How can we prevent Bangladesh and West Texas-style workplace disasters?

News about the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh continues to unfold. According to the latest count, at least 362 people have died, but that toll is certain to rise. Hundreds more workers are unaccounted for, and at least 2,500 workers have been injured. The owner of the factory building has been arrested, thousands of angry demonstrators have taken to the streets of Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, and hundreds of thousands of workers have walked off the job in protest.

Over at In These Times, the excellent Michelle Chen offers a comprehensive overview of the disaster. The entire piece is a must-read, but I wanted to highlight several especially important points Chen makes. One is that though the Bangladeshi garment industry is profoundly to hostile unions, a unionized workplace or more heavily unionized workforce in general could have prevented the tragedy. Chen cites this statement by Human Rights Watch:

According to labor organizers in Dhaka, none of the factories located in the Rana Plaza building were unionized. Weak enforcement of labor laws in Bangladesh contributes to impunity for employers to harass and intimidate both workers and local trade unionists seeking to exercise their right to organize and collectively bargain.

Chen notes that activists are identifying the multi-national corporations and labels “associated with Rana”:

They include U.S.-based The Children’s Place and Cato Fashions, France’s Tex (Carrefour brand), Benetton, Spain’s Mango, and Canada’s Joe Fresh, Germany’s NKD and others. Walmart says it had no “authorized” supplier at Rana but one of the factories listed Walmart as a client, reports the Associated Press, and other companies have scrambled to distance themselves from the facility.

Chen points out that the geographic distance of these companies from the site of the tragedy gives them cover and plausible deniability. But their claims of ignorance and disavowal of responsibility are disingenuous in the extreme:

While companies feign ignorance and puzzlement over “what went wrong” at Rana, they’ve already proven that they’re well aware of the root problem. They shipped their manufacturing overseas specifically to avoid protective regulations and thus keep overhead and labor costs unfathomably cheap. Conversely, corporations could reverse this vicious trade-off between rights and profits by investing heavily to improve working conditions and strengthen safety enforcement, as well as monitoring under a program like the Bangladesh safety agreement. But that would mean expending the very same resources that they’d worked so hard to hoard by contracting with the cheapest and most dangerous workplaces in the world.

As Chen reported just last week, before the disaster took place, activists in Bangladesh and the U.S. are joining forces in a campaign to “End Death Traps.” Bangladeshi activists currently on a multi-city tour of the U.S. are demanding that Walmart and other multi-nationals agree to a new worker safety monitoring system:

Unlike the current, voluntary standards for corporate social responsibility, which are overseen by organizations closely tied to industry, the new system would be overseen by independent civil society groups.

Meanwhile, back in the States, we have our own serious problem with dangerous workplaces. The death toll in the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion has risen to 15, with at least 200 more injured.

Unlike the case in Bangladesh, the U.S. has decent (albeit far from perfect) workplace safety laws and a system in place for enforcing them. The problem is that the system lacks teeth, because it is woefully underfunded and poorly organized. In These Times’ Mike Elk notes that OSHA is so budget-starved that, on average, it can afford to inspect a workplace only once every 129 years.

Elk also reports that because information about dangerous working conditions is not shared between government agencies, serious but preventable problems are ignored. He writes:

At least three state agencies— the Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Office of the Texas State Chemist—did know that the plant had a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate. However, they did not share that information with OSHA or DHS. Representatives from the TCEQ and the chemist’s office told reporters that their role in regulating the plant was not to ensure fire safety, but to handle other issues, such as the possibility of environmental contamination.

The grotesquely disproportionate amount of resources our government devotes to anti-terrorism, as opposed to workplace safety, is bizarre. Here’s Elk again:

“Workplace incidents cause far more deaths every year in the U.S.—some 13 a day—than terrorist acts, yet our government agencies spend untold millions on terrorism prevention, while largely ignoring the risks of industrial catastrophes,” says National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Executive Director Tom O’Connor. “I would hope that the West Fertilizer plant explosion will cause us to reconsider those priorities.”

As with the Bangladesh tragedy, there is little doubt that if the West Texas plant had been unionized, it would have saved lives. As economist Larry Mishel has noted, unions play an important role “in ensuring that labor protections are not just ‘paper promises’ at the workplace.” This is particularly true where workplace safety is concerned. Mishel cites studies by economist David Weil that show that “unions greatly improve OSHA enforcement”:

In the manufacturing industry, for example, the probability that OSHA inspections would be initiated by worker complaints was as much as 45% higher in unionized workplaces than in nonunion ones. Unionized establishments were also as much as 15% more likely to be the focus of programmed or targeted inspections in the manufacturing industry. In addition, Weil found that in unionized settings workers were much more likely to exercise their ‘walkaround’ rights (accompanying an OSHA inspector to point out potential violations), inspections lasted longer, and penalties for noncompliance were greater. In the construction industry, Weil estimated that unions raise the probability of OSHA inspections by 10%.

Will West Texas cause a radical reorientation in our policies concerning labor unions and worker safety protections? Sadly, it is unlikely. When President Obama spoke at a memorial service for the West Texas victims, he didn’t so much as mention workplace safety. Members of Congress are calling for investigations into the West Texas disaster, but activists are pessimistic that we will see significant policy changes.

Our government, like Bangladesh’s, and like the owners of both these workplaces and the corporations associated with them, have blood on their hands. More inaction will only lead to more blood being needlessly spilled. But so far, few people in power seem to care.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee