by Elizabeth Grossman
I’m on my way home from Indonesia, where I spent part of the past week attending the annual meeting of the Asian Network for Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV), an organization that brings together NGOs working on occupational health, safety, and labor issues all across Asia. The meeting was held in Bandung, in West Java — the most densely populated part of Indonesia — about a three-hour drive (or six, depending on traffic) east from Jakarta. When, thanks to North American jetlag, I woke before dawn as the day’s first motorcycles began to zip along the palm-lined street, I could hear the call to prayer echo out from a nearby mosque. In late October, the weather is hot and humid, and heavy rains seem to blow through almost daily.
Asia, which is now the world’s center of industrial development, also has the world’s highest rate of occupational accidents and injuries. The region is home to about half of the 2.3 million people who die each year from occupational accidents and work-related illnesses, according to figures compiled by the International Labor Organization. “About two people die every minute in Asia from work-related causes,” says Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, one of the conference organizers. “But,” he says, “we don’t know how many people are getting sick.” The data that is available, says Pandita, “is but the tip of the iceberg.”
Occupational illness is a major focus of the meeting, where labor, occupational health and safety activists and professionals have gathered to exchange information, campaign, and training strategies. Top concerns include fatal lung diseases like mesothelioma and silicosis that result from exposure to asbestos and stone dust, as well as conditions related to chemical exposures, among them cancers and reproductive health disorders.
A Growing Movement
Many of the full-time activists attending began their careers working in the industries on behalf of whose workers they’re now advocating. Many at the meeting are union members who currently work on the shop floor. Others are advocating on behalf of the vast number of those who work in the informal sector, which is poorly accounted for in official statistics but in ample evidence on the streets of cities and in rural communities all across Asia.
Since the advent of the current economic crisis, explains Pandita, an increasing number of workers have found themselves employed both in the informal sector and under short-term contracts that offer few, if any, health and safety benefits. These concerns are among those I hear about in my conversations with workers who tell me about their experiences in electronics, garment, and textile industries in Indonesia and the Philippines.
“ANROAV has a presence in fourteen countries in Asia,” explains Noel Colina, who directs ANROAV’s central secretariat. The organization formed in 1993 after the disastrous fires at the Zhili toy factory in China and Kader toy factory in Thailand — considered the worst industrial accidents in recent history. It began by advocating on behalf of industrial accident victims but has expanded its scope to include those suffering from occupational diseases in industries that range from the age-old — mining and stone polishing — to high-tech electronics. ANROAV member organizations are also working toward a world ban on asbestos.
Many Concerns, Too Few Answers
As I listen to the stories being shared, a theme that emerges is lack of information. “Chemical exposure. Not knowing what they’re exposed to.” “Occupational disease from poisonous materials.” “Workers know very little about chemical ingredients.” “Very hard to get diseases diagnosed,” are comments about workplaces in locations that include the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Thailand, and Korea. Getting information in the local language is often a problem. We are shown a photograph of the label for a chemical cleaner used in a plant in the Philippines. Apart from the brand name, the label is entirely in Japanese.
The information workers do receive isn’t always correct, and sometimes incorrect information takes the form of misdiagnosis. We hear of many cases in which people suffering from asbestosis and silicosis have been told incorrectly they have pleurisy or TB. Among those afflicted with lung diseases are workers who handle asbestos (through work in mines and construction, for instance, or in factories that make construction materials or brake pads) and those exposed to dust through work in quarries, small gemstone polishing workshops, or textile factories where jeans are sandblasted.
People who work in garment and shoe manufacturing and in electronics told us they often don’t know what chemicals they are working with or lack access to information about the chemicals’ health effects. But they all described co-workers who are suffering from health problems, and their suspicions that chemical exposures are to blame.
Women from China who have worked at a plant assembling cell phones — producing as many as 300 to 400 an hour — report that miscarriages and menstrual problems are common among their colleagues. We hear the same from Indonesian and Korean women. Similar stories come from the Philippines. Men who work in factories assembling automotive electronics and DVD players report co-workers who have died of cancer – lung cancer and brain tumors. Two young Indonesian women who work in electronics factories ask me if chemicals related to their work or perhaps to the “instant food” they all eat may have caused their co-workers’ breast cancers. Occupational health advocates working on behalf of Samsung workers in Korea have now documented 96 cases of cancer — about a third of these fatal — among employees of the company’s semiconductor plants. Many of these are young people.
Phenol, chloroform, TCE (trichloroethylene), mercury, glues, solvents, flux and solder, degreaser, hexane, n-hexane, methanol, trimethyl fluoride, benzene, nickel, lithium, methylene chloride, and isopropyl alcohol are among the materials people attending the ANROAV meeting have questions about.
Then there is the question of what to do with information, whether about hazardous materials and other unsafe working conditions, responding to workers’ health problems or compensating victims. Many strategies are discussed, that range from union negotiations to scientific investigations, lawsuits, and protests.
When I sit down late one evening in Jakarta with Dr. Jeong-ok Kong who’s been advocating on behalf of sickened Korean Samsung workers, she sums it up by saying, “Noise is much better than silence. Noise is good. Let’s make some noise.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.