Vulnerable Workers in the Global Economy: Following a Shift in the Global Economy, Many U.S. Manufacturing Jobs Have Moved Overseas. Workers in the Developing World Are Finding Themselves Exposed to Chemicals, High Noise, Unguarded Machinery and Other Safety Hazards

By Brown, Garrett | Occupational Hazards, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Vulnerable Workers in the Global Economy: Following a Shift in the Global Economy, Many U.S. Manufacturing Jobs Have Moved Overseas. Workers in the Developing World Are Finding Themselves Exposed to Chemicals, High Noise, Unguarded Machinery and Other Safety Hazards


Brown, Garrett, Occupational Hazards


Manufacturing in the global economy has made a dramatic shift in the last decade from relatively well-regulated, high-wage, often unionized plants in the developed world to very low-wage, basically unregulated, nonunion production facilities in the developing world.

Last year, for example, 100 percent of television sets sold in the United States, more than 80 percent of other electronic products, 75 percent of toys, and two-thirds of the $180 billion U.S. clothing market were produced in the developing world.

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Workers in these factories are often subjected to uncontrolled chemical exposures, high noise and temperature levels, unguarded machinery and other safety hazards, as well as ergonomic hazards from long hours of intensive manual assembly tasks. Worker training on the nature of these hazardous exposures and how they can be reduced or eliminated is virtually unknown.

Many countries, such as Indonesia and Guatemala, have limited or very general regulations on occupational safety and health, while other countries, like Mexico or China, have adequate laws that are simply not enforced in any meaningful way.

Reasons for Non-Enforcement of EHS Laws

Part of the reason for the non-enforcement of occupational safety and health laws is the lack of resources--human, financial and technical--in developing countries. Budget austerity programs imposed by international financial agencies force governments to slash public expenditures, including those for the recruitment, training and equipping of workplace safety inspectors. Corruption at all levels of regulatory development and enforcement is also a major factor working against workplace health and safety.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of political will to enforce existing rules or to create new ones. Many developing countries, such as Mexico, are heavily indebted to private banks (overwhelmingly U.S.-based) and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These countries are completely dependent on foreign investment to pay the interest, let alone the principal, on these debts. So any policy that "discourages foreign investment"--such as enforcement of occupational and environmental health laws--is economic suicide and a political impossibility.

Many of the U.S.-based transnational corporations that dominate the global consumer market no longer own and operate their own factories. Instead, they are at the top end of a long production chain of contractors, sub-contractors, brokers, agents and on down to the level of industrial homework in workers' houses. Most of the corporate codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility departments that were developed in the wake of exposes of global sweatshops in the garment, sports shoe and toy industries do not have the funding or staff to have a meaningful and consistent impact on the plant floors around the world. Some of the corporate codes and monitoring mechanisms are nothing more than public relations exercises.

Economic Needs of Workers

For many workers in the developing world, their economic needs are so desperate they cannot refuse work, no matter how dangerous or unsafe. Forty percent of the world's population, almost 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, with 1.3 billion living on less than $1 a day. The number of countries defined as "least developed," those with a per capita income of less than $900 a year or $75 a month, has doubled from 25 to 49 in the last 30 years, despite decades of aid, trade and development. Eighty countries have seen a decline in real per capita income in the last 10 years.

Some 150 million workers in the world--at least 70 million in China alone--are "migrant" or "immigrant" workers working outside their home countries or regions. More than 30 million workers globally are employed in formal "export processing zones," like the "maquiladoras" in Mexico and Central America, where the application of national regulations and international conventions has been explicitly limited or prohibited altogether. …

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