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Labor and human rights advocate Charles Kernaghan meditates on the world's most dangerous jobs.
need to be taken to better protect workers?
All that can be done now to address these dangerous situations is muckraking. The only way that we can have an impact is to go and document every single piece of it. Take the photographs, interview the workers, interview the parents, because there’s no rule of law — especially in very poor, developing countries like Bangladesh. There, when workers were killed in shipbreaking, the owners just threw them off the ship into the water. They wouldn’t even report it; at least now deaths are being reported, but that’s only because of the brave people on the ground.
Basically, the rule of law doesn’t exist, and the international labor standards are never implemented. Not in the garment industry in Bangladesh, not in the ship breaking, not in the factories in China. You just come up to that same problem all the time.
So the ultimate goal of your muckraking is to get international standards recognized by all countries and have them enforced?
Yes, but they’re not even close to that. The international workers’ rights — freedom of association, right to organize and bargain collectively, no child labor, safe and decent working conditions — they’re out there and everyone talks about them, but they’re never implemented.
In many ways nothing is going to change. What happens is the corporations — no matter whether they’re involved in garments, electronics, shipbreaking — demand enforceable laws to protect trademarks. When we say to these companies “can’t we have similar laws to protect the rights of human beings?” The very same companies come back to us and say, ‘No, that would be an impediment to free trade.’
So the corporations are protected and their products are protected by law, but the rights of the workers have no protections whatsoever.
After the Tazreen Fashions fire that killed at least 117 people last year in Bangladesh, many people were shocked to learn that Wal-Mart actually knew that the facility was unsafe. Are there other workplaces that you can name that face imminent threats that we know of?
As sad as it sounds, almost every single garment factory in Bangladesh is in the exact same position. There are no fire safety regulations, there are no fire escapes, there are no fire extinguishers, there’s no emergency lighting, there are no fire drills. We’ve seen this over and over again.
There are really no protections because companies like Wal-Mart and other corporations want to pay the least amount that they can, pennies per garment. Wal-Mart was asked in 2010-11 to put in some money so that there could be fire safety improvements, fire extinguishers and so on, and they flat out said ‘no.’
At this point in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, there’s no serious attempt to improve conditions for the garment workers. Hopefully something will give, but right now corporations will have nothing to do with it.
What brands are or products should Americans avoid because of the way workers are being treated? What can Americans do to help other than avoid buying these products?
It’s hard because of what happened early on. Like in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, when the fire broke out so many workers leapt to their deaths. After that law after law was passed so that by the 1940s there were no sweatshops in the United States. They were completely wiped out because the rule of law was there and unions were organized.
By the 1980s, everything was being outsourced. The law-based model that came out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was completely wiped out, and by 1980 we returned to what it was like in 1911. It’s an enormous problem because every company is going after the cheapest wages they can get. In Bangladesh they have the lowest wages in the world, but because the fire embarrassed Wal-Mart they’re thinking of moving some of the work to Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam — it’s a race to the bottom with no regulations.
Are there any companies that are actually doing a good job of trying to buck the trend and protect worker safety abroad?
Some are better than others. We just did a nasty case in Guatemala involving PVH [the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, among other brands]. Workers were being cheated of their benefits and were not being paid. When we contacted one of the labels, Van Heusen, they took it very seriously. If there are violations, we will bring them into compliance, they said. So there are some labels, like PVH, that if you catch them in sweatshop conditions, they will immediately respond. That’s about as good as we’ve seen.
David Michaels, administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) told GlobalPost that in the US, workplace fatalities have dropped from 38 per day in 1972, to about 13 per day today even though the workplace is twice as big currently. Do you see any similar trends abroad, and is there any hope that workplace fatalities and workplace injuries are decreasing?
Not in the desperately poor countries, like India. They still have not been solving silicosis with their young people [polishing agate stones]. These workers are still abandoned, still dying and not receiving proper medical care.
At the Sensata factory in Freeport, Ill., which was producing for Bain Capital, they brought Chinese engineers to the factory so they could learn how to use the machinery. The first thing the engineers said to the US workers was “the minute we get back to China we will tear off all of the safety guards to improve the productivity.” There are still tons of violations like that in China, with serious poisonings and other horrible human rights violations.
Jack Freifelder contributed reporting from Boston.
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