Standing Up for Safety

Four Burros in the Back of a Pick Up Truck

According to researcher, Benjamin Skinner in an interview with, Terrence McNally host of Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York there are more slaves today then every before in human history.  Skinner spent four years undercover in the world of illegal slavery researching his book: A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Modern day slavery is more than a social ill, it’s an epidemic that should scare safety professionals. Experts estimate that before the global recession that there were 27 million people. Author, Kevin Bales’s, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy defines slaves as “those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.”

It may seem like a leap to equate issues in safety with human trafficking, but I am not being melodramatic.  Workers in highly industrialized countries have long felt the pressure from employers who threaten to move jobs overseas if the workers do not comply with demands for cheaper labor.  Little by little corporations have chipped away at worker safety by creating a climate of fear.

In some cases companies are more overt, they shut down operations in the U.S., Europe, or Australia and move production to countries that either turn a blind eye toward safety and environmental violations or lack even the most basic worker and environmental protections.  In other cases, companies move jobs to overseas suppliers who have criminal safety records.

The post recession world is even uglier.  Politicians increasingly describe safety regulations as “job killing” or some other euphemism for a threat to job security.  Workers are increasingly told that they can either have a job or they can work safely, but they can’t have both. How different is that from slavery? Quite a bit, actually,  I won’t cheapen the atrocity that is slavery by equating it to corporate bullies who continue to chip away at worker and environmental protection by telling us to toughen up. But I will say that it is on the same continuum and part of the overall trend toward diminishing the importance of workplace safety.

Even in the most mature industrial countries the law encourages us to shift blame to the workers or other companies. Government regulations encourage us I have worked with several companies who have had worker fatalities that “didn’t count” because the workers were contractors and therefore, “not our recordable”.  When did human life get so cheap that we as safety professionals started to see the loss of life as somehow less horrific because the worker—a person who we saw day in and day out, swapped stories over coffee, and save for some legal designation, was our coworker in all the ways that count—wasn’t on our payroll?

It’s easy to blame governments, after all they are the ones who made the laws and fail to enforce them, but realistically, how can governments regulate a moving target?  Furthermore governments lack the resources to be fully effective; they simply can’t be everywhere so they tend to respond only complaints and complaints aren’t coming from the worst offenders. Off course, governments have allowed assaults on worker safety to effectively go unanswered. In the rush to compete one municipality sells out the community and workers just to lure business in only to have it leave for a better deal.

It’s even easier to blame corporations; the nameless, faceless evil empires that we all love to hate.  Mitt Romney drew criticisms for his political faux pas of saying that corporations are people too.  A dumb thing to say, granted, but was he that far off? I own shares of a mutual fund that own stock in corporations. I don’t even no what stocks I indirectly own let alone their safety or human rights records, and forget the supply chain they could be butchering people and I would never know. I’m not proud of it, but for all I know I could own stock in a company that uses slave labor. Corporations will argue, rightfully, that they have a responsibility to there shareholders to make as much money as they are able.  Many will argue that they don’t or can’t know the particulars of each of their suppliers in a multi-tiered supply chain.

Safety professionals bear no small amount of accountability for the problem.  The “my hands are tied because…” spiel is getting old. We prorogate ineffectual, complex, and cutesy safety fads, and whine when we aren’t taken seriously.

If you think this is a third world problem, think again. Witness the North Carolina pork processing plant that preyed on immigrants (complaints about working conditions were met with threats of visits from the department of Immigration Naturalization Services (INS).  The plant didn’t get more than regional attention even after it illegally confined a worker in an in-plant jail cell (the company alleged that the woman was suspected of stealing pork). The company was fined. An attempt to organize the plant failed, and things presumably went back to the way they had been.  Slavery? no, but how far from it? And this is not happening in some third-world back alley it’s happening here; we own this.

As long as we continue to allow companies to shop for areas of the world that will allow them to use up workers and throw them away afterwards this issue will not go away; in fact it will grow and eventually it will grow so big that companies won’t need safety professionals. I’ve sounded the alarm before.  Safety professionals need to be on the forefront of this issue—slaves or human chattel—do we really need another Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to pull us back into the game?

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