This week, Workers’ Memorial Day reminded us that the leading cause of death at work isn’t factory fires, mine collapses, or machinery accidents—though it is all those things. The main reason workers die is because those in power look the other way.
Global Worker Watch’s labor death map presents a chilling snapshot of an everyday calamity: A nameless laborer is crushed by falling soil at a construction zone in Qatar. Days later, five men die in a van crash as they speed down a foggy California road, en route to the seasonal migrant grape harvest. Meanwhile in Bangladesh, 13 perish in a plastics factory fire. Then comes a young workers’ sudden death at a Chinese iPhone supplier plant reportedly due to exhaustion. All that within the first five weeks of the year.
Even more tragically, each data point maps onto a known occupational safety threat that regulators and industry have continually ignored.
According to federal data for the United States, agricultural workers have long suffered one of the highest workplace fatality rates, and Latino workers had the highest overall rate with 817 workers dying at work in 2013, up from 748 in 2012. Yet the fatality rate among other races, notes the AFL-CIO, “declined or stayed the same.” Despite about half a century of farmworker organizing and federal regulation, the pervasive safety threats in the fields have changed little, with brutal physical conditions aggravated by rampant poverty, dysfunctional immigration policy, and vicious labor abuses.
The factories of Bangladesh have also remained notoriously deadly despite promises of reform—particularly in its embattled garment sector, in which the Rana Plaza factory collapse left more than 1,100 dead in 2013. The government, backed by international labor groups, subsequently launched an unprecedented safety overhaul, an ambitious program of plant inspections and renovations. But so far only about 2500 corrective actions have been made (as of February), while more than 54,000 safety issues are still pending, mostly fire and electrical hazards. Moreover, since the reforms began, labor abuses have continued, while roughly 220 factories have reportedly shuttered, displacing an estimated 150,000 workers.
“The factory closures are particularly concerning given that Bangladeshi garment workers rarely receive much advance notice or a fair severance package when factories close,” according to Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum. While brands should push factory owners to “renovat[e] factories rather than closing them,” the fact that workers traumatized by the disaster continue to face such devastation raises troubling questions about whether workers are now paying the cost of safety improvements through job losses. Meanwhile, a multimillion-dollar compensation trust for the victims still faces a major deficit, as fashion brands fail to provide promised funds to the survivors.
Another massive worker death toll is still rising in the Middle East, where Gulf petro-states subject thousands of South Asian migrants to slave-like labor conditions. And despite shocking death tolls—a Nepalese laborer dies about every two days—the contract construction labor system remains firmly in place, with the support of elite Western institutions, ranging from the World Cup to New York University’s lavish Abu Dhabi campus, all built with migrant sweat.
Chinese factories in Apple’s supply chain churn out luxury gadgets with bare-bones safety protections. Despite pledging various labor reforms, Apple has faced continual scandals involving systemic abuses like wage theft and child labor. China Labor Watch reported that the young factory workers’ death earlier this year was preventable, since “It was only after months of long overtime hours that his health suddenly failed him,” and previous investigations into his factory, Pegatron Shanghai, revealed that workers “work tremendously long overtime hours.”
All the dead workers on the map died because in their final moments, they walked straight into a known, preventable hazard: They never really saw it coming—but their bosses probably did.
According to the AFL-CIO, over a four-year period, “the job fatality rate has largely been unchanged with a rate of 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012”—about 4,600 workers killed. Many times more will die from occupational disease. This insidious health gap often goes overlooked by regulators because injuries take years to manifest in cancer, lung damage, or other long-term illnesses.
For example, labor advocates have blasted the Obama administration for dragging out the process for revising federal regulations on silica, a common industrial contaminant, leading to years of bureaucratic delay. Labor advocates estimate about 60 workers are needlessly dying each year the rule is delayed.
Similar heel-dragging has plagued the European Union’s regulatory process for toxic exposures, the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens at Work, under the European Commission’s Better Regulation unit. According to Julian Scola of the European Trade Union Confederation, “Due to the delay, since October 2013, there are European-wide occupational exposure limits on only three chemicals.… It means that since October 2013, 150,000 people have died of occupational cancer while the EU reviews ‘better regulation!’”
As labor groups lose their patience, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has launched a global campaign against toxics at work, targeting industrial chemicals and pesticides.
The ITUC demands an overhaul of workplace safety policies that makes organized labor a key pillar of a regulatory system that meets international standards and provides workers with
the right to participate in, and be fully consulted on, health and safety policies, programmes and procedures where they work.… this means union representatives encouraging members to participate in identifying problems and solution, and unions providing their representatives the necessary training, support and resources.
And rank-and-file workers would be empowered with “right to know” rules so they would be fully aware of job-related dangers they face, and would have protections for their right speak out on safety threats:
Workers must be able to exercise in good faith a right to refuse or stop dangerous work. Anyone doing this must protected from discipline, dismissal, or other negative outcomes, so there must be legal whistle-blower protection and protection from victimization or ‘blacklisting’.
The glaring red dots on the global fatality map represent workers who were extinguished before they had a chance to speak up; it was only in death that they could sound the alarm for us. To prevent more tragedies from befalling other workers, the first thing that needs protection, along with life and limb, is their voice at work.