Vol. VIII, Bulletin No. 5.                                                         May 2, 2003 

A Decade of Scandalous Neglect
Workers Still Imperiled by Death Traps
10 Years After World's Worst Factory Fire

"How many more corpses will it take?"  With that question as their campaign slogan, more than 20 unions and non-governmental organizations in Thailand are jointly demanding that the Thai government at long last act to protect the lives and limbs of workers in the country's dangerous workplaces.

The campaign reaches a high point this month on the tenth anniversary of the most deadly industrial fire in Thailand's -- and the world's -- history. On May 10, 1993, an inferno at the Kader Toy Factory on the outskirts of Bankgok killed 188 workers (174 women, 14 men) and injured 469 more, some as young as 14.  The factory was a huge death trap -- it had no fire alarm, no sprinkler system, no fire hoses, and no fire escape. Several exits were blocked or locked.

Ironically, just this March a provincial court dismissed negligence charges against 13 Kader owners and managers, but jailed a worker who, by allegedly lighting a cigarette, allegedly ignited the conflagration that destroyed the Kader factory compound. Building code violations, which caused four factory buildings to collapse quickly, killing many who were frantically trying to escape, brought a fine of only $12,380.

Independent Agency for On-the-Job Safety Demanded

Meanwhile, the Thai government has for years sat on reform proposals that would reduce the country's factory accident rate, which is more than twice that of neighboring Malaysia. The most important reform demanded by the joint campaign is the creation a new agency for occupational health and safety and health, with regulatory powers independent of the present sluggish bureaucracy.  

This month, as they have every May 10 after 1993, demonstrators will march through Bangkok to the site where the Kader factory complex once stood. They will remember not only the victims who once made Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse, Barbie, and other dolls there, but also the workers killed, maimed, and poisoned in other Asian factories and mines, including the 87 toy workers who died in China's Zhili factory fire in November 1993.  

Voices of activists are resonating far and wide in protest. "We will not forget," they are declaring in demonstrations, in their publications, and in Websites such as the one published by the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims. Its May 2003 newsletter provides extensive details on the Kader and Zhili fires, its causes, its victims, and needed reforms, including an independent OSH institute in Thailand.

At prominent places in Bangkok, 4,000 posters, produced with the help of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center office in Thailand, ask in large black script above the sheet-covered corpses of Kader workers: "How many more corpses will it take?"

How much longer will it be before the lessons of the two Asian tragedies, now both ten years old, start to move governments, employer organizations, and intergovernmental agencies such as the World Trade Organization?  

Under consumer and activist pressures, a few employers in the region are improving health and safety conditions in factories, but deadly dangers still face many millions of Asian working men and women -- the global economy's "sacrificial lambs," as a woman's magazine in China has called them.

Crassly Defending the Indefensible

Shortly after the Kader fire in 1993, the Economist of London offered its historical perspective on the tragedy. "The early stages of industrialization are often rough," it explained editorially. "Britain and America were able to afford better laws and safer workplaces as they got richer."

But, as I wrote in Commonweal magazine several months later:
"This kind of analysis, often deployed to put a gloss of inevitability on even the most indefensible abuses of human rights, can sound plausible to the uninformed. But in this case it clearly doesn't fit the facts.

"The Kader factory, owned by some of the wealthiest Asians in the region, mass-produces stuffed dolls (Bart Simpson, Cabbage Patch, and others) for highly profitable U.S. retailer outlets selling to the richest consumers in the world.  The enterprise has been well integrated into a thriving global economy, one that differs radically from the historical model on which the Economist builds its rationale.

"Despite Kader's economic success, its workers have long been victimized by the company's low-wage policy. According to sources within the company, Kader has avoided paying many of its workers even Thailand's $5-a-day minimum wage by classifying them as 'temporary,' on renewable contracts."
A U.S. Landmark of the Unspeakable  

Outside a skyscraper on a Manhattan street corner on March 25 this year, a silver bell tolled 146 times, as it does every March 25, in remembrance of the 146 young workers, mostly women, who died there in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of Saturday, March 25, 1911. It was the deadliest factory fire in U.S. history, spurring action to enforce fire safety and unionize garment workers. 

This year the 10-story building where it occurred became an official landmark -- "a landmark of the unspeakable" a New York Times headline called it. At the ceremony New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the history of the building "serves to remind us about one of our greatest assets: New York's ability to follow great tragedy with great progress."  (For the history of the tragedy and the progress, see Cornell University's Website.)

How long will it take for Bangkok's great tragedy of 1993 to be followed by great progress?

Seeing the Light on Pollution

It's just dawned on me that I've paid too little attention to environmental pollution. I neglected it because I felt that, by focusing on worker rights, I had enough on my hands. Besides the environmental movement already has a sizable army of advocates. They do their thing; we worker rights advocates do ours. The two concerns, while overlapping somewhat, fit pretty much in separate compartments.

Wrong. Two things helped me realize how wrong that is. One was a new book, "When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution" (Basic Books, 2002). The other was a luncheon talk by the book's author, Devra Davis, a world-renowned specialist in epidemic diseases, currently a visiting professor of public policy at Mellon University.

The Workplace's Environmental Blight and Its Ripples

Where do many serious environmental problems originate? At the mills, factories, mines, and other places where people work, from which they spread to surrounding neighborhoods and beyond, as Davis pointed out. That was not news to me. But reflecting on it sparked insights into major implication of what Davis writes and says. Hence, enforcing a safe and healthy workplace is an important key to protecting not just workers but others against illness and premature death.

