Safety is material. Workers need safe buildings, emergency exits, fire protection, ventilation, potable water, and personal protective equipment.
But safety is also about the social relations at work. If workers have no rights, and no voice at work, they are not safe.
Garment factories in Bangladesh are a case in point.
Thousands of Bangladeshi workers have been killed or injured in factory fires, building collapses, and other deadly garment factory incidents in recent years. In case after case, workers interviewed after the tragedies reported that they found exits locked or blocked and managers refusing to heed their concerns. Workers smelled smoke, but were told to continue working only to be killed in fires. They observed cracks in the walls but were threatened to report to work or lose their meager wages, only to be crushed under collapsing buildings. They consistently reported that raising safety concerns with managers or joining with other workers to address the problems could be a punishable offense that would get them fired.
On April 23, 2013, workers in the factories of the Rana Plaza building outside the capital Dhaka of Bangladesh noticed cracks in the building. Managers in a bank and small shops that occupied the first and second floor of the building also noticed the cracks, closed shop, and told their employees to stay home the following day. But the garment factories ordered their workers to return to work on April 24, threatening the loss of one month’s pay if they did not comply. That day at least 1,135 workers were crushed to death under the collapsing building. The vast majority of these workers had no union representation and no voice to demand their rights or to refuse dangerous work.
Health and safety by law and international norms
- More than 40 ILO standards address health and safety on the job. They include Occupation Health and Safety Convention (No. 155), Occupational Health Services Convention (No. 161), and Promotional Framework for Occupational Health and Safety Convention (No. 187).
- The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines call on multinational enterprises to “take adequate steps to ensure occupational health and safety in their operations,” including supply chains. (Chapter V: Employment and Industrial Relations, Sec. 4(d)). The OECD’s member governments, including the United States, have negotiated and endorsed these guidelines.
- In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) gives workers the right to a safe workplace. This includes the right to know about job hazards and protections; the right to request an investigation of a potential OSHA violation; and the right to refuse dangerous work. Employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against workers who exercise their rights under OSHA.