It’s Bike to Work Day! Here in DC 14,000 people signed up to participate, and volunteers staffed 72 pit stops to offer refreshments and prizes to cyclists. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of DC residents who commute by bike jumped from 5,667 to 9,669 (accounting for 2% of commuters in 2006 and 3.15% in 2011). Figures from other cities are available on this map from GOVERNING.
It’s not surprising that more DC commuters are biking, because over the past few years the city has made substantial investments in bicycling infrastructure. Our Capital Bikeshare system keeps expanding, and our District Department of Transportation has created 56 miles of marked bike lanes and installed 2,300 bike parking racks in recent years.
Investing in making bicycling safer and easier gets results: The League of American Bicyclists identified Bicycle Friendly Communities and found that the bike commuting rate has risen 80% in the largest of these communities, compared to 47% nationwide. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County by County blog draws an even clearer line between cycling and pedestrian infrastructure improvements and public health, noting, “Research shows that cycling and pedestrian infrastructure improvements such as bicycle lanes, bicycle racks, bicycle/walking trails, and shared bicycle programs promote physical activity.
Riding a bike is a great way to get some exercise while saving money on transportation. Still, cycling isn’t as safe as it could be. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2011, 677 cyclists were killed and another 48,000 injured in traffic crashes. Drivers and cyclists both need to be aware of one another and follow the rules, and infrastructure that physically separates bike lanes from traffic lanes can also be helpful. Enforcement is also essential, as many cyclists frustrated by U-turning drivers on DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes can attest.
The Department of Transportation’s Share the Road Safely website has tips for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Keep your fellow road users in mind as you make your way home tonight!
The residents of Battlement Mesa didn’t want their “Colorado Dream” —the community’s slogan—-to turn into their nightmare. The unincorporated 3,200 acre, residential community offers its 5,000 residents high desert mountain views above the Colorado River, and boasts of opportunities for hiking, birding, golfing, fishing and hunting. But in 2009, Antero Resources identified the Battlement Mesa locale in Garfield County as a proposed site for 200 natural gas wells. That move raised concerns among the residents on how hydrofracking projects might change their way of life. They’d read the news reports about fumes, dust and noise from other communities where natural gas production sites were prevalent. Could they expect the same?
The residents’ quest for answers took the form of a petition delivered in late 2009 to the Board of County Commissioners of Garfield County, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. The residents’ group, called Battlement Concerned Citizens, urged the government officials:
“to defer any permitting decisions related to natural gas exploration and/or production within the Planned Unit Development of Battlement Mesa until a thorough study of public health, safety and welfare concerns associated with urban natural gas development has been completed.”
BCC specifically asked County and State officials to conduct a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) before any special use permit for natural gas exploration and development was approved within the Battlement Mesa community. BCC had done their research on HIAs, knowing they are a systematic tool for assessing the potential health consequences of a proposed policy, program, or project. Some of the gas wells would be about 500 feet from homes.
Within a few months, the Garfield County Department of Public Health was collaborating with the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) to develop the HIA. Funding was provided by Garfield County and a $150,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. A forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Public Health written by the CSPH team reports the findings of the assessment, and then the fallout.
First the findings. Based on extensive input from the community and other stakeholders, eight major areas of public health concern were identified:
- health effects from air emissions
- water contamination
- truck traffic
- noise and light pollution
- accidents and malfunctions
- strain on healthcare system
- psychosocial stress associated with community changes, and
- housing value depression
Based on the research team’s review of the available data, they concluded that
“air pollutant levels were likely to increase in Battlement Mesa as a result of the natural gas development project.”
They noted that residents in an adjacent community with current gas-well development have reported short-term symptoms (e.g., headaches, upper respiratory irritation) during “odor events” that occur with gas well operations. In addition, they projected a substantial increase in vehicle traffic. Based on information provided by the gas developer, residents could expect an additional 40 to 280 truck trips per day to each gas well pad. In addition, about 120 to 150 workers would commute into the community. The authors write:
“Because Battlement Mesa does not house other industrial activities and commercial activities are minimal, this change in traffic patterns would represent a consequential change.”
The CSPH researchers also projected that noise levels would increase during the well-development period and could result in health impacts, such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, mood changes, and impaired condition. Residents’ concerns about property value declines were found to be grounded in fact. The researchers referred to a Garfield County specific study which reported an average 15% decline in property values during well development, which persisted for two years after completion of the wells. “Declining land values,” the CSPH authors wrote, “could cause residents psychosocial stress,” and its health effects “should not be discounted.”
