Sun, Apr 12, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Cutting corners on worker safety

By Chen Meei-shia, Lin Hsiao-hsin 陳美霞,林孝信

At the end of last month, a serious accident occurred in the Taichung factory of Taiwan’s largest display panel manufacturer, AU Optronics Corp (AUO, 友達光電) when two external service providers cleaning a storage tank filled with chemicals drowned after inhaling toxic gas and fainting. Three other workers who rushed in to save them were also hospitalized after inhaling poisonous gas. The accident was a wake-up call and reflects a widespread problem across Taiwan.

With the global financial crisis and the government’s efforts to revive the economy, companies around Taiwan are doing all they can to increase output. Such an atmosphere encourages businesses to ignore the health of their workers and even risk their lives in pursuit of profit.

Labor insurance information shows that in the last few years, there have been more than 800 deaths per year in serious occupational accidents. More than 4,000 people become handicapped every year because of occupational accidents, while nearly 5 million people are hospitalized for at least four days because of work-related injury or illness.

The majority of these occupational injuries happen to workers at the lower end of the economic and social ladder and to younger, stronger workers who are often responsible for supporting their families. These data show that occupational accidents not only cause injury, illness, physical disability and death, but also immeasurable trauma to families and huge social costs.

Apart from the major occupational accidents mentioned above, a lack of safe and healthy work environments can cause chronic health conditions like muscular and skeletal ailments, hearing loss, lung, skin, kidney and liver diseases, problems with the nervous system, and cancer, as well as infectious diseases that health workers are more susceptible to like hepatitis B. Work-related stress also causes psychosomatic diseases such as depression, high blood pressure, muscle tension and aches as well as other psychosomatic symptoms such as exhaustion, sluggishness, headaches and insomnia.

The great pressure created by market competition and the logic that says capital should be constantly expanded leads businesses in capitalist societies to try and save on production costs to increase profits. Increased working hours, work intensity, production pace and lower wages and decreased investment in work environment safety are ways by which some businesses lower costs. When this happens, the health and lives of workers are sacrificed in pursuit of higher profits and increased capital.

While the health and lives of workers are often sacrificed in capitalist societies, at least our society does not condone such actions on a moral level. However, during bleak economic times, business leaders experience lower investment returns and must come up with ways to lower costs. Decreasing investment in working environment safety is one way to do this. Meanwhile, tougher economic times make workers more willing to do anything they can to get or keep a job and this makes it easier for employers to cut corners, further compounding the health-related problems of our workers.

The wave of neo-­liberalism that swept the world in the 1990s saw governments loosen restrictions and monitoring of companies as they promoted freer economic policies. To increase profit, business leaders also started to outsource some of their production and to contract external service providers to do the work once performed by their own staff. By employing external service providers, business leaders not only escape the burdens of having to pay worker benefits and retirement packages, they can also avoid taking responsibility for safety and hygiene in the workplace. By doing this, business leaders can save money.

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