That's the basic insight. Somewhat obvious, true, but as Davis writes, for an obvious idea to take hold in everyday life sometimes takes century.

A related insight is more complex. It owes less to Davis and more to my own concerns about globalization as a vehicle not for just good but for evil. I went to the luncheon prepared with a question that I hoped would lead to a discussion of how international trade and investment spread pollution.

But my question was probably too abstract to elicit a clear response, or at least the kind of response I hoped to get. Besides, the agenda for the luncheon centered on the impact of U.S. anti-pollution measures on U.S. jobs.

Perverse Consequences and How to Correct Them

During a recent sleepless night, I continued my reflection, and the next morning formulated these propositions:
'Let Them Eat Pollution,' and Millions Do

"Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the [less developed countries]?...The economic logic...is impeccable, and we should face up to that."

Larry Summers (later U.S. treasury secretary and now president of Harvard) made that point in a 1991 staff memo when he was the chief economist of the World Bank. Subsequently, he called the internal memo "a regrettable attempt to provoke thought" during a "very muddled" discussion of trade and environmental issues. The Economist, which reprinted the memo under the headline "Let Them Eat Pollution" in its Feb. 8, 1992 issue, defended Summers. In an editorial on "Pollution and the Poor" published a week later, it argued that "costs rise disproportionately as pollution increases; so shifting pollution from dirty places to clean ones reduces costs," an objective that it praised for having "a distinctively economic premise."

Summers was prescient about China's development. Devra Davis writes in her book: "Of the ten worst cities in the world for which we had information  on average yearly levels of air pollution, nine were in China. Air pollution for the country as a whole ranked among the worst in the world." That analysis was made in 1998, and China's pollution has intensified since them.

To what extent has the migration of polluting industries from the United States, Europe, and Japan to China contributed to SARS?  That certainly deserves unmuddled discussion and investigation.

Lawyers Group Favors Trade/Labor Link

Of late human rights groups have come to realize that worker rights are human rights, but without going so far as supporting a worker rights dimension in international trade agreement. Now I've learned of an important human rights organization that's gone that far.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights declares on its Website that "increased trade liberalization must be accompanied by measures to protect basic rights," adding: "The express protection of labor rights in the letter and the spirit of trade agreements is a first step in this direction." Among the "minimum requirements" that such agreements must meet, in the committee's judgment, is that "enforcement mechanisms for labor rights must be equal to enforcement mechanisms for any other rights and obligations embodied in the agreements."  Just to make the point perfectly clear, the committee repeats it in rephrased form: "Trade remedies should be applicable to labor standards."

The committee explains the need for the labor/trade linkage as follows:
"In the rush to find cheaper and quicker ways to produce shoes, apparel, and other labor-intensive goods for the global marketplace, multinational corporations continue to move much of their manufacturing to countries without basic legal protections for workers and where union organizing is prohibited or discouraged. Factory workers drive the new international economy, yet millions of them endure substandard conditions of work ranging from inadequate wages to long hours of life-threatening hazards in the workplace.

"The export of agricultural products has also significantly increased over the last years.  In many countries that export agricultural products, basic worker rights are not respected, and child labor is a serious problem."
The Lawyers Committee played a pivotal role in the formation of the Fair Labor Association to encourage corporations and their suppliers in the apparel industries to adopt fair labor standards.  It may be that the committee's experience with the FLA's voluntary approach convinced it that more is needed -- an approach with consequences for violators, along the lines of the penalties that most trade agreements now provide for countries that violate property rights.
Nike, Others Told: Pay Stolen Wages

The violations of Nike's code of conduct over two decades "represent real money in terms of unpaid wages that are owed to the workers," and so "Nike should find a way to make these workers whole by paying back wages."  That's the judgment that S. Prakesh Sethi, a business school professor, expresses in a new book, "Setting Global Standards" (Wiley, 2003).

In a chapter titled "Nike, Inc.: Missed Opportunities for Effective Code Compliance," Sethi rebukes Nike for a code that "absolved Nike from any and all responsibility beyond asking its [factory] partners to sign the agreement."  In fact, he writes, Nike's whole business strategy has been adopted globally by multinationals that market labor-intensive products -- a model that is "a prime example of globalization with its concomitant sweatshops, worker abuse, pollution, and environmental degradation."

Sethi also delivers a sharp admonition to all companies following that model:. 
Nike recently has made progress in one area: introducing water-based solvents to replace toxic glue in its footwear manufacturing, Sethi points out.  "This not only made the plants safer and provided a healthier work environment; it also generated significant cost savings." Sethi quickly adds, however, that when it comes to issues such as "wages, forced overtime, and harassment, Nike remains mired in a quagmire of ambiguous answers about current performance and noncommittal answers about its future performance."

Bright Spotlight on Worker Rights

As never before, the air is full of happenings affecting the rights of workers. Are these developments bad, good, or what?

Take the publication of the book quoted above, "Setting Global Standards."  Certainly it is deeply troubling -- most of all to the working men and women affected -- that during two long decades Nike has moved so sluggishly on the human rights of workers. But it's an encouraging sign that the leader of a business school has researched and published the sordid record of those who exploit the lawlessness of the international labor market. Perhaps Professor Sethi's book will help introduce reforms still rejected by various national and international authorities.

For an idea of all that is happening on the plus and the minus side, browse the Website of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, which covers much more than U.S.-Mexico labor issues. The volunteer work of this network of health and safety professionals may itself be sign that we're close to a "tipping point" in the struggle to achieve recognition of international worker rights. Hope so.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-5, May 2, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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