In contrast, they did not think exposure to contaminated drinking water was likely given the community’s source water is located upstream of the project. The researchers concluded that industry-related chemical or waste spills would be unlikely, as would fires and explosions. They did not project measurable increases in crime, sexually-transmitted diseases, or school enrollment that could be attributed alone to the gas development project.
Second, the fallout.
A first draft of the HIA was available for stakeholder input in Fall 2010. Interest in the document was intense, not just from the Battlement Concerned Citizens’ group or residents of Garfield County, but nationwide. The HIA was the first of its kind related to natural gas development. A broader group of interests, including an industry trade group, “caused the focus of the HIA to shift from addressing possible exposures to parties sparring over risk assessment methods,” as the CSPH authors write in their paper. A process and document that was supposed to help local officials make an informed decision turned into a battle before the Garfield County Commission.
NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren reported in May 2012 on the HIA fallout. The West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association said the CSPH researchers “used what we believe was questionable data, at best.” A long-time Garfield County Commissioner told Shogren:
“this is a football in the arena of global warming and anti-oil and gas, or anti-environment. We said enough is enough, people.”
The County Commission voted to leave the HIA as an unfinished document and to end the project. Regardless, the information contained in the draft HAI is valuable. It illustrates a site-specific and systematic way to evaluate potential health impacts of a proposed policy. I’ve no doubt that the residents of Battlement Mesa are better informed about the magnitude and severity of the likely health impacts related to natural gas development in their community, than they were before the HIA was developed. To their credit, the Garfield County Department of Environmental Health has the draft HIA and other project documents on its website.
Waiting for Obama Administration to deliver on new worker safety regulations, probably shouldn’t hold my breath
Spring 2013 looked like it would be a banner season for progress by the Obama Administration on new worker safety regulations. In the Labor Department’s most recent regulatory agenda, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicated they’d be taking key steps in March through June 2013 on rules to better protect workers from health and safety hazards. I thought these optimistic projections meant President Obama’s second term would be a more productive one than his first. With the Presidential election behind them, the Administration could be charging ahead with much-needed and long-overdue worker safety regulations. Afterall, Obama’s campaign slogan was “Forward.” But six months into his second term, the Administration’s regulatory apparatus appears as constipated as ever.
- OSHA projected it would issue in March a final rule to enhance protections for workers involved in electric power transmission and distribution. It’s still “under review” at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and has been for more than 10 months.
- MSHA suggested it would issue this month a final rule for proximity detection devices to protect underground coal miners from crushing injuries. Since 2010, at least 85 mine workers have been injured, including eight fatally, from incidents involving underground equipment used at the coal face. MSHA has yet to submit the final rule to OIRA for review.
- OSHA indicated it would be convening in April a group of small business representatives to review a draft rule on protections for healthcare and social services workers from infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. That review panel has yet to be convened.
- OSHA projected that two proposed regulations, one on respirable crystalline silica and the other to modernize the tracking of work-related injury and illness, would be issued this month. Publication of those proposals would trigger the beginning of the public comment process. Both of these regulatory initiatives have been stuck at OIRA for review. The OSHA proposal on crystalline silica has been “under review” for 26 months and injury tracking proposal has racked up 18 months of “review.”
- MSHA indicated it would issue in June a final rule to reduce miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust in order to prevent black lung and other respiratory diseases. MSHA has yet to submit the final rule to OIRA for review.
As I recapped for myself this lack of progress, fresh on my mind are the reflections of Georgetown law professor Lisa Heinzerling in Inside EPA: A Former Insider’s Reflection on the Relationship between the Obama EPA and the Obama White House. She explains how OIRA violates Executive Order 12866 and abuses its power so that some regulatory packages simply, as she says,“wither quietly on the vine” and die. I wonder if that’s the fate of these worker safety rules?
Heinzerling served from January 2009 to December 2010 as a senior Obama Administration official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I wrote last month about some of Heinzerling’s initial remarks, but this longer paper is more illuminating and disturbing. Heinzerling writes from her experience environmental protection rules, but I fear the “wither on the vine” tactics are at play with worker safety regulations. How is it that OSHA’s proposed rule on crystalline silica is “under review” for more than two years?
