well as pain and suffering. After the Bangladeshi disaster, ILO proposed $40 million in compensation for survivors.
But according to Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the forum, there are no legal mechanisms compelling retailers to pay into the compensation fund. That loophole made attempts to compel multinationals to pay damages for an earlier disaster—a 2012 factory fire in Bangladesh which left over 100 dead—all but futile.
For Rana Plaza workers, the first installment of fund payouts as it stands will be $645 per worker.
(In 2012, the year before the walls of Rana Plaza crumbled, Walmart, one of the largest multinationals that allegedly outsourced to Rana Plaza—a claim the company denied—made $17 billion in profits.)
Aside from material relief, one of the concrete gains that came out of the post-collapse outcry was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement overseen by the ILO and several workers rights groups. The accord sets safety standards and mandates public reporting of independent safety inspections. Along with union signatories, over 150 apparel corporations have signed on to the accord, though major U.S. companies like Gap and Walmart are conspicuous absences.
Though Walmart denies being an “authorized” supplier to Rana, news reports found that one of the factories listed Walmart as a client. The corporation has long been a target of labor groups in the U.S., that call on the company to improve working hours and benefits for associates in its stores, as well as for improved safety conditions in its warehouses.
Wal-mart hit abroad, and at home, with labor unrest
Thirty-some protesters picketed outside of a Walmart Express on Chicago’s North Side yesterday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, stressing that the differences in Walmart’s treatment of its workers in the supply chain are only of severity.
David Fields, 44, was among the group of Chicago-area protestors. Fields says he was fired from his job this month—as a forklift driver at a warehouse that supplies Walmart, half an hour south of the city in Hammond, Ind.— because he spoke out about the need for an adequate fire alarm system in the building. And that safety concern was only the tip of the iceberg, said Fields, who had been working at the warehouse since September. “At some point we all started feeling like modern day slaves,” he said, describing his days working in sub-zero temperatures during the icy polar vortex that hit Chicagoland this past winter. “They didn’t care that people were getting frost-bitten.”
Fields’ complaints carry echoes of those commonly made by workers in supply-chain factories overseas, especially the pressure to always speed up production and continue working in severe climate conditions. Najneen Akter Nazma, a factory worker who survived the Rana disaster—though her husband was killed—said she and her husband had been told about a crack running across the floor near his workstation, but knew they couldn’t take a day off work because it would cost them their monthly salary. And for Fields, a slippery floor in the warehouse, wet after a day of rain—which for his supervisors is no excuse to slow down work—carries with it the constant fear of being injured by the heavy loads he used to work with.
For his part, Fields was able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after he was fired. Garment workers in Bangladesh—who have long labored in unregulated industries—are offered few labor protections.
Feeling the heat, but is it enough?
Foxvog has said it’s clear the garment industry has felt the public pressure to take responsibility for its contract workers overseas, will it be enough to compel corporations to change production practices? A handful of North American industry leaders—including Walmart—created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in response to the disaster, which they say will release regular reports and maintain standards in Bangladesh factories, much in the same way the third-party Bangladesh Accord is intended to. Despite the promises of adequate oversight, only one of the 26 companies in the alliance—Fruit of the Loom—has signed onto the Bangladesh Accord, which has the backing of U.N. groups, unions and advocates.
In a statement on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Walmart stressed that “the safety of workers in our supply chain is very important” to the company. It went on to note that Walmart had made a $3 million contribution to a Bangladeshi humanitarian fund, while also touting its role in the alliance. Advocates want Walmart to instead pay into the ILO-led compensation fund, and sign on to the safety accord, which they argue has more impartial oversight.
Walmart has repeatedly denied its connection safety and workplace issues in its warehouses, and has used plausible deniability in the past to distance itself from its Bangladeshi suppliers. Still, thanks to international pressure—and despite its initial denials of responsibility—Walmart has been forced to publicly address the conditions in Bangladesh, and make minor concessions.
But that strategy hasn’t carried over to the company’s stateside operations. Walmart has claimed it is not responsible for the conditions in the Chicago-area distribution warehouse as workers were employed through a “third party service provider,” essentially proxies the company uses to contract with the warehouses. Only time will tell if the burgeoning movements against Walmart’s labor practices in the U.S. will eventually win comparable victories.
To keep a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse from occurring again, workers groups are calling for a fair-trade, unionized workforce as the only way to keep companies accountable, both at home and overseas.
For Foxvog, that means that “victims need compensation,” but also that workers must be afforded the “the right to refuse dangerous work” when they fear the foundations of their building won’t stand, a right denied the workers of Rana Plaza, and with deadly consequences.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 26, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others.
