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Pakistan Fire: It’s About Unions

The in-depth New York Times piece looking at the fire in a Pakistani factory was a fine piece of work — with a glaring weakness.

I should start by saying the piece is worth reading:

Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.

“This was a state-of-the-art factory that met international standards,” said the lawyer, Amer Raza Naqvi. “The SA8000 is accepted all over the world. They have very strict rules before issuing any certificate.”

But after the Karachi fire and the more recent factory inferno in Bangladesh that killed 112 people, that contention raises a crucial question: Does industry-backed “social auditing,” which purports to safeguard the lives and working conditions of some of the world’s poorest workers, really work?

But, the biggest problem: in this very long piece, it mentions unions in one line at the end. The conclusion one should draw is very simple: where workers do not have power through collective action, no monitoring will work — not in Pakistan and not in the United States. But, that isn’t what the article emphasizes.

Way back, I wrote about safety and health enforcement. Here’s what the AFL-CIO found in its 2007 report [the emphasis is mine]:

At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 133 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In seven states (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA-approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory. In these states, it would now take the state OSHA’s a combined 62 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.

The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 63,670 workers. This compares to a benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization for industrialized countries. In the states of Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, Nebraska, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1/100,000 workers.

When the AFL-CIO issued its first report “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” in 1992, federal OSHA could inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years, compared to once every 133 years at the present time. Since the passage of the OSHAct, the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA’s jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA staff and OSHA inspectors has been reduced. In 1975, federal OSHA had a total of 2,405 staff (inspectors and all other OSHA staff) responsible for the safety and health of 67.8 million workers at more than 3.9 million establishments. In 2005, there were 2,208 federal OSHA staff responsible for the safety and health of more than 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million workplaces.

So, if you can’t do that in the U.S., where there is far more of a semblance of the rule of law than in Pakistan, why would you even dream that it could happen in Pakistan.

The only solution to worker safety is mass unionization. Period.

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