OIRA’s review of agency rules is supposed to last no longer than 90 days, with one 30-day extension permitted (in writing) if agreed to by the agency head and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The requirement is laid out plainly in Executive Order 12866. Heinzerling explains how it actually works. She draws on her own experience, as well as what is now in print by President Obama’s former OIRA director Cass Sunstein. Heinzerling writes:
“Sunstein explains that, in fact, the prevailing understanding of EO 12,866 holds that an agency head may, on her own, request an indefinite extension of OIRA review. This would mean that neither the requirement that the OMB Director agree “in writing” to the extension nor the requirement that the extension be once, for 30 days only, holds under the present understanding of EO 12,866. This would, in turn, mean that if an agency head asks for an extension, there actually is no deadline for completing OIRA review. This remodeling of EO 12,866’s structure on the timelines for review is news in and of itself. Many outside observers believe that there is in fact a deadline for OIRA review. OIRA itself encourages this (mis)understanding by displaying 90 days as a timing benchmark on its regulatory dashboard.”
“But it is worse than that. It is worse because the way that agency heads come to request extended review, in my experience, is that OIRA calls an official at the agency and asks the agency to ask for an extension. It is clear, in such a phone call, that the agency is not to decline to ask for such an extension. Thus, not only is there no deadline for OIRA review, but OIRA itself controls the agency’s “requests” for extensions. In this way, it comes to pass that rules can remain at OIRA for years.”
So technically, the reason that OSHA’s silica proposed rule is still being “reviewed” at OIRA after 26 months, and its proposal on tracking injuries is still there after 18 months, is because the OSHA’s chief requested it? What a bunch of baloney. While the White House allows OIRA’s abuse of power to go on, public protections suffer. The White House knows how OIRA operates. They obviously like it that way.
I won’t be holding my breath any longer to see much progress in Obama’s second term on new worker safety regulations.
Wage theft in South Florida: Nation’s first county with wage theft protections reports on progress and perils
by Kim Krisberg
Earlier this month, Florida lawmakers wrapped up their latest legislative session. And nearly 500 miles south of Tallahassee in Miami-Dade County, workers’ rights advocates breathed yet another sigh of relief.
Ever since Miami-Dade adopted the nation’s first countywide wage theft ordinance in 2010, it’s been under attack. For the first two years after its passage, state legislators tried to pass legislation to pre-empt local communities from passing their own wage theft laws; this last legislative session, they tried again but included a carve out for Miami-Dade and for Broward County, which passed its own wage theft measure in 2012. All three tries have died in the state Senate, but worker advocates aren’t optimistic that the fight is over.
Still, in a state that decided to dismantle its department of labor a decade ago, Miami’s wage theft ordinance is a milestone for Florida workers and one that’s slowly spreading throughout the Sunshine State. Just last month, the northern county of Alachua passed a wage theft measure, and north of Miami in Palm Beach County, the local Legal Aid Society runs a wage theft pilot program that could pave the way for a legal ordinance.
“Wage theft is a huge problem in South Florida — it’s absolutely huge,” said Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, one of the groups that led the passage of Miami-Dade’s ordinance. “As individual organizations we couldn’t solve this problem on our own. Cases just kept coming and coming and we needed something systematic, a more institutionalized solution.”
Since Miami-Dade’s wage theft ordinance went into effect, hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen wages have been recovered and more workers are filing wage theft complaints. Much of the progress to date is credited to the broad and diverse coalition that came together to tackle the problem — the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force (today, it’s known as just the Florida Wage Theft Task Force). Its members include faith-based groups, immigrant rights organizations, unions, women’s groups, researchers, legal aid and many more.
The groups originally came together about seven years ago to help a group of day laborers in Cutler Bay just southwest of Miami. At the time, a local developer had begun harassing the workers and their potential employers. At one point, the developer was arrested for physically attacking workers. In response, advocates came together in defense of the day laborers and quickly began talking about other issues facing workers in South Florida. Wage theft was at the top of the list. It was the first step on the road to a countywide ordinance.
“Today, people are talking about wage theft, workers are speaking up,” Smith told me. “The success has been so much broader than just the ordinance itself.”
Sun, surf and wage theft
In the span of just two-and-a-half years, more than $28 million in unpaid wages has been recovered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in Florida, county staff enforcing Miami-Dade’s wage theft ordinance and by advocacy groups throughout the state, according to a 2012 report from the Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy at Florida International University (FIU). But even though it’s clear that Florida has a serious wage theft problem, as of late 2011, Florida’s attorney general hadn’t taken a single civil action to enforce the state’s minimum wage law, and there is no state agency charged with enforcing wage and hour laws. Miami-Dade County leads the state in wage theft cases.