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
While hospitals are better known for treating injuries than causing them, statistics show that for workers, hospitals can be a dangerous place. A new report put out by Public Citizen found that in 2010, healthcare workers (including hospital staff) reported 653,900 workplace injuries and illnesses. That’s approximately 152,000 more (a 432 percent higher rate) than the industry with the second highest number of injuries—manufacturing—even though the healthcare sector is only 134 percent larger than the manufacturing sector.
Part of the reason that healthcare workers’ injuries may have flown under the radar is because of the type of injury involved. Unlike manufacturing and construction, where injuries are more likely to result in death, healthcare workers mainly suffer non-lethal musculoskeletal disorders. The rate of musculoskeletal disorders among workers in the healthcare industry is seven times higher than among other workers—a trend that Suzy Harrington, director of the American Nurses Association’s Department for Health, Safety and Wellness, calls “alarming.” Although these conditions aren’t fatal, if untreated, they can lead to permanent disability.
The most common cause of musculoskeletal injuries for healthcare workers is lifting patients by hand instead of using a mechanical device. Yet while ten states, including Washington, California and Maryland, have dramatically reduced injuries by passing safe patient handling laws, which mandate that hospitals “furnish mechanical lifting and transfer devices,” no nationwide standard exists to protect healthcare workers.
Another major danger for healthcare workers is workplace violence. Workers in the healthcare sector suffer 45 percent of all incidents of workplace violence, and nursing home employees are especially affected, with seven times the average rate of injury from workplace violence. Violence in medical settings may arise from interactions with belligerent patients, who may be drunk, drugged or emotionally disturbed. Yet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has never made a rule to require healthcare facilities to implement safeguards for their employees (such as metal detectors, security guards or even locked doors to isolate patients in guarded areas.) This is part of a larger problem: There are no federal OSHA rules requiring employers to ensure workplaces are safe from violence.
But workplace safety advocates say that OSHA’s particular lack of focus on the healthcare sector is symptomatic of the agency’s slow response to the shift to a service-based economy.
“OSHA has not been able to keep pace with the way the economy has shifted over the last 20 years,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for progressive watchdog group Public Citizen. “The economy has shifted away from one that is industrially-based to one that is service-based. They are hardly any rules that directly affect the healthcare industry. We counted them out and there are only nine rules, but if you look at construction and manufacturing, there are literally hundreds—and rightly so, those industries are highly dangerous.”
OSHA, for its part, insists that it is very concerned about safety in the healthcare industry.
“Employers have the legal responsibility to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards. They must take ownership over this issue, and our role is to see that they do,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels. “OSHA has a variety of tools at its disposal to hold employers accountable for safety and health, and we are committed to improving safety and health conditions for our nation’s healthcare workers. Under this administration, OSHA has done more than any previous administration to address the issues that persist in this industry.”
In response to questions from Public Citizen, OSHA elaborated on these efforts, explaining that it has instituted recent programs “to encourage employers in hospital and healthcare facilities to reduce hazards. For example, Assistant Secretary for OSHA David Michaels launched an OSHA initiative to work with hospitals and nursing homes to recognize the close link between patient safety and worker safety.”
However, when it came to passing concrete rules regulating the musculoskeletal injuries that plague the healthcare industry, OSHA ran up against a major stumbling block: Congress. In 2000, OSHA passed a rule aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries by making employers adopt measures shown to reduce ergonomic injuries. But in 2001, a Republican-led Congress repealed the rule. OSHA has since attempted to use the general duties clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite employers whose ergonomic conditions present a clear danger to workers, but that poses a trickier legal case to make than if there was were a specific rule, and in the past two fiscal years OSHA has only done so seven times, according to the report put out by Public Citizen.
In response to questions from Public Citizen about whether or not the agency intended to issue a another ergonomic rule, OSHA said, “At this time, OSHA is not pursuing a rule on safe patient handling for healthcare workers. We continue to be concerned about this serious issue and promote sensible solutions through the NEP [National Emphasis Program] guidance and outreach activities. However, OSHA does not have resources to move forward on all rulemaking necessary to address all the pressing workplace health and safety hazards.”
Rules, however, are only the first step. For instance, while OSHA has rules in place to prevent healthcare workers from being accidentally stabbed, they still suffer an alarming 400,000 stab wounds a year from surgical instruments and needles. Public Citizen’s Wrightston says that such injury rates are unnecessarily high because OSHA, with its limited budget of only $565 million, has few resources—and what resources it does have are not focused nearly enough on healthcare workers, he says.
