Friday, May 24, 2013

Safety is everyone's business

It is one month since an eight story building collapsed in the outskirts of Dhaka killing more than 1000 people. Reporters have been assigning responsibility to prevent similar disasters. It occurs to me that the responsibility for safety is shared. Here are some of the responsibilities:

  • The workers themselves have a responsibility for their own safety. I might have suggested to any one of them that she not work in a dangerous facility. I might have suggested that collectively they might have gone on strike until the company provided a safer workplace. Unfortunately, a worker who refused to work in an unsafe workplace in Bangladesh might starve.
  • The workers in the garment factories are often unmarried young women, and one might thing that their families should take more responsibility for their safety. Unfortunately, their families are also poor and poorly equipped to take economic risks to protect the young workers.
  • The managers and supervisors in the garment factories have a responsibility for the safety of the workers as well as for their own safety. They might insist that the companies provide safe working places. Of course, they would likely be replaced by less ethical people if they did so, and might have problems finding other jobs.
  • The owners and stockholders in the manufacturing companies have a responsibility for the safety of the workers. To the extent that that responsibility is shared, it can be avoided. Their profit margins are slim, and might disappear driving them out of business were they to really protect the safety well. Moreover, some are greedy and unethical, and those are willing to make money off of the risk of their workers.
  • Building owners have a responsibility for the safety of the buildings that they are renting out. Their incentives are similar to those of the company owners.
  • Builders have a responsibility not to build unsafe buildings. Of course, if they refuse contracts to do so, other more greedy and less ethical builders may do so to get the contracts and the ethical builders may lose or go out of business. The builder may also depend on architects and engineers to design safe buildings, and be professionally unable to judge the safety of the buildings that they are constructing. The builders who built the original five stories of the building that collapsed apparently constructed a safe structure until others added the unsafe additional three stories that over stressed foundations and the structure of the lower floors.
  • Architects and engineers have an ethical responsibility for the safety of buildings constructed under their professional oversight.
  • Governments have a responsibility for the safety of the workplace and construction. However that responsibility is limited by the legal authority given the government. More practically, it is limited by the expertise and resources available to the government agencies. And of course government employees may be corrupt of lazy.
  • Of course, people seeking to profit from the risks taken by the workers tend not to like government regulation, and often have the economic and political power to resist it.
  • The public in Bangladesh has the responsibility for its own institutions. It must assure that people who endanger workers through greed or corruption are prosecuted, that regulations are strong enough to protect the workers, and that government is strong enough and ethical enough to enforce the regulations. Unfortunately, that is a shared responsibility and thus easily avoided. Bangladesh is also poor in financial and human capital, and the public may not be able to demand a government that is adequate to protect the workers.
  • Downstream companies that profit from the risks borne by workers in Bangladesh's garment factories also have a responsibility for the safety of those workers. They are poorly placed to assure that safety both geographically and administratively. Of course, by avoiding that responsibility and taking advantage of low prices, they make more money. Moreover, the company that pays the price of the safety of those upstream workers depends on the ultimate consumers being willing to pay more for the final product.
  • International organizations don't have the authority to demand that products sold in international markets are produced by workers whose safety is adequately protected.
  • In theory governments could regulate to assure that imported products were produced by safe workers. The United States for example has regulations to assure that imported drugs are produced in such a way that they are safe for American consumers. We have not charged our governments to provide this kind of regulation.
  • Consumers have an ethical responsibility not to safe a few cents per garment that they buy if that saving comes at the expense of the safety of the workers producing those garments. Of course, an individual refusing to buy a shirt at Walmart is not going to protect a worker in Bangladesh. Consumer pressure can only be influential if it is organized.
  • So how about the civil society organizations that could organize consumers? How about the media that could inform the consumers enabling their anger to fuel organization and fund NGOs? Well I haven't seen reporters and editors blaming themselves for focusing on meretricious stories rather than important ones.
So workers in poor countries will continue to suffer injury and death, and we will continue to get cheep consumer goods via global corporations.

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