"The Global Threats to Workers’ Health and Safety on the Job"

by Garrett D. Brown, MPH, CIH

To be published in the September 2002 issue of Social Justice, Vol. 29, No. 3


A fundamental human right of every working person is to be able to return home at the end of the workday alive and healthy.

For 6,000 workers in the United States in 2001, this right ended with their death on the job — 16 workers a day left home never to return. In the same year, there were more than 100,000 deaths from occupational diseases and more than one million lost-time injuries. (BLS website)

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

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

Worldwide, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, there are 1.2 million fatalities on the job each year (3,300 deaths per day), and 160 million new cases of work-related diseases. (ICFTU, 2002) Moreover, it is estimated that for each fatality there are 1,200 accidents resulting in three or more days off from work and 5,000 accidents requiring first aid. (Takala, 2002)

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

The global economy

In 1999, 51 of the 100 largest economies on the planet were not countries but rather multinational corporations (MNCs). The 500 largest MNCs account for 70% of world trade, including 1/3 of all manufacturing exports, 3/4 of all commodity trade, and 4/5 of technical and management services trade. These giant MNCs account for 2/3 of all industrial investment in "lesser developed countries." (LaDou, 1999) Now there are more than 60,000 MNCs with 700,000 subsidiaries around the world. (Kearney, 2002)

Manufacturing in the new global economy has shifted from "well regulated," high-paying, often unionized plants in the industrial countries to very low wage, unregulated and non-union production facilities in the developing world, each competing with one another for maximum "competitive advantage."

Production is organized through long supply chains involving contractors, multiple sub-contractors, brokers and agents, down to industrial homework, generating a myriad of components for assembly and shipment to the consumer countries. Nike, for example, contracts out work to 750 factories in more than 50 countries, while over 20,000 factories around the globe make Disney-branded products. (O’Rourke, 2001)

An estimated 27 million workers are in "free trade" or "export processing" zones around the world which are frequently excluded by law from any regulation of wages, hours and working conditions. (Kearney, 2002) The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 246 million children, 5 to 14 years of age, are working full or part time every day. The organization estimates there are more than 150 million people, some 70 million in China and 50 million in Africa alone, who are working outside of their countries or away from their home regions within their country. (ICFTU, 2001) These extremely vulnerable workers make up a significant portion of the global workforce.

Never equitable, the world economy has grown increasingly unequal over the past decade, both on an individual and a population level.

According to the United Nations Development Program, the three richest individuals in the world have more assets than the poorest 48 countries, while the richest 200 people have more income than the poorest 2.5 billion people on the planet. Forty percent of the world’s population, almost 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, with 1.3 billion living on less than $1 per day. Worldwide, 840 million people are malnourished, 1.3 billion have no access to clean water, and 11,000 children die every day of starvation. (Gates, 2001; Williamson, 2000). Not surprisingly, it is estimated that 70% of the world’s poor are women and girls. (LaBotz, 2001)

The number of countries classified as "least developed," that is, a per capita income of less than $900 a year or $75 a month, has doubled from 25 to 49 in the last 30 years, despite decades of aid, trade and "development." (Associated Press, 7/22/01) Eighty countries have seen real per capita income decline in the last 10 years. (Gates, 2001)

The economic power of the MNCs also translates into tremendous political leverage and influence, frequently used to undermine existing regulations, to prevent new regulations, and to render toothless national and international regulatory agencies.

The top six corporations in the world have higher revenues than any government in the world, except the United States. These six have more income than 64 governments in countries with 58% of the world’s population. For example, in 1998 Wal-Mart had sales of $119 billion, which is more than the revenues of the governments of India ($52 billion) and Russia ($57 billion) combined for that year. (Gray, 1999)

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

Impact of the global economy on the developing world

The developing world has long been the dumping ground for toxic wastes from the industrialized world, as well as for pesticides and pharmaceuticals that have been banned the United States and other governments. (IJOEH special series, 2001/2002; LaDou, 1991, 1996 and 1998; Castleman, 1999; Meeran, 2000; Markoff, 2/25/02; Cauvin, 4/20/02; Jeter, 4/22/02; SVTC, 2002)

In the last two decades, however, the economies of developing countries have expanded beyond natural resource extraction to include increasing amounts of industrial production of consumer goods for markets in the developed world. In 2001, for example, 100% of television sets sold in the United States, more than 80% of other electronics, and two-thirds of the $180 billion U.S. clothing market were produced outside the U.S. (Meyerhoff, 2001; O’Rourke, 2001)

Low wages are a large part of the reason for the manufacturing shift to the developing world. In 1998 the average apparel wage in the United States was $8.42, while it was 69 cents in the Dominican Republic, 50-54 cents in Mexico, 23 cents in China, 10 cents in Indonesia and just 4 cents in Burma (Myanmar). (NLC, 2001)

Reduced or no costs for environmental and occupational health protection is another significant factor in the global shift in production.