“OSHA has devoted relatively little effort to addressing the safety risks in healthcare compared to other highly afflicted industries,” says Wrightson. “For example, health care workers outnumber construction workers more than 2 to 1, but OSHA conducts only about one-twentieth as many inspections of health care facilities as construction sites.”
Indeed, statistics show that OSHA conducted 52,179 inspections of the construction industry in 2010, which employs 9.1 million workers and saw 74,950 injuries that caused workers to take at least one day off work. In comparison, last year OSHA conducted only 2,540 inspections of the healthcare industry, though it employs more than twice as many workers and saw 176,380 such injuries.
Some of the differential is due to the higher mortality rate for construction injuries, which cause five times as many deaths on the job. However, according to the Public Citizen report, “Even if fatalities were the only factor considered, healthcare inspections would need to be increased by about a factor of four to bring them into parity with construction sector inspections.”
Another gap in OSHA coverage, advocates say, was built into the agency’s NEP iniative, which was created in 2011 to focus on nursing home occupational safety—but not hospitals. “We want the National Emphasis Program to focus on hospitals. OSHA could do this right now with the swipe of pen,” says Wrightson. “The reason that they have not concentrated on hospitals is due to industry lobbyists.”
OSHA did not answer Working In These Times’ inquiries about why the National Emphasis Program (NEP) has not been expanded to target hospitals, but did point to its educational programs on workplace safety for hospitals.
Advocates insist, however, that Congress and OSHA must go beyond education to better enforcement and rulemaking in order to prevent injuries in the healthcare workplace. At the end of the day, advocates say, those that suffer the most from injuries to healthcare workers are patients.
“[Musco-skeletal injuries are] a primary reason healthcare workers leave direct patient care,” says Harrington. “We can’t afford to lose healthcare workers to injury and still meet rising demands for healthcare services.”
Article originally posted on Working In These Times on July 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.
Friday, June 14th, 2013
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched an investigation into working conditions at Sewon America’s LaGrange, Ga., facility after an employee, Teresa Weaver Pickard, died after allegedly being forced to work in extreme heat. Sewon, a company that provides auto parts to Kia, denies Pickard’s death was work-related, but an anonymous source at the plant has disputed Sewon’s account of the tragedy.
Michael D’Aquino, an OSHA public affairs officer for the agency’s Atlanta-West office, confirmed the investigation, the LaGrange Citizen reports:
“We’ll be visiting the [Sewon plant] trying to learn what happened and in what order,” D’Aquino said. “We’ll be looking at physical evidence as well as talking to eyewitnesses and learning as much as possible about the incident.” OSHA also will look at previous reports of misconduct by Sewon, potentially including the 2010 death of a workerwho fell 50 feet in a construction accident.
While the Troup County coroner’s office has not released details of its investigation, which has been sent to the state crime lab in Atlanta, the LaGrange Citizen says an anonymous employee reported several details of the incident and work conditions at the factory that are troubling. The employee, who has worked at the location for two years, told the newspaper the assembly line was unbearably hot because the air conditioner on the line wasn’t working properly and several employees in the last week passed out while working.
“I heard that [Pickard] complained of chest pain several times before she was sent to the break room,” the newspaper quotes the employee as saying. Pickard was sent to a break room at that point, but that room also had no air conditioning, something the employee said management does to discourage loitering in the break room. The room was so hot, he said, candy in the vending machines melted. Pickard eventually was sent to the front office, where the employee said Pickard sat for three hours before an ambulance was called. Pickard reportedly died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Sewon says it conducted a “thorough” preliminary investigation and concluded Pickard’s death was not work-related:
On May 29, Mrs. Pickard arrived to the line at 6:30 a.m. Then, on or about 8:26 a.m., the management was made aware of Mrs. Pickard’s condition. The EMS was immediately contacted around 8:27 a.m. and EMS arrived about 8:37 a.m. Mrs. Pickard entered the ambulance under her own strength around 8:42 a.m. and left the facility to go to the hospital.
The lawyer for the Pickard family, Robert Bruner, told the newspaper the company’s press release was, at best, misleading, and that the company was not forthcoming with the family about the reasons for the death.
The anonymous employee reported work conditions at the plant are similar to a sweatshop. “It’s a really hostile environment,” the newspaper quoted. “I think [the managers] seek to create an adversarial relationship with employees,” he said. “If they had hot pokers, they’d stab you with them…. I really believe they have contempt for their workers.”
