The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in April, where more than 1,100 workers were killed, shocked the Canadian public. As a result, retail industry groups in North America, Europe and Japan promised an initiative to have all the factories from where they buy garments inspected within nine months to a year. Major factory upgrades are to follow.
Some major media outlets called it
a smoke-and-mirrors exercise. It is designed to pacify the western public. The question is, why now? Only last November, 112 workers were killed in a Bangladesh factory fire. At that time, no one raised any desire for inspections of factories or upgrades. Only when the death of 1,129 people reached our TV screens and newspapers, did action become a priority.
We, as consumers, don’t like buying products that are made by child labour or slave labour, or by people who earn $126 a month and have a very good chance of dying on the job.
Two UN agencies have directed their attention to the prevention of child labour worldwide: the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). They have helped define the problem and develop international legal frameworks to help to correct the problem. As a result of their work, we now have several international treaties – or conventions – banning child labour and identifying concrete measures for governments to take. Once a country ratifies a convention, UN bodies monitor compliance and hold countries accountable for violations.
Goods produced with the involvement of slavery or trafficked labour meet the international definition for the proceeds of crime. The UN Convention defines ‘proceeds of crime’ as “any property derived from or obtained, directly or indirectly, through the commission of an offence.” By this definition, goods produced through the use of slavery and trafficked labour and any revenue generated from the sale of such goods are proceeds of crime.
I think it is time to establish internationally recognized minimum standards for worker safety. These standards would be ratified by participating counties and enforced similar to that for child or slave labour occurrences.
Occupational health and safety is not always visible to the untrained eye. For example, in order to understand the structural integrity of a building, an engineer examines it against the building code requirements, as well as the best engineering practice. The same applies to fire safety. Machine safety is examined against machine guarding standards, and so on.
Because safety is something that may not be readily visible, and is potentially very costly to comply with, in jurisdictions where safety is not a real priority, unsafe conditions for workers prevail. In June, for example, 120 people died in a poultry plant in China, yet only three years ago, a Communist party official called it “an inspiring factory and a leading enterprise.”
In Canada, we pay a lot of attention to workers’ safety; of course there is room for improvement. Based on 2008 statistics, there were 6.1 fatalities in Canada per 100,000 workers. During the same time, officially, there were 11.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers in China. There were 70,000 workers killed in China by workplace accidents last year – roughly 200 per day. That’s down from 75,572 in 2011 and 79,552 in 2010. I could not find any reliable statistics for Bangladesh.
If a system like Canada’s was introduced in those countries, it would definitely save thousands of lives each year.
It would also provide a more level playing field for Canadian manufacturers. The cost of only maintaining compliance with occupational health and safety regulations for small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) is about $1,000 per employee in the industrialized world. This does not take into consideration bringing facilities, machinery and management systems into compliance. However, these expenses are absolutely necessary to provide the minimum standard of worker’s safety. In my opinion, low-cost jurisdictions are cutting corners as far as worker’s safety is concerned.
A common criticism is that a low-cost jurisdiction’s ability to maintain its competitive advantage stems from its weak enforcement of workers’ rights. The argument is simple: it is easy to keep costs down when you aren’t paying workers a minimum wage or investing in health and safety protection.
We cannot do anything about low wages; however, we can demand health and safety protection for workers, the way we demand protection against slave and child labour. Whether we are in Bangladesh or Canada, we still should have the right to be safe and alive after a day at work.
Simon Fridlyand, P.Eng., of SAFE Engineering Inc., specializes in industrial health and safety concerns and PSR compliance. For more information, visit www.safeengineering.ca.