Many countries, such as Indonesia and Guatemala, have extremely limited or very general regulations on occupational health and safety. While others, like Mexico and China, have legal requirements that are not enforced in any meaningful way.

Part of the reason for non-enforcement is the lack of resources — human, financial and technical — in developing countries. Austerity plans imposed by international financial agencies slash public expenditures and personnel in this area as well as in other government functions. Corruption at all levels of regulatory development and enforcement is also a major factor working against workplace health and safety. (Stiglitz, 2002)

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

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

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

Working Conditions

The actual working conditions in plants in the developing world varies, depending on the country, the industry and the ownership or management of the factories.

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

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

Conditions in contractor plants in the developing world, or those operated to produce for the domestic markets there, are generally worse than the maquiladoras. In 2001, an official Ministry of Labor report from El Salvador said that forced overtime, substandard wages, excessive production quotas, abusive and unsafe working conditions, and an animus against labor unions prevailed in the country’s 229 contract garment factories exporting to the U.S. The report noted a widespread perception among workers that labor inspectors are corrupt and said that there is an "urgent need for a leap in the quality of the work of the Ministry of Labor in its principal activities." (Kaufman, 4/24/01; Brazil, 5/11/01)

In China, an official Ministry of Health survey found that over the last two decades more than 20 million township businesses have been created and that 60% of these have "minimal industrial safety measures." (Xinhua News Agency, 4/1/02) One estimate from 2001 was that at least 50,000 fingers, hands and arms were amputated in Chinese factories during the previous year. (Kurtenbach, 2001)

Han Zhili, director of a citizen’s rights center in China, was quoted in an official newspaper of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security as stating: "Our labor relations are going back in time, back to the early days of the industrial revolution in 19th century Europe. Many of the enterprises set up with investment from Asian countries, along with privately-owned Chinese enterprises, have reduced working conditions to a situation comparable to the initial period of capital accumulation that accompanied the appearance of capitalism. Workers are forced to labour long hours for very low wages and even to sign ‘life and death’ contracts with employers. The problem is particularly serious in the south-east coastal regions and in Taiwanese and South Korean-owned factories." (Pringle, 2001)

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

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

Community health threats

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

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

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

The overlap of occupational and community or environmental exposures occurs in both the developed and developing worlds.

Immigrant farmworkers in California bring home pesticides on their clothing, while other immigrant laborers in the U.S. removing asbestos in construction sites without the legally required controls bring home asbestos fibers on their clothing. Family members of asbestos-exposed workers in Los Angeles have developed cancer and died, while residents of California’s "Silicon Valley" and Anniston, Alabama, have been developed serious illnesses from industrial pollutants in the ground water from semiconductor and chemical manufacturing plants in the area. (Grunwald, 1/1/02; Girion, 5/9/02; Bailar, 2002; SVTC, 2002)

Impact of the global economy on the developed world

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

This has been most clearly seen in the downward pressure on regulations and enforcement in the United States. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been almost completely unable to promulgate any new occupational health regulations for more than a decade. In March 2001 the U.S. Congress, supported by President George W. Bush, repealed a regulation on workplace ergonomics that had been in the making for more than 10 years and which addressed the largest single source of worker injuries and disabilities in the U.S. In April 2002, OSHA announced a completely voluntary ergonomics program with no new enforcement provisions whatever. (OSHA, 4/5/02; Greenhouse, 4/19/02)

OSHA is enforcing outdated, 34-year-old "Permissible Exposure Limits" (PELs) for chemical exposures to workers. The chemical exposure limits now in force, in 2002, are the very same 1968 "Threshold Limit Values" (TLVs) of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) which were incorporated into federal law in 1970 when OSHA was formed. An attempt by OSHA to update the PELS to the 1989 ACGIH TLVs was challenged by business groups and overturned by the federal courts in 1991. No other action has been taken by OSHA since then, nor is any update activity currently planned.