Sewon was fined $135,900 by OSHA for safety violations three years ago. “There is no reason to leave employees unprotected,” said Andre Richards, then-director of OSHA’s Atlanta-West Office. “Management is aware of the deficiencies in their safety and health program and needs to take action.”
Working America has more on this story.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 13, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
With a death toll of 1,127, the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh has earned the shameful distinction of being the sixth-worst worst industrial disaster in history.
There’s plenty of shame to go around—and not just for the building owner and factory operators who ignored clear warnings of danger. High on the dishonor roll are the multinational apparel companies who subcontract work to thousands of local Bangladeshi factories crammed into similar deathtraps. The government of Bangladesh, dominated by representatives of the nation’s largest industry, textiles, shares blame for its fecklessness and corruption.
U.S. government officials and members of Congress are also at fault. They have failed to insist on safe standards for production of goods in Bangladesh (four-fifths of whose garment output goes to the U.S. and the European Union) and continued to grant it trade preferences.
But in a glimmer of hope, the outcry over the scale of the carnage in Rana Plaza has begun to spur some long-overdue reforms.
After relentless international media coverage and protests and strikes in and around Dhaka, the Bangladeshi government announced yesterday that it was convening a panel to raise the minimum wage in the garment industry, currently the lowest in the world (around $38 a month).
And today, the government said it would make unionization less difficult in the garment sector. Currently, for a union to be certified, it must win support from 30 percent of workers, and the government gives the list of workers who sign up to the employer for verification. At that point, employers often intimidate or fire supporters to reduce union support. Bangladesh’s minister of textiles says that in the future, bosses will not see the list of signatories.
But the truth is that even government action and unionization are likely to be inadequate on their own. Pressure for cheaper production from the multinational corporations can overwhelm or corrupt governments and unions. That’s why another development spurred by the factory collapse is perhaps the most promising. Seven companies have acceded to calls by Bangladeshi garment-worker associations for a binding and enforceable fire and safety agreement.
Two initial signatories to the safety plan, PVH—parent of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands—and the German clothing company Tchibo, were joined today by five more big-brand companies: H&M, the Swedish firm that is the largest buyer of Bangladesh apparel; Inditex, parent of the Spain-based international retailer Zara; Primark, a UK firm that sourced products from one of the five Rana Plaza factories; the big British super-store chain Tesco; and the Dutch clothing company C&A. Now that it has passed the required four-signature threshold, the plan will likely go into effect.
The global union federations UNI and IndustriALL played a major role in bringing the primarily European companies on board. Workers at most of these companies in their home countries are unionized, and by taking advantage of relationships with such employees’ unions, the global federations have more clout than they do with typically non-union U.S. companies. GAP, Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney, for instance, have resisted signing the fire safety agreement, claiming it would be too expensive and would expose them to lawsuits.
This means that pressure on U.S. corporations from both citizens and consumers remains critical.
And for those who doubt that such pressure can be effective, a recent victory in Indonesia shows that U.S. crusades for worker justice in poor countries do work.
Just a day before the Rana Plaza collapse, United Students Against Sweatshops announced victory in a two-year campaign to force sportswear giant Adidas to pay legally mandated severance compensation to 2,700 Indonesian workers. The workers lost their jobs in 2010 when the Korean owner of PT Kizone, a contractor in Indonesia manufacturing shoes for Adidas, fled the country and abandoned his employees.
Labeling the brand “Badidas” for its refusal to pay the severance owed, USAS built the largest collegiate boycott of a major sportswear company in the organization’s 15-year history. By the time negotiators reached a settlement of the dispute that satisfied the workers, 17 colleges and universities had ended their contracts for producing college logo products with Adidas, and the University of Wisconsin was pursuing legal action against Adidas for allegedly breaking its anti-sweatshop contract with the university.
The victory was not only important as one of the largest global “wage theft” restorations, presumably—since the exact terms remain secret—providing close to the $3.4 million owed to 2,700 workers from all the major contracting firms (Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys).
More important, this campaign took a giant step towards establishing that multinationals must pay the price when their contractors evade legal obligations.
That precedent was first set in 2010, when USAS pressured Nike to assume responsibility for severance pay owed to 1,400 Honduran workers at a contractor that closed shop and abandoned them. Nike eventually paid a share of the severance obligations to the Indonesian workers, even as the number two company in sportswear, Adidas, fought on against USAS.
Now that Adidas, too, has taken responsibility, “we see this victory as building on the Nike precedent in the industry and setting a new norm in student apparel,” says Garrett Strain, USAS campaign coordinator.
If that norm—of deep-pocketed major corporations accepting responsibility for the rights and well-being of workers at their overseas contractors—wins out, the anti-sweatshop campaign will have established a moral principle internationally that is rarely followed or enforced in the United States.