Cynthia Hernandez, a co-author of the report and a senior research associate at the institute, estimates that the South Florida economy is losing between $2 million and $6 million every year to wage theft. And that, by no means, reflects the larger impact of wage theft on families, neighborhoods and local economies, Hernandez told me. Hernandez and her colleagues first began investigating wage theft in 2006, interviewing immigrant workers and employers in the region’s plant nursery industry. Many of the employers interviewed said they pay below minimum wage because they can get away with it, while others said it was the only way to compete.
“We were definitely surprised,” Hernandez said. “I think everyone at the table was surprised they would just admit to it.”
From there the researchers began digging deeper. While immigrants and agricultural workers were certainly among the most vulnerable to wage theft and more likely to experience it, they weren’t the only ones. Wage theft complaints were coming in from the tourist, retail, hospitality and constructions sectors, but also from workers not typically associated with wage theft problems, such as teachers, attorneys and accountants.
“Unfortunately, it’s just become the way of doing business in South Florida,” Hernandez said.
At South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, staff had spent years helping workers on a case-by-case basis to recover their wages. Their approach was similar to worker centers throughout the country — approach the employer and let him or her know that this worker is not alone. Ask for the owed wages or negotiate a payment plan. If that doesn’t work, it’s time for direct action, such as protects and attracting media attention. (See past stories on worker centers addressing wage theft and other employer abuses in Austin, El Paso, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley.) The cases, however, just kept coming and there was no systematic incentive for employers to stop practicing wage theft in the first place. That’s where the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force came in.
After first coming together to help the day laborers in Cutler Bay, task force members spent two years meeting with officials and stakeholders, looking for any measure or authority already in existence that could address wage theft. But other than taking cases to federal labor investigators or to court — an option very much out of reach for low-wage and immigrant workers — there was nothing that could effectively stem the rising tide of wage theft in South Florida. Having sought and found no other alternatives, when task force members went to their local elected officials to call for a wage theft ordinance they could truly say that a local ordinance was the best chance for a solution.
State Rep. Jose Rodriguez, who at the time was working with Florida Legal Services, developed most of the ordinance language, and task force members found a champion in County Commissioner Natacha Seijas (she’s no longer on the commission). On Feb. 18, 2010, county commissioners voted 10-0 to pass the nation’s first countywide wage theft measure — it was technically a unanimous vote, though some commissioners left the room instead of voting.
Throughout the process, advocates didn’t call a lot of attention to their work. It turned out to be a great advantage, Smith said, as the business community didn’t catch wind of the wage theft proposal until the last minute. Eventually, the Florida Retail Federation did catch on, but it was too late to stop a vote. The federation did end up filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance (a judge threw it out last year) and is behind the statewide attempts to pre-empt local wage theft measures.
With passage of the ordinance, the county’s Small Business Development division was responsible for dealing with wage theft complaints (the task has now been shifted to the county’s Consumer Services Department). The process works like this: County staff directly contacts employers engaged in wage theft and leads negotiations between workers and employers. If employers don’t respond, the case goes to an administrative hearing, where both sides present their cases before a hearing officer. If the officer determines that wage theft has occurred, he or she can order the employer to pay up to three times the amount of wages owed as well as administrative costs.
Within the first year-and-a-half of the ordinance’s passage, hundreds of thousands in owed wages was collected simply by having county officials pick up the phone, said Francesca Menes, policy and advocacy coordinator at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a member of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force.
“As a local organization we can call an employer, but it doesn’t come with the power of the government,” Menes told me. “We’ve made so much progress. Not everything is perfect, but we’re learning as we go along.”
Progress and protection
According to a September 2012 report from the Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy, Miami-Dade County staff had recovered more than $500,000 in owed wages and received nearly 2,000 wage complaints. It took an average of 103 days to recover wages. Still, more than $2 million in owed wages has yet to be collected, and wage theft complaints have doubled every year since the ordinance went into effect. At the time of the report, only 1.5 county staff were responsible for addressing wage theft cases, and hundreds of workers were still waiting to be helped.
While there have been some hiccups along the way, Menes said that task force members regularly meet with county officials to monitor the program’s effectiveness.
“If these wages aren’t going into workers’ pockets, it’s not going into the local economy and that’s detrimental to all of us in the end,” she said.
Jonathan Fried, executive director of We Count!, an immigrant workers advocacy group and a member of the wage theft task force, said the ordinance hasn’t been as effective as he’d hoped. He said he’s concerned that many workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and that “there’s a bias creeping in in favor of employers.” He noted that with such a backlog of cases and limited county resources, many cases never got heard and the workers involved have already left the area. We Count! also has a history of combating wage theft cases on an individual basis via employer-employee negotiations and direct action.
