Invisible Victims of Development


Just as this report was being printed, in the space of three months two devastating fires engulfed garment factories in Karachi and Dhaka, killing more than 500 workers, tragedies that rank not only as the worst industrial disasters to occur in Pakistan and Bangladesh but in the whole of Asia. The Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) -a network linking more than 14 Asian countries, was founded following two identical devastating fires almost two decades ago – in Kader in Thailand and in Zhili in China, which killed more than 260 workers. The network started as accident victims’ network, reflecting the real situation in Asia when accidents were a daily occurrence and occupational
diseases, even though present in large numbers, did not take priority because of their invisibility. Over the years the network has taken a more comprehensive approach and more occupational disease victims have become part of it, something reflected in its new name as stated above.
Just when we thought we had buried the ghosts of the past, the Karachi and Dhaka fires have brought the nightmare back, and this time it is even more painful. History keeps repeating itself in very gruesome ways. We cannot control fires, as accidents happen. However, these fires should not have killed so many workers; fire safety is the minimal basic requirement that workers deserve from their employers.
The need to provide a safe fire escape route has been well known since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York more than a century ago in 1911. Any deaths occurring in an operation that does not provide such a passage or makes existing facilities impassable henceforth should be seen as ‘murder’ and not an accident. The perpetrators, including the manufacturers, the brands, regulators (governments) as
well as the self-regulatory monitors and auditors who certify a premise as ‘safe’ need to be held criminally responsible.
This report is dedicated to all those victims who have lost their lives to fire in Karachi, Dhaka and many other places, to victims who have died due to cancer from working in electronics factories from Korea to Indonesia, to victims who died due to their lungs being clogged with silica and to those who died of cancers contracted
due to deadly asbestos. This book also salutes the survivors and their families, who struggle every day for justice and a hope that no one else faces the same fate, that workplaces become clean, and that history does not repeat itself again.
By Omana George and Sanjiv Pandita
Occupational safety and health is one of the most serious issues impacting the working population of developing Asian countries. The ‘shining’ and ‘growing’ Asia has a darker side, glimpses of which often appears in the media in reports of exploitative conditions in ‘sweatshops’ or the hazardous working conditions in workplaces, ranging from mines in China to ship breaking in Bangladesh and gem polishing in India. However, these storie often come and go as ‘news flashes’ and rarely offer deeper insights into the enormity or the magnitude of the problem.
The key question remains how serious is the problem and how to quantify what is a ‘bad situation’, especially when developing Asian countries maintain little if any credible data on deaths, injuries and sickness due to work. Some idea of the gravity of the situation comes from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - a specialized wing of the United Nations, which puts the death toll in Asia at an alarming 1.1 million annually. However, the ILO figure is a projected one, derived from a mathematical model using the existing data from industrialized countries in absence of data from the workplace in Asia. Many
critics believe this is just a conservative estimate as the projection does not take into account the real working conditions on the ground.
There is no denying the fact that Asia is facing an epidemic of work-related deaths and diseases, and exposure to work hazards is one of the leading causes of preventable death, injury and sickness. Yet, the sick, injured and the dead workers and their families remain invisible, hidden behind a thick veil of secrecy and denial, and thus they are denied of justice and rehabilitation and form the most marginalized section of the society.
Genesis of the Report
This report is an attempt by the Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) to portray the real situation of OSH on the ground and what workers, victims and their families have to go through in six Asian countries, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Philippines and Thailand. The report has been prepared in collaboration with the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) – a network of victims groups, trade unions, labour and environmental organizations based in 16 Asian countries all working towards creating safe and healthy workplaces, OSH rights and environmental justice.
The need for the present report emerged during the ANROEV annual meeting in 2008, when grassroots groups, frustrated by years of apathy by the government and the functioning of businesses with impunity, decided to produce their own report to show the extent of the problem at ground level with a hope this might help draw some public attention to a very serious problem. However, it has not been easy as the country reports have been prepared predominantly by practitioners and activists who are engaged in an ‘epic’ struggle. The six member countries of ANROEV who contributed to this report, presented their initial findings
in November 2011 during the annual meeting of the ANROEV network in Jaipur, India,
where they also sought further input from members from other countries.
Enriched with case studies, the reports also offer a glimpse into the lives and struggles of the workers, victims and their families and show the real people present and missing, behind the numbers. Though the report is based on the situation of six Asian countries, covering more than half of Asia’s population, yet it is reflective, to a large extent, of the general situation in the whole of Asia.
