Thought Leadership

What if your supervisor called you a pig, a dog, a monkey?

July 27, 2011
I know through ISHN reader surveys over the years that most readers really don’t care much about workplace safety and health issues and practices in anyplace outside of the U.S. I can get this to an extent — the same surveys show most readers are stressed-out, worried about holding onto their jobs, and taking on more and more assignments since employers are not in the mood to hire these days.

 But if you are a professional who went to college to major in industrial safety and health or industrial hygiene; if you are one of those who feel safety is something of a calling (since it ain’t a lucrative career move); if maybe you’re the soul and conscience of your organization and you’re invested in making sure your employees go home healthy every night, I don’t see how you cannot be outraged by a story like this, reported by the Associated Press July 14:

 “Workers making Converse sneakers in Indonesia say supervisors throw shoes at them, slap them in the face, and call them dogs and pigs.”

 One worker (they are almost all female) claimed her supervisor kicked her after making a mistake while cutting rubber for soles.

 Keep in mind these workers make about 50 cents an hour; enough for food and a bunkhouse bed, but little else.

 Another super ordered six female workers to stand in the blazing sun after they failed to meet their targets of completing 60 dozen pairs of shoes on time.

 A common reaction in the U.S. is “So what do you expect me to do about it?”

 Nike, the Converse brand’s owner, rather has a similar attitude. Nike concedes that such abuse occurs, but with more than 1,000 overseas factories, which are contract manufacturers not directly accountable to Nike, the multinational says there is little they can do to stop such abuses. In the past decade Nike has come under fire for its use of foreign sweatshops and child labor, and to the company’s credit it has tried to improve working conditions with the usual array of codes of conduct, policies, corporate social responsibility initiatives, and audits.

 But in our global economy with factories in far-reaching jungles, mountains, islands and other remote locales, a command-and-control approach won’t work.

 It’s reminiscent of working conditions and employer attitudes toward workers in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Over decades, abuse and exploitations were exposed in newspapers, books (The Jungle) and movies. Disasters call attention to what the public normally never sees (The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed more than hundred workers in New York City). Certain individuals (Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor; Mother Jones, the labor organizer; Dr. Alice Hamilton, pioneering investigator of occupational diseases) seize the moment and make a difference. Slowly, the U.S. federal government responded with various social laws. It took seven decades in the 1900s to get to the point of creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

 Will the same evolution occur in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Brazil and countless other growing economies now lacking the requisite political will, transparency, and value for human life?

 I’m enough of a history buff to believe history does repeat itself, and improvements will slowly come as they did in the U.S. All this can be accelerated if U.S. safety and health professional societies collectively, along with individuals acting on their own or in networks, make the U.S. public more aware of the travesties inflicted on workers who make the luxuries we buy without thought or care to the workmanship and hardships behind the brands.

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