This week, Workers’ Memorial Day reminded us that the leading cause of death at work isn’t factory fires, mine collapses, or machinery accidents—though it is all those things. The main reason workers die is because those in power look the other way.
Global Worker Watch’s labor death map presents a chilling snapshot of an everyday calamity: A nameless laborer is crushed by falling soil at a construction zone in Qatar. Days later, five men die in a van crash as they speed down a foggy California road, en route to the seasonal migrant grape harvest. Meanwhile in Bangladesh, 13 perish in a plastics factory fire. Then comes a young workers’ sudden death at a Chinese iPhone supplier plant reportedly due to exhaustion. All that within the first five weeks of the year.
Even more tragically, each data point maps onto a known occupational safety threat that regulators and industry have continually ignored.
According to federal data for the United States, agricultural workers have long suffered one of the highest workplace fatality rates, and Latino workers had the highest overall rate with 817 workers dying at work in 2013, up from 748 in 2012. Yet the fatality rate among other races, notes the AFL-CIO, “declined or stayed the same.” Despite about half a century of farmworker organizing and federal regulation, the pervasive safety threats in the fields have changed little, with brutal physical conditions aggravated by rampant poverty, dysfunctional immigration policy, and vicious labor abuses.
The factories of Bangladesh have also remained notoriously deadly despite promises of reform—particularly in its embattled garment sector, in which the Rana Plaza factory collapse left more than 1,100 dead in 2013. The government, backed by international labor groups, subsequently launched an unprecedented safety overhaul, an ambitious program of plant inspections and renovations. But so far only about 2500 corrective actions have been made (as of February), while more than 54,000 safety issues are still pending, mostly fire and electrical hazards. Moreover, since the reforms began, labor abuses have continued, while roughly 220 factories have reportedly shuttered, displacing an estimated 150,000 workers.