The Bush administration plans no significant rule-making activities on either health or safety standards, according to its proposed agenda, and has shelved more than a dozen initiatives pending under the Clinton Administration. (Dawson, 2002; Nash, 4/15/02; Meister, 4/25/02; Jordan, 5/2/02)

The number of workplace health inspectors, as well as personnel for wage and hour and jobsite discrimination investigations, has declined over time, and the ratio of inspectors to workers is now well below those at the time of President Eisenhower in the 1950s. (Ross, 2001)

In California, the world’s fifth largest economy with 1.1 million workplaces and 16.6 million workers, there were only 185 Cal/OSHA field inspectors to enforce workplace health and safety laws in March 2002. This means that every health and safety inspector is responsible for 89,730 workers and 5,946 workplaces. There are 60% more fish and game wardens in California than workplace safety inspectors. By way of comparison, the ratio of inspectors to workers and workplaces in British Columbia, Canada, is one inspector to 9,549 workers and 845 workplaces. (Beck, 2001)

The lack of updated standards and new rules to address newly recognized hazards, plus the lack of resources (human, financial and technical) for enforcement activities, clearly indicates that even a rich and powerful government like that of the United States is headed in the same direction as developing countries like Mexico, Indonesia and China.

The global "race to the bottom," combined with declining rates of unionization in the United States (less than 10% of workers in the private sector are represented by a labor union in the U.S.), means that workers in non-union workplaces are less able to protect themselves against cost-cutting policies that weaken job safety. Even unionized job sites are under tremendous pressure to "cooperate" in reducing production and compliance costs — or face the prospect of job losses when plants close and move offshore. (Bronfenbrenner, 2000)

Recent news media reports on working conditions in the United States highlight the impact of globalization on workers’ health and safety in the world’s most developed economy. These include articles on the soaring rates of workplace fatalities among immigrant and non-English speaking workers in construction, services and manufacturing (Maier, 12/16/01; Maier, 8/16/02; Hopkins, 3/24/02; Greenhouse, 7/16/01); the reemergence of industrial "home work" in even the high-tech semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley (Ewell, 6/27/99); and brutal working conditions in the long distance trucking industry, "sweatshops on wheels." (Thomas, 12/16/01)

The way forward

Although the threats to workplace health and safety are growing, so is an international response by community-based organizations, unions, students, religious groups, human rights organizations, environmentalists, and occupational safety and health professionals. These growing efforts indicate that there is hope for resolving the "crisis of health and safety" in the world’s workplaces.

The Chinese word for crisis consists of two separate characters -- one meaning "danger" and the other meaning "opportunity" — together they mean "crisis."

The "danger" in the present situation is obvious. A global race to the bottom in terms of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions is accelerating as workers are forced to compete with one another in providing the world’s "lowest cost" production facility. There is the increasing inequity of toxic exposures as the developing world acquires toxic work processes as well as toxic wastes from the developed world. There is the combination of occupational and environmental exposures in both the developing and developed worlds.

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

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

Many occupational health and safety professionals have taken the opportunity to become "part of the solution rather than part of the problem" through collaboration with workers and their organizations in the U.S. and throughout the world.

In Oakland, California, occupational health professionals from the University of California at San Francisco and the state Department of Health Services are working with the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) to meet the needs of Asian garment sweatshop workers in a community-based health clinic and an ergonomics project to design worker-friendly sewing machines and work stations. (AIWA website)

In Los Angeles, California, health educators at the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) at UCLA are providing trainings and information to dozens of Latin and Asia garment workers in Los Angeles’ 6,000 sweatshops by working with the Garment Workers Center in the city. (Sweatshop Watch website)

Occupational health professionals who are members of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) have worked for nine years with community-based organizations of maquiladora workers in Mexico to provide trainings and technical assistance. Over the last two years, the project has expanded to include capacity-building health and safety trainings with labor unions and non-governmental organizations in Indonesia, Hong Kong and southern China. (MHSSN website)

Members of the America Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) worked on a national task force to write a strong anti-sweatshop "White Paper," which was approved by the AIHA’s Board of Directors in March 2001, and are now trying to implement it in collaboration with international institutions (such as the International Occupational Hygiene Association and the International Labor Organization) and with community-based organizations representing workers throughout the world. (AIHA website)

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

  • Citizen efforts to push the U.S. government to include an "upward harmonization of regulation" approach to all international trade and investment agreements, as well as to improve national legislation, and to help transfer health and safety technology and skills to countries in the developing world;
  • Consumer efforts to push the transnationals to mobilize the financial and human resources necessary to ensure safe, healthy and just workplaces in their facilities worldwide; and
  • Occupational and public health professionals’ efforts to support the work of local organizations of workers, their families and their communities in both developing and developed worlds, to improve working conditions and labor practices around the world.

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


May 18, 2002



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