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Thursday, 2 May 2013

International exploitation – out of sight, out of mind ... until ….


May 1st is known as International workers day. This weeks tragic Bangladeshi factory collapse and death of at least 400 workers with 150 still missing has hit closer to Canadian homes than the previous similar events.  One product is widely distributed in Canada by a major grocery firm. May 13 - the final death toll currently stands at 1127.  A subsequent garment factory collapse elsewhere killed 8.  Bangladesh has considered allowing unions to form without the permission of the factory owner - that might be considered slow progress at a huge worker cost. 

Lest we not forget a similar incident in Karachi less than a year ago killed 262 workers. Numerous  factory disasters can be found which have received less attention.  The chemical disaster in Bhopal in 1984 where 3787 deaths were confirmed across the community and up to 16000 deaths may be attributed to the immediate and long term consequences of exposure to methyl isocyanate.  Estimates place the number injured at over one-half million people.   The disaster is likely the largest on record.  The International Labour Organization estimates that over 2 million deaths each year are related to workplace deaths, many directly attributed to the impact of globalization.  While larger tragic events may receive attention, most deaths go unreported.  Chronic illnesses that render workers not employable such as related to asbestos exposure or silicosis, often undiagnosed and forgotten as workers are removed from the workplace. 

Basic workplace health and safety regulations that are integral to North American culture, are neophytic or lacking in developing countries.  The lure of employment, salary, income and profit contributing to the proliferation of work in developing countries.  And let us face it, as consumers we usually seek out the best prices irrespective of the manufacturing story.  Many of us will remain blissfully ignorant of the human costs associated with the bargain priced consumer products we enjoy.  Our contributions to growth in countries undergoing industrial development.  

Moreover, when production prices rise due to increased regulatory expectations, producers may find a “friendlier” welcome mat in a neighbouring jurisdiction.  Loss of such businesses can be devasting on the economy and health of the community and individuals.  We have decades of research on such impacts in the wake of European and North American industrialization.

While the Bangladeshi tragedy might stir some short term empathy and calls for improvements, it, like Karachi and the host of previous tragedies will fade with time.  With Bhopal the consequence was 26 years later seven local employees received 2 year sentences and up to $2000 fines.  The chair of the international parent company has yet to be tried.  

And while the worker deaths receive headlines, the stories of workers abuse, sexual harassment, decrepit working conditions and routine exposure to unacceptable dangers rarely receive international attention.  The notable success may have been a reduction in child labour through international efforts which saw global rates of child exploitation for work at 25% in the 1960’s drop to about 10% of children at the turn of the millennium.  As we look back through history, the same issues dominated our  industrial revolution, and it was the efforts linked to public health structures that led in developing solutions. 

The problem is systemic and secondary to industrial globalization. The future is one where only an international effort directed to planned continuous raising of the minimum standards for all countries will result in reduction of risk.  While the current microscope is on Asia, future exploitation will merely shift to where money is scarce and potential workforces plentiful. Places like Africa are ripe for the picking. 

Public health is structured around geographic areas.  In this case, we need to spread our wings and assume responsibility not just for activities within our jurisidictions, but the impacts of our local actions on our global neighbours.

Almost concurrently, Loblaws, which distributes Joe Fresh clothing in Canada, increased their dividend to about $0.20 per share, on some 280,000,000 shares in public trading, of which 64% are controlled by G Weston. One can only hope that they match their dividend payout with at least the same investment in compensation - that would be nearly $50M.  

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