There are sound reasons why companies like Adidas and Nike should pay up in a case like this. Although no one knows for sure why the Korean owner fled, he may have been pressured by the big brands to produce at such a low price that he would lose money, so he decided to take what he could and get out, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC is an independent investigative operation set up by universities who signed on to the USAS-backed code against sweatshop production of collegiate gear.
The big brands “are directly responsible,” Nova said. “A responsible company would set aside a fund for severance pay, but not doing so takes something out of labor costs. The brands and retailers know the cost of making a garment, but they’re happy to accept the lowest price. They know what they’re paying.”
Nova sees the big Indonesian victory as part of a “strategic moment that creates openings for much broader change, but at the same time we know this is an enormously powerful and ruthless industry. No one should have any illusions that the work is getting easier.”
Thousands of Bangladeshi workers—the injured, families of the dead, workers in their own dangerous sweatshops—have no such illusions. While it will not console them in their grief, the victory wrought by U.S. students in pinning responsibility on America’s big-brand companies could help pave the way to better protections for them as well.
This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on May 13, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.
Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
The West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where a fire and explosion last week claimed at least 14 lives—including 11 firefighters and EMTs—and injured more than 200, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.
In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.
While the plant reported that it was storing up to 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to state authorities—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh needed just two tons to blow up the federal building and kill 168 people—it did not report that fact to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:
Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.
While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.
There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.
In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”
What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.
While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.
Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.”
With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.
But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:
Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.
For a more detailed look at the regulatory history of the West Fertilizer plant, see this Huffington Post report by Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 23, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
The National Farm Workers’ Confederation (CNC) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada signed a historic agreement to ensure the rights of migrant agriculture workers are protected and defended in Mexico, Canada and the United States, reports UFCW Canada.
The agreement, which was signed last week, will result in better conditions for migrant Mexican agriculture workers in North America.
Labor rights training and proactive monitoring and advocacy also are integral to the agreement. UFCW Canada and the CNC plan to develop a comprehensive database and reports on the conditions facing migrant agriculture workers in Mexico, United States and Canada.
This research and analysis will be used also to develop programs to improve access to social programs and benefits such as health, housing and educational subsidies for the workers and members of their families.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 16, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Jackie Tortora is an blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.
Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Student guest workers on the J-1 cultural exchange visa program walked out of their jobs at Pennsylvania McDonald’s restaurants Wednesday morning, citing abuses of the same kinds that caused a walkout from a Hershey’s supplier in summer 2011. As a result of that strike, the State Department investigated the program and strengthened protections somewhat, but not enough, according to analysts at the time and as demonstrated by the fact that once again student guest workers are coming forward with allegations of wage and hour abuses and having unreasonable rents deducted from their paychecks for basement rooms shared by several people.
Sean Kitchen reports that, at a recent meeting in Harrisburg, some of the student workers described their living and working conditions:
While at work, these “students” were often forced to work from 6 or 7 in the morning to as late as 11 at night with only one 30 minute to hour break. And to top it off, these students are paid minimum wage for all the hours they worked, despite working well over 40 hours per week, qualifying them for overtime pay. […] Fernando told us about a story of retaliation from his employer. When he spoke out against the company’s tactics, the manager gave Fernando a 4 hour work week. When Fernando was explaining that this story to the room, he asked, “how am I suppose to pay a $300 rent when only working 4 hours in 1 week?”
One of the striking workers contacted the State Department, only to face intimidation in response:
Rios said that the US government responded by contacting GeoVisions, the organization that sponsored the trip; that triggered an unannounced visit to Rios’ shared basement room by a GeoVisions representative and Rios’ boss, McDonalds franchisee Andy Cheung. (GeoVisions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)Rios said that Cheung yelled at him, while the GeoVisions staffer stood by, hands shaking, acting like Cheung was his boss as well. “You could see he was scared,” said Rios. “He would say things like, ‘This doesn’t look so bad to me.’”
Participants pay $3,000 or more for the chance to join the program, which is billed as cultural exchange, an opportunity to experience the United States. Arguably, being mistreated at a low-wage job is an important part of the American experience these days, but should the State Department really be running that?
This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on March 6, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is an editor at the Daily Kos.
Thursday, January 31st, 2013
Oddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.
No, not doping.
It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.
Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.
More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.
But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.
Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.
Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.
After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.
Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.
A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.
Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:
“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”
After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.
Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.
Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.
Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.
More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.
But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.
This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.
Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
Showing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills. “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig
is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council
and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.