In the last two years, the California Legislature has provided the Department of Industrial Relations with significantly increased financial resources to enhance the effectiveness of Cal/OSHA and better protect the 19 million workers in the state. DIR has failed to take full advantage of these resources to strengthen Cal/OSHA while at the same time it has provided refunds to employers who have paid the fees that generate these unused resources. The net effect is a Cal/OSHA that is weaker and less effective than it could be if all available resources were put to work. The people who pay the cost of these resources “left on the table” are the workers of California and their families and communities.
Two global unions, four labor rights organizations and 23 apparel brands and retailers agreed in late June to extend the ground-breaking Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety that has led to safer working conditions for 4 million garment workers. The legally-binding agreement came about following the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,138 workers in Dhaka.
Dozens of safety inspector positions in California are vacant while workplace fatalities and injuries in the state are on the rise. Cal/OSHA has had an average of 34 vacant field enforcement positions a month since July 2015, which means that more than $10 million in state-authorized funding was left unused.
With new reports on working conditions in global supply chains coming out every week from the news media and non-governmental organizations – how is possible to keep track of the most important developments in health and safety and other worker rights? There is a “one-stop shopping” solution to sign up for a weekly update of recent reports and corporate responses, as well as more organizations to track for those with more time and ambition.
Accounting professors have confirmed what we always suspected: companies which are scrambling to meet or just beat Wall Street analysts’ profit projections have worker injury rates that are 12% higher than other employers. The recent research indicates that frantic efforts by “benchmark-beating” employers – increasing employees’ workloads or pressuring them to work faster, at the same time that these employers cut safety spending on activities like maintaining equipment or training employees, to meet the profit projections – are the likely source of increased injuries and illnesses.
In February 2017, garment workers in Myanmar, who were enraged by abusive and illegal working conditions, stormed their factory and smashed $75,000 worth of equipment. The worker revolt revealed the broken promises of international clothing brands that sweatshop apparel production would lead to better lives and “empowerment.”
Last month, California’s Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) proposed revised and stronger regulations for oil refineries in the state after a 4½-year joint campaign by labor unions, environmental and community organizations. The successful strategic coalition is a powerful example of how health and safety regulations can be improved despite an industry’s wealth, power and political influence.
The Trump Administration is gearing up to make Federal OSHA as under-resourced and ineffective as it can. Our strategic response has to be more than simply defending the status quo ante; we have to rebuild the social movement that was powerful enough 50 years ago to force another right-wing Republican president, Richard Nixon, to support and sign the OSH Act in the first place.
Mass firings, blacklisting of fired workers, indefinite detentions of union leaders and worker rights advocates in Bangladesh threaten the fragile gains in workplace health and safety in the garment industry. International clothing brands and retailers are being petitioned to reverse the firings, release the detained, and respect the basic rights of garment workers.