Academic journal article Social Justice

The Global Threats to Workers' Health and Safety on the Job

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Global Threats to Workers' Health and Safety on the Job

Article excerpt


AUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT OF EVERY WORKING PERSON IS TO BE ABLE TO return home at the end of the workday alive and healthy. For 6,000 workers in the United States in 2001, this right ended with their death on the job. Sixteen workers a day left home never to return. In the same year, there were over 100,000 deaths from occupational diseases and more than one million lost-time injuries (BLS website).

With China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and with average manufacturing wages of 20 to 25 cents per hour, it is widely predicted that China will become the "export platform" for the entire world in the coming years. In China during the first half of 2001, 47,000 workers were killed at work, according to official statistics, meaning that 258 Chinese workers left for work every day and were killed on the job (Kurtenbach, 2001).

The rate of acute poisoning accidents in Beijing has doubled since 1994, according to the city's health bureau, and about 2.1 million workers in the Chinese capital are exposed to toxic dusts, chemicals, and other airborne hazards at work (Han, 2002). In the developing world, it is estimated that for every fatality, there are 750 disabling injuries (Levine, 2000). Thus, for the first six months of 2001, 35.2 million Chinese workers were permanently or temporarily disabled at work.

Worldwide, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, there are two million fatalities on the job each year (3,300 deaths per day) and 160 million new cases of work-related diseases (ICFTU, 2002). Moreover, it is estimated that for each fatality there are 1,200 accidents resulting in three or more days off from work and 5,000 accidents requiring first aid (Takala, 2002).

The right to a safe and healthful workplace is under threat around the world as the globalized economy puts tremendous downward pressure on occupational health and safety regulations and their enforcement. "The global race to the bottom" affects developing and developed economies as transnational corporations roam the worldlooking for the lowest wages, the most vulnerable workforces, and the least regulation of environmental and occupational health.

The Global Economy

In 1999, 51 of the 100 largest economies on the planet were not countries, but rather multinational corporations (MNCs). The 500 largest MNCs account for 70% of world trade, including one-third of all manufacturing exports, three-quarters of all commodity trade, and four-fifths of technical and management services trade. These giant MNCs account for two-thirds of all industrial investment in "lesser developed countries" (LaDou, 1999). Now there are more than 60,000 MNCs with 700,000 subsidiaries around the world (Kearney, 2002).

Manufacturing in the new global economy has shifted from "well regulated," high paying, often unionized plants in the industrial countries to very low wage, unregulated, and nonunion production facilities in the developing world, each competing with one another for maximum "competitive advantage." Production is organized through long supply chains involving contractors, multiple subcontractors, brokers and agents, down to industrial homework, generating myriad components for assembly and shipment to the consumer countries. Nike, for example, contracts out work to 750 factories in over 50 countries, while over 20,000 factories around the globe make Disney-branded products (O'Rourke, 2001).

Around the world, some 27 million workers are in "free trade" or "export processing" zones that are frequently precluded by law from regulating wages, hours, and working conditions (Kearney, 2002). The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that at least 246 million children, five to 14 years of age, are working full or part time every day. The organization estimates that over 150 million people, some 70 million in China and 50 million in Africa alone, are working outside their countries or away from their home regions within their country (ICFTU, 2001). …

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