The Impact of the Invasion of Iraq on Global Workplace Health and Safety

By Garrett Brown, Network Coordinator

From the April 11, 2003, edition of "Border/Line Health & Safety," newsletter of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network ( .

In mid-March the U.S. government launched an invasion of Iraq, which responsible people in the United States and around the world did everything in our power to prevent. This war for empire is unjustified, unprovoked and illegal under international law.

It is already, and will be, a catastrophe for the Iraqi people (50% of whom are under 15), who are dying by the hundreds while their country is destroyed. It is a disaster for the American people as well as this invasion and occupation will only generate more terror attacks against U.S. citizens at home and abroad, and the economic costs will cripple essential programs for education, health care, and housing at home. The militarization of American society already threatens the civil liberties of U.S. citizens and has initiated a regime of secret detentions, harsh interrogations and violations of internationally recognized human rights of immigrants in the U.S. and "unlawful combatants" held on U.S. military bases. We have been promised more of the same for years and years to come.

In early April, it appears the invasion phase is in its denouement and the U.S. occupation will begin. Whenever the fighting ends, welcome as that will be, it will not change the illegitimate character of this assault by the most powerful military on Earth on a nation already at the edge of starvation because of sanctions before the invasion began. We will now see whether all the pretty words about "liberation" and "democracy" have any meaning whatsoever; or whether they are just more cynical, unfulfilled promises as the people of Afghanistan have learned.

This war will have an adverse impact on occupational safety and health throughout the global economy as well. This is because of the war makers breach of the rule of law and the hyper-growth of wartime propaganda by the U.S. government and corporate media. Without respect for laws, both international and domestic, and without respect for truth and the simple facts of any matter, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to set health-protective laws and to effectively enforce these regulations.

The ever-shifting rationale of the U.S. government for this war cannot withstand scrutiny on a factual basis. There is no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks. There is no evidence that Hussein and Osama bin Laden are "allies" – in fact, bin Laden has repeatedly called for the overthrow of Hussein. There is no evidence that Iraq has, or could have in the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons. The evidence of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq that was produced by the United Nations inspectors, indicated that the almost 10 years worth of UN inspections destroyed far more such weapons than the 1990-91 Gulf War did, and could have finished the job if the process had been permitted to continue.

A war for "regime change" – to overthrow a government simply because the U.S. government dislikes its leaders and its policies, and because the U.S. has the power to do so – is explicitly prohibited by the Charter of the United Nations.

The U.S. government’s claim to be "liberating Iraq from a tyrant" is among the more cynical aspects of this war as it was the U.S. government (and U.S. corporations) which provided Hussein with the raw materials for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, which encouraged Hussein’s war against Iran in the 1980s, and which said not one word of protest or condemnation when Hussein used U.S.-supplied chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq and against Iranian troops in the 1980s.

The U.S. government has and continues to finance, politically defend and militarily protect governments in the Mideast, Asia and the Americas that routinely torture and execute their citizens and which allow no democratic rights. The U.S. government’s problem with Saddam Hussein – like Manuel Noriega and Osama bin Laden before him – is that these "useful assets" created by U.S. policy become a political liability after they have served their purpose. When Noriega, bin Laden and Hussein stop being Washington’s "golden haired boys," they find themselves demonized by the same government that previously sponsored them, and they ominously move from the "ally" to the "enemy" column.

The hypocrisy of the U.S. government – both White House and Congress – in this war is only matched by the servility and complicity of the corporate media in the United States. The print and electronic news media have almost completely abandoned their responsibility to seek and report the facts, and, in fact, have become integral parts of government war propaganda. The first casualty of war – truth – has long been buried by the U.S. government and its junior partner, the mass media.

The efficiency, and dangers, posed by this process is evident in recent surveys taken by the New York Times/CBS News and ABC News which indicate that 42% of the American public believe that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the September 11th attacks; 37% believe there were Iraqi citizens among the 19 hijackers on September 11th; and 55% believe that Hussein directly supports bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. None of these opinions is factually accurate.

This situation poses a problem for anyone who concerned about occupational health and safety in the global economy because truth and facts matter, and because laws must be uniformly and universally applied to be effective.

If the U.S. government can pick and chose which laws it will obey, which international bodies it will ignore, which governments it will bribe and coerce – then why should China, Indonesia or Mexico enforce workplace H&S laws which "discourage foreign investment" in the ruthless competition between poor countries for development? Why can’t they ignore the conventions of the International Labor Organization if they are politically inconvenient? Why should they put workers’ and communities’ health above "matters of state" or lucrative opportunities for personal corruption?

If the U.S. government can create "facts" by endlessly repeating falsehoods, why can’t transnational corporations issue "codes of conduct" and hire "independent" auditors to award themselves a "clean bill of health" regarding working conditions in their global subcontractors’ factories, regardless of the reports from genuinely independent monitors and the workers themselves?

If the U.S. government never has to account for the yawning gap between words and deeds, why should the corporations actually trying to "walk the walk as well as talk the talk" about corporate responsibility for the safe and healthy working conditions in the global economy continue to spend time and money towards this end?

We will never make any progress in reversing the present global "race to the bottom" in workers’ health and safety – not to mention many other pressing social issues on our planet – if we do not insist on facts and truth, insist on government and corporate responsibility, insist on democratic participation by those affected in the making of decisions, insist on the fair and equitable application of the law.

For thousands of people – Iraqi, British and American – it is too late. They were killed in a war for empire based on relentless falsehoods, political coercion and the naked use of unilateral power. We owe it to their memories, and to the families they left behind, to fight for a world where this will never happen again. That fight also happens to be part of the process to ensure safe and health workplaces where every worker can return home safe and sound at the end of the day.

One place to start is to support the "International Right To Know" legislative proposal that a coalition of more than 200 environmental, labor social justice and human rights organizations around the world launched in January 2003. The "IRTK" proposal is based on U.S. laws requiring disclosure by corporations of key environmental impacts of their operations. The components of the proposed IRTK law include:

  • Environmental disclosures of toxic releases, air and water pollution and natural resource extraction;

  • Labor disclosures of workplace injuries and fatalities, management of hazardous materials and labor complaints against the employers; and

  • Human rights disclosures of contracts with military and police forces, impacts on indigenous communities and human rights complaints against companies.

On January 25, 2003, the New York Times editorialized in favor of the concept stating: "The idea of an international right to know is a creative and, for the companies, a not particularly burdensome new approach. American companies could still behave badly if they chose to do so. The law does not prevent irresponsible mining companies in Peru from spilling mercury on local roads, or toy makers in China from employing children. But they would have to tell the public about these practices, and let the market, and public opinion, go to work.

"Companies and trade groups argue that such burdens would be onerous. In fact, the requirements would apply only very large companies, and many of these would experience little difficulty. No American company that offends American values should be allowed to do so in secret," the Times concluded.

For more information on the IRTK campaign and how to join in, go to: .