“We’re concerned that workers aren’t getting a fair hearing and the process is disadvantageous to workers who don’t have an attorney,” Fried told me. “It’s been a big step forward, but there’s some small changes that could be made to really improve it. Ultimately, my belief is that in addition to a state department of labor, we need some changes in federal law and federal enforcement. You shouldn’t be able to get away with not paying a worker.”
Hernandez at FIU said she’ll be spending the summer studying the ordinance’s effectiveness and how it can be improved, including the issue of having an attorney present at an administrative hearing (both sides can bring an attorney if they want, though it’s not required). In the long run, Hernandez said Florida “needs a statewide strategy so we’re not just on the defense.”
Beyond just wage theft, Hernandez noted that employers that break wage and hour laws also seem more likely to ignore workplace health and safety regulations. Smith agreed — “wage theft and health safety violations go hand in hand,” she said.
“As we’ve been working on wage theft, we’ve been looking at workplace health and safety…and now a few of us are working together to be more mindful and deliberate about workplace safety,” Smith said. “It’s complicated to get people to focus on safety because a first concern is getting their wages and keeping their jobs. We’ve been looking at it as an offshoot, but we need to pay it more attention.”
To learn more about Miami-Dade County’s wage theft progress, visit www.stopwagetheft.org or www.risep-fiu.org/tag/florida-wage-theft-task-force.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Read the interview
While the official death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh was still rising (it has now passed 1,100), a fire at another garment factory in Dhaka killed eight people. (If you haven’t yet seen Elizabeth Grossman’s post from Friday, she explores the reaction from the Asian Network for the Rigths of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV).) In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Magnier notes that although this latest disaster has spurred additional calls for reform, change will be a challenge:
The Bangladesh garment industry, a national golden goose, is politically well-connected. Clothing accounts for a whopping 80% of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports and employs 4 million people, with dozens of lawmakers closely linked to factory owners.
And though many Western apparel companies adopt codes of conduct, they’re keen to drive production costs down and maximize profit atop an industry of constantly changing subcontractors. Feeding all this are Western consumers looking for cheap deals.
The average wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 10 to 30 cents an hour, labor activists say, and many of the factories lack fire escapes, windows or emergency exits.
Garment factory fires have been a recurrent problem in Bangladesh, killing about 700 people since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Last year, at least 110 people were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, with another eight killed in January.
Magnier reports that Bangladesh has announced temporary closures of 18 factories deemed to be dangerous and plans to hire 200 more building inspectors within six months.
For the Associated Press, Jonathan Fahey and Anne D’Innocenzio explain that it will be difficult for major brands to pull out of Bangladesh, because the country has enough workers and manufacturing capacity to reliably produce clothing at high volume and low prices. They also note that retailers rarely know where all of the pieces of a particular garment are produced, because contractors will subcontract out to many small factories.
Several major clothing retailers, including H&M, have just signed on to a legally binding plan under which retailers will help finance fire safety and building improvements in the Bangladesh factories that make their products. The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reports:
Consumer and labor groups hailed the move by Sweden-based H&M – which is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh – as an important step toward improving factory safety in Bangladesh, saying it would increase pressure on other Western retailers and apparel brands to do likewise.
Within hours of H&M’s Monday statement, C&A of the Netherlands and two British retailers, Primark and Tesco, also joined in.
The factory safety agreement calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public reports and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers. A legally enforceable contract, it also calls for retailers to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements, and for workers and their unions to have a substantial voice in factory safety.
In other news:
MSNBC: Over 100 workers from roughly 30 different St. Louis fast-food restaurants walked off the job, as part of a campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage and win the chance to unionize without intimidation. (For more background, see Josh Eidelson’s Salon piece on St. Louis fast-food workers.)
Washington Post: Retired NFL players often require extensive, costly medical care years after their football careers end and the league stops providing their health insurance. The NFL disability board denies nearly 60% of disability claims.
Huffington Post: In an op-ed, US Representative Gwen Moore and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker warn that House Republicans’ “Working Families Flexibility Act” gives employers flexibility not to pay overtime. “In reality, this bill would provide more work and less pay,” they write.
Los Angeles Times: Cal/OSHA has fined Bumble Bee Foods almost $74,000 for violations related to the death of Jose Melena, 62, who was burned to death inside an industrial pressure cooker.