Key Findings
Cost of Development
The ‘Right to life’ is the most precious, fundamental human right enshrined under various UN conventions and in the constitutions of the countries in the region, and yet it is being denied constantly. Over the past few decades countries in Asia have embraced the model of export- led development which focuses on growth at all costs. As explained by Voravidh Charoenloet and Somboon Srikomdokcare in their report on Thailand, the model is based on attracting investment by lowering labour standards, in particular allowing low wages, long working hours and flexible labour relations. The whole process is dehumanising as workers are rendered mere ‘objects’ in the process. Where as the economic data is projected quarterly to lure more investment, the workers impacted are simply forgotten, their cases of exploitation, injury and even death are swept under the carpet.
Underreporting and lack of data
The lack of clear and credible data is reflected in all six country reports. For example in the Philippines, as explained by Noel Colina in his report, the figures on OSH are available arbitrarily once every four years, and there is no data available for the ‘in between’ missing years; the latest available data is for the year 2007 and it was only released in 2010. “We can compare, for example, data for the years 2003 and 2007, but we need to guess what happened to workers in the intervening years” observes Noel. The problem does not stop here, since even the available data is in parts and is inconsistent.
As evidenced in the report on India by Jagdish Patel and Mohit Gupta, apart from the discrepancies in the collected data by various agencies, the figures are too low to capture the reality on the ground. For example the fatal accident figure available for India, under various agencies ranges from 400 to 1,000. In a country of 1 billion, this is hardly credible, especially when the ILO’s projection of 40,000 is considered. In Indonesia, as observed by Muchamad Darisman in his report, the figures are grossly underreported. Even though one government official statement acknowledged nine workers die everyday due to accidents, yet the data
reflects the situation only in the ‘registered’ units and the majority of the workplaces are not
registered. Even those registered do not report.
In the case of China, the situation is no different, but the scale is much bigger due to its distinction of being the ‘world’s factory’ as reported by Becky Fung and Francine Chan in their report. China accounts for nearly half of Asia’s work-related fatalities and it is not only because of its large workforce but also due to a very high accident rate that, according to the ILO, is nearly 3 times that of the United States. The report observes that official data only reflect ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as data of many workers, especially the migrant workers, is not recorded.
In Cambodia, where the reporting mechanism is relatively new compared to the other countries, the official data is neither comprehensive neither reflective of the situation in the country, as observed by Bronh Sopheana and Choeung Theany in their report. Only data from accidents in the formal registered units in and around Phnom Penh is reflected in official reports. The OSH situation in the rest of the country remains a big unknown.
Legal coverage and lack of implementation of laws
The reports provide a good overview of legal coverage in the six countries and it is evident all countries have framed some form of laws. These can be classified into two main categories- the first type intends to prevent exposure to hazard or harm and protect workers, that includes various regulations and codes for businesses; the second type offer assistance, relief, and treatment for workers who may get injured or sick at the workplace – this includes laws on
compensation and also social security.
However, as will be seen one of the major problems reported in all of them is the coverage is often quite limited. Most of the laws do not cover all the workers. In fact in most of the cases, the majority of workers remain uncovered as the protection is often restricted to the formal registered units, and since majority of workers in these countries work in the informal sector,
they remain excluded from the framework of laws.
The second major issue remains the implementation of the laws and there are often many government bodies, ministries and agencies involved in the implementation. As reflected in the reports from China and India, it always creates overlapping roles and responsibilities and often confusion. There is also a problem of insufficient and proper resources and personal from the implementing institutions. For example, what is emerging universally is the number of inspectors is far too few to handle the number of factories they have to inspect. It is not humanly possible for them to inspect all the factories, so enforcement remains weak
as most of the factories cannot be inspected. There is also the issue of the capacity of the inspectors due to a lack of adequate training as expressed in the Cambodia report. Instead of strengthening the inspections and increasing the number of inspectors some of the countries are trying to dismantle this institution by drying up the funds previously budgeted and further reducing the number of inspectors. This is evident from the reports from the Philippines and India. In both these countries government is promoting ‘self-regulation’ and in Philippines companies who have self regulatory standards are even exempt from the inspections.
Trade unions in other parts of the world play a major role in the implementation of the laws and ensuring safety at the workplace. However, the level of unionization in all the countries surveyed is very low and ranges between four and eight percent, In China, there is an additional problem to do with the legitimacy of the single union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), as it is not seen as representative of the workers.
