Race to the bottom making work less safe

The race to the bottom turned to tragedy last week when an eight-story building housing garment factories near Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed and killed hundreds of workers. The deadly collapse occurred on the week prior to April 28, Workers Memorial Day, the day that workers around the world commemorate comrades killed on the job.

From the garment factories of Bangladesh to the coalfields of West Virginia working has become a lot more dangerous. In the US 4,600 workers died on the job in 2011. The death toll from the factory collapse in Bangladesh now stands at nearly 400.

In addition to on-the-job deaths, workers are suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals and other deadly material where they work. According to the New York Times, 40,000 US workers a year die prematurely from exposure to toxins and 200,000 workers a year are incapacitated.

The deteriorating state of work safety can be largely attributed to what has become a primary imperative of late-stage capitalism–drive down labor costs as low as possible, and when you’ve reached the bottom, drive them down some more.

That certainly is the case in Bangladesh, the world’s third largest exporter of manufactured garment goods, where the average monthly wage of a garment worker is $43 a month, the lowest in the world. Not satisfied with paying the world’s lowest wages, owners of the garment factories seek to lower the labor costs even further by spending as little as possible on worker health and safety, making those factories some of the most dangerous places in the world to work.

Since 2005, 700 workers have been killed in garment factory fires, the worst took place last November when 112 died at a fire in a factory owned by Tazreen Design, which made clothes for Walmart and other Western retailers.

The race to the bottom isn’t unique to Bangladesh. You can see it at work in the coalfields of West Virginia. In April 2010, 29 miners at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia died in a preventable methane gas explosion. Between that explosion and the end of 2012, 24 more miners died on the job. So far in 2013, nine miners have died, including five in West Virginia.

Two independent reports lay the blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion on Massey Energy management, which wilfully violated safety laws.

According to an indictment of a Massey executive by the US Justice Department, Massey routinely violated safety laws “in part because of the belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production.”

In other words, Massey executives decided that it would cost too much in lost production and lost profit to provide a safe work place.

Driving down labor costs has made work less safe in other ways. More and more of our most dangerous jobs are being done by temporary workers, whose pay is low and who are given little training or information about how to deal with hazards on the job.

One of those temporary workers was Lawrence Daquan “Day” Davis. Davis, a 21-year old African-American worker, was killed on his first day on the job at Bacardi Bottling in Jacksonville, Florida.

According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Davis was cleaning glass from under the hoist of a palletizing machine when an employee restarted the palletizer. Bacardi Bottling had failed to train temporary employees on utilizing locks and tags to prevent the accidental start-up of machines and to ensure its own employees
utilized procedures to lock or tag out machines.”

“We are seeing untrained workers – many of them temporary workers – killed very soon after starting a new job. This must stop,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.

Minority workers, like Day Davis, are more likely to be the victims of the lack of safety on the job and that’s especially true for immigrant workers. “Immigrant workers toil away in some of the most dangerous jobs in the most dangerous industries in attempts to live a better life in the U.S., and unfortunately, a disproportionate number of immigrant workers perish on the job,” said Jessica E. Martinez, assistant director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Deteriorating health and safety on the job isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a conscious cost calculation, and workers like Day Davis and his counterparts in the West Virginia coalfields and garment factories of Bangladesh are paying the price.