NIOSH Science Blog: For Women’s Health Week, researchers take a look at women in the workplace and summarize findings: “Women generally have more work-related cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and anxiety and stress disorders,” and health hazards related to reproductive health and pregnancy are also a concern.
“Enough is enough” – Asian labor rights advocates call for change as death toll mounts in Bangladesh
By Elizabeth Grossman, reporting from Bangkok, Thailand
As bodies of workers continued to be pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory complex outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, pushing the death toll past 900, and news was breaking of at least seven deaths in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh on May 9, labor rights advocates meeting in Bangkok called for changes in the system that has led to disasters that have killed more than 1300 workers in the past eight months. “Events of the last 8 months have clearly demonstrated a complete failure of the CSR [corporate social responsibility] and hollowness of the ‘self-regulatory’ standards and industry audits that manufactures and brands have been adopting,” said the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) in a statement issued as the group gathered for its 13th annual meeting. “ANROEV members also express their deep outrage at the colossal loss of life, which is now unprecedented by any scale. Fire and structural safety of the buildings is the basic right that workers in Asia rightfully deserve,” said ANROEV in its statement. “Enough is enough. Stop these murders at workplaces in Asia.” .
A network of NGOs based in more than 14 Asian countries that advocate for occupational health, safety, and labor rights, ANROEV was initially formed following fatal Kader and Zhili toy factory fires in Thailand and China in the early 1990s. This year’s meeting is being held on the twentieth anniversary of the fire that killed 188 workers at the Kader factory in northern Thailand that was considered the worst factory fire until last year’s fires at factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. “Not much has changed in the past 20 years,” said Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Resource Monitor Centre (AMRC). We shouldn’t have to be talking about these kinds of disasters anymore, he said.
“We need to recover from the mentality of only trying to fix things after an accident then waiting for another accident before demanding additional change,” said Repon Chowdury, executive director of the Bangladesh Occupational, Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), discussing the Rana Plaza disaster. “We are hoping this disaster being treated as a national disaster will change the scenario in Bangladesh,” said Chowdury. “If this doesn’t change things, nothing will,” he said.
In its statement, ANROEV harshly criticized the reliance on voluntary policies that it says “has led to the weakening of the state regulatory mechanisms, which otherwise could have allowed inspections of these facilities by local authorities and thus disasters could have been prevented.” The recent and ongoing disasters, said ANROEV, have “shown the failure of both for-profit and nonprofit social auditing, that seems to be detached from the realities at ground.” ANROEV calls for the following changes:
1. Companies should be obliged to comply with national and international health and safety measures, whichever is a higher standard, in a serious manner through which should be monitored locally by strengthening the local independent inspections
2. Union and workers participation at all levels in health and safety policies and decisions has to be recognized as indispensable component in ensuring safe and healthy workplaces. Concrete steps should be taken to ensure freedom of association.
3. Active formation and recognition of victims’ organizations as legitimate representatives of the injured and dead workers
“We need organizations at the ground level, at the home base,” said Chowdury, “not all the window dressing,” that has come with current CSR policies in practice. And he cautioned, “Having the buyers close up leave and move elsewhere is not a solution.”
“We need to replace the current system with one where companies have to pay into support for locally based inspections,” said Pandita. He and other ANROEV members described what they call a failed system of auditing and inspection. Many at the meeting spoke of inspectors “colluding with employers,” and those managing factories that produce for multinational brands. One NGO representative recounted how a local factory manager had asked about how he should pay the individual conducting a third-party audit.
Current CSR policies, said ANROEV in its statement, have effectively privatized what should be the government function of ensuring strong labor laws and enforcement of occupational safety and health policies and building codes. Coupled with current employment practices that rely heavily on temporary workers rather than full-time employees and on migrant labor, the result is a work environment that has kept these workplaces “virtually union-free.” ANROEV also called for criminal prosecution of those responsible for conditions at the Rana Plaza complex.
The lack of local laws is not necessarily a problem, said Pandita. “The problem is political will to implement the laws.” That the Rana Plaza factories were allowed to operate despite obvious structural hazards is ample evidence of a failure of enforcement. Meanwhile, adding to the problems for the workers and families involved, he said, is the fact that so many workers in such Bangladeshi factories “are not registered with social security,” which compounds problems they will have in securing any compensation.
As horrific as the death toll from the current spate of south Asian industrial disasters is, “even more workers are dying of occupational diseases,” said Pandita. “But they die slowly,” he said.