Occupational diseases and issues of diagnosis
It is evident from all the reports, that while accidents which are ‘visible’ and obvious remain grossly underreported and neglected, the situation as regards occupational diseases is even worse. The ILO maintains that accidents represent less than a quarter of the total work-related fatalities and occupational diseases account for most of them. Yet it is hardly indicative from the data from these six countries. In fact, the data on occupational diseases in most of the countries is non-existent. For example, in India the Indian Labour Year Book 2005 mentions only 7 cases of occupational disease for that year. In Indonesia and Cambodia there is no data available on occupational diseases at all. This is representative of a fatal flaw in strategies of addressing this issue.
Occupational diseases impact millions of workers in Asia: However, unlike accidents an occupational disease or illness develops over a period of time. Diagnosis of occupationa diseases also remains a major issue of concern, with a lack of trained doctors capable of diagnosing these problems and conditions and their access to the workers. Yet workers are suffering which is evident from the case studies in the reports.
Workers’ compensation and social security
It emerges quite clearly from all the reports the difficulties that sick and injured workers face in getting compensation. As mentioned earlier, the majority of workers do not take this course as they are not covered by any insurance plan. Even the workers who are covered find the process very difficult and cumbersome. It emerges from the reports, that in some countries, such as China and India, workers find it difficult even to prove their employment as there are no employment contracts. The process to claim compensation is also very complicated, and cumbersome and puts a lot of pressure on the already sick and injured workers and their families.
Diagnosis remains a major issue as it is the first step to prove the sickness or injury and its origin in the workplace. It is also reflected that the diagnostic process is not a fair process, and employers often interfere with the process as it can raise the issues of liability. Many migrant workers are fired once they are sick as reflected in report from China, and they go back to their home town without claiming any compensation. This type of mistreatment has been reported by workers in other parts of Asia also. Workers who manage to cross these hurdles and secure compensation, find the amount of compensation is not fair and often find
it difficult to have a decent living on that amount, especially considering that many of them have spent a large amount on their treatment, a process can take many years.
Profits out of misery
The institutions that administer workers’ compensation and social security funds amass huge profits managing and investing the contributions from employers and sometimes from the workers. This money that is intended for their compensation and medical treatment keeps on accumulating as evident considering the number of workers that are compensated. This is reflected in JAMSOSTEK – social security institution in Indonesia, ESI in India and also in China. The fund administrators often find it lucrative to invest the funds for higher returns rather than compensating the workers.
Workers have paid the ‘ultimate price’ all through the history of industrial growth. The year 2011 was the centenary anniversary of the infamous ‘Triangle Fire’ which engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in March 1911, killing 146 garment workers, most of them whom were women. It was and continues to be one of the worst industrial disasters. In similar situations, thousands of workers have died due to exposure to harmful substances, mothers have passed these hazards onto unborn children in electronics factories from Silicon Valley in California to plants in Scotland; and fathers have clogged their lungs with asbestos fibers and even brought it home in their clothing, devastating whole families. The effects of
these past exposures reverberate even now in these countries, and even though many of the harmful chemicals have either been nationally banned or reduced, including asbestos which is banned in more than 90 countries worldwide.
In spite of so much death and destruction around the world in the past, it seems few lessons have been learned in Asia. In 1992, a fire in the Kader Toy factory, also known as the Triangle Fire of Asia, killed more than 188 workers, mostly women. As in the Triangle factory, the doors in the Kader factory were locked, too. Factory fires in Bangladesh continue even now to kill hundreds every year. Asia also continues to use hazardous substances as part of its manufacturing processes, even when those substances have been banned in the West. Asbestos is one glaring example. Asia is the largest consumer of asbestos in the world,
accounting for 45 percent of world demand.
Victims organising has been crucial in Asia in demanding justice and there have been some victories in different parts of Asia, including China, where victims have led the fight and won. These victories, though small, are vital in the long struggle for rights. They also emphasize the importance of victims’ empowerment in the attainment of rights. As history shows, OSH rights were attained after a long struggle by victims. Black, white and brown lung associations in the US epitomized those struggles.
Historically and even now, it is the power of collective organizing that brings justice. At the workplace, workers need a union; in the community, what is needed is a unity of residents together with those who have been worst affected. At all times, victims and their families should be given priority in representation. Victims’ organizing in Asia is truly as critical now as ever. There have been enough needless deaths and we hope that history does not need to repeat itself again.
The chapters have been uploaded seperately and there are 6 countries covered in this publication namely - Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
Cover and Foreword.pdf1.2 MB
Cambodia.pdf551.15 KB
China.pdf261.59 KB
India.pdf644.68 KB
Indonesia.pdf287.82 KB
Philippines.pdf348.11 KB
Thailand.pdf463.97 KB
About the contributors.pdf951.58 KB