By Elizabeth Grossman, reporting from Bangkok, Thailand
As bodies of workers continued to be pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory complex outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, pushing the death toll past 900, and news was breaking of at least seven deaths in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh on May 9, labor rights advocates meeting in Bangkok called for changes in the system that has led to disasters that have killed more than 1300 workers in the past eight months. “Events of the last 8 months have clearly demonstrated a complete failure of the CSR [corporate social responsibility] and hollowness of the ‘self-regulatory’ standards and industry audits that manufactures and brands have been adopting,” said the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) in a statement issued as the group gathered for its 13th annual meeting. “ANROEV members also express their deep outrage at the colossal loss of life, which is now unprecedented by any scale. Fire and structural safety of the buildings is the basic right that workers in Asia rightfully deserve,” said ANROEV in its statement. “Enough is enough. Stop these murders at workplaces in Asia.” .
A network of NGOs based in more than 14 Asian countries that advocate for occupational health, safety, and labor rights, ANROEV was initially formed following fatal Kader and Zhili toy factory fires in Thailand and China in the early 1990s. This year’s meeting is being held on the twentieth anniversary of the fire that killed 188 workers at the Kader factory in northern Thailand that was considered the worst factory fire until last year’s fires at factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. “Not much has changed in the past 20 years,” said Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Resource Monitor Centre (AMRC). We shouldn’t have to be talking about these kinds of disasters anymore, he said.
“We need to recover from the mentality of only trying to fix things after an accident then waiting for another accident before demanding additional change,” said Repon Chowdury, executive director of the Bangladesh Occupational, Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), discussing the Rana Plaza disaster. “We are hoping this disaster being treated as a national disaster will change the scenario in Bangladesh,” said Chowdury. “If this doesn’t change things, nothing will,” he said.
In its statement, ANROEV harshly criticized the reliance on voluntary policies that it says “has led to the weakening of the state regulatory mechanisms, which otherwise could have allowed inspections of these facilities by local authorities and thus disasters could have been prevented.” The recent and ongoing disasters, said ANROEV, have “shown the failure of both for-profit and nonprofit social auditing, that seems to be detached from the realities at ground.” ANROEV calls for the following changes:
1. Companies should be obliged to comply with national and international health and safety measures, whichever is a higher standard, in a serious manner through which should be monitored locally by strengthening the local independent inspections
2. Union and workers participation at all levels in health and safety policies and decisions has to be recognized as indispensable component in ensuring safe and healthy workplaces. Concrete steps should be taken to ensure freedom of association.
3. Active formation and recognition of victims’ organizations as legitimate representatives of the injured and dead workers
“We need organizations at the ground level, at the home base,” said Chowdury, “not all the window dressing,” that has come with current CSR policies in practice. And he cautioned, “Having the buyers close up leave and move elsewhere is not a solution.”
“We need to replace the current system with one where companies have to pay into support for locally based inspections,” said Pandita. He and other ANROEV members described what they call a failed system of auditing and inspection. Many at the meeting spoke of inspectors “colluding with employers,” and those managing factories that produce for multinational brands. One NGO representative recounted how a local factory manager had asked about how he should pay the individual conducting a third-party audit.
Current CSR policies, said ANROEV in its statement, have effectively privatized what should be the government function of ensuring strong labor laws and enforcement of occupational safety and health policies and building codes. Coupled with current employment practices that rely heavily on temporary workers rather than full-time employees and on migrant labor, the result is a work environment that has kept these workplaces “virtually union-free.” ANROEV also called for criminal prosecution of those responsible for conditions at the Rana Plaza complex.
The lack of local laws is not necessarily a problem, said Pandita. “The problem is political will to implement the laws.” That the Rana Plaza factories were allowed to operate despite obvious structural hazards is ample evidence of a failure of enforcement. Meanwhile, adding to the problems for the workers and families involved, he said, is the fact that so many workers in such Bangladeshi factories “are not registered with social security,” which compounds problems they will have in securing any compensation.
As horrific as the death toll from the current spate of south Asian industrial disasters is, “even more workers are dying of occupational diseases,” said Pandita. “But they die slowly,” he said.
As of the latest news on the CBS network, the death toll has passed 1,000.
The key word here is "unions." Nothing less than a fully protected right of workers to organize, unionize, and obtain collective bargaining rights with the full protection of the law, will do. Otherwise we are going to lurch from one band-aid to the next, from the overt tragedy of blood-splattered wreckage to the covert tragedy of occupational diseases that kill their victims in their own homes.
Further there needs to be strict criminal liability up and down the chain, corporate veil be damned. In the present case we have a building collapse. Have you ever seen videos of concrete construction practices in some parts of the world? It's nothing less than proof of the existence of God, that those buildings stand up at all (pardon my crappy attempt at irony). Get a friend who's in civil engineering to keyword search YouTube, and you will find enough to make him or her sick to the stomach to watch:
Concrete mixed with so much water it runs like lentil soup, placed into leaky forms with shoddy or no reinforcing, not consolidated properly, and then allowed to "dry" rather than being properly cured. And last but not least, "Upward ever upward!, and faster ever faster!" is the cry of the day, as one floor is built upon the next without even allowing the proper time for the concrete to attain anything near the necessary strength. Even in places where you see brand new "high tech" equipment in use, these practices continue, and the buildings fall over at the slightest nudge.
Licensing of contractors _and_ materials producers is necessary, and strict process-based building codes are necessary until the point is reached where the building codes can switch over to being result-based. Process-based building codes dictate exactly how the work should be done. Result-based codes dictate the outcomes. If the local contractors are so bloody corrupt that they can't work to a standard, someone has to stand over them with a pair of handcuffs and ensure they perform the process correctly.
All of this can be backed with global agreements, though it is going to be necessary to pry the cold dead hand of capital off the levers of power to get there. Between now and then, we should all be conscientiously refusing to buy any products whatsoever that are made in the countries that are the worst offenders. We can live without baubles and bling. Better that than to live with blood on our hands.