How Do We Keep Workers Safe?

May 15, 2013

We usually write about wage violations and employment discrimination; workers deserve to be treated fairly. Even more basic, though, is the need for a safe workplace. Recently, headlines about the tragic consequences of unsafe labor practices have been sadly frequent: maimed workers at North Carolina's Royale Comfort Seating, a deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, and the horrific collapse of a garment manufacturing facility in Bangladesh.

The latter calls for American consumers to re-examine the choices they usually make thoughtlessly. A New Yorker article examines the causes and consequences of the Bangladesh disaster, which is now "one of the worst industrial accidents ever."

The phenomenon of "fast fashion," which calls for new clothes on retailers' shelves at an accelerated pace, is increasing the pressure on manufactures. Garment companies' ever-present drive for higher profits also contributes directly to the poor conditions. The article quotes an M.I.T. professor: "Often, the only way factories can make the variety and quantity of goods that brands want at the price points they're willing to pay is to squeeze the workers." Compounding the problem, in Bangladesh, "labor unions are frowned upon, there's no one to speak up for workers in these factories. So safety becomes an afterthought at best."

The New Yorker article cites a study which showed that suppliers can work with their client (companies like Nike) to improve safety without sacrificing productivity. Government support is also crucial:

[I]n Cambodia the Better Factories Cambodia program, administered by the I.L.O. in collaboration with the Cambodian government, has significantly improved not just working conditions but also workers' rights, even as Cambodia's exports have grown briskly.
Perversely, workers can be punished for protecting their own physical well-being. Gawker recently ran this eye-opening piece about California farm workers who left their work site to take shelter from an approaching wildfire, only to be fired for abandoning their positions. Fortunately, all were offered their jobs back---but it is easy to imagine this same story playing out with less media attention and reaching a much different result.

The Harman Firm supports safe workplaces for employees everywhere. Contact us if you have any questions about safety regulations or employment law.