On Wednesday, people in many nations will mark International Workers’ Day, May 1. Most will have a day off from work. In some countries, there might even be parades or other festivities. However, fewer people are aware of International Workers’ Memorial Day, which falls on April 28, and is largely marked by trade unionists around the world. Given the disaster that struck Bangladeshi factory workers this week, it would be worth taking a minute tomorrow to think about what the day stands for.
International Workers’ Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who died or have been injured or disabled at work and recognize efforts to make workplaces safer; it is the largest annual health and safety event in the world.
It was founded by the Canadian Union of Public Employees in 1984. Five years later, the US labor movement began observing the day, choosing April 28 because it was the date the US Occupational Health and Safety Act took effect in 1971 and because it was close to the anniversary of the L’Ambiance Plaza apartment project collapse that killed 28 construction workers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on April 23, 1987. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Labour Organization (ILO) took up the day, making it an international one, and it is now observed in about 100 countries.
Unions and trade activists use the day to stress the preventable nature of most workplace accidents and sicknesses and to promote workplace safety improvements. According to the ILO, 321,000 people die annually from occupational accidents, 2.02 million die annually from work-related diseases, there are 160 million non-fatal work-related diseases each year and 317 million non-fatal occupational accidents per year. It breaks those figures down into two astounding statistics: a worker dies every 15 seconds from a work-related accident or disease, while every 15 seconds, 151 workers have work-related accidents.
On Wednesday morning, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, trapping thousands of workers. The death toll has now surpassed 300 and is likely to climb higher. Deep cracks were reportedly visible in the building’s walls on Tuesday and industrial police ordered the building evacuated. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association also asked the factories to suspend work. While a bank in the building complied, the garment factories told their workers to return to their jobs or risk not being paid.
Wednesday’s disaster came hard on the heels of a factory fire that killed 112 Bangladeshi garment workers in November last year, triggering promises by government officials, the garment industry and international purchasers to do more to prevent such tragedies. That the lessons have not been learned is an indictment both of the Bangladeshi government and international clothing brands and stores. Clothing companies and retailers rejected a union-sponsored proposal to improve garment industry safety.
Workplace safety is clearly an issue that the government needs to address, but international companies that use factories in Bangladesh could do their part by financing safety. However, consumers worldwide also share a role in such tragedies because the choices they make about the products they buy and the prices they pay are reflected in what companies are willing to pay for materials and finished products.
There has been great progress in workplace standards and safety in Taiwan in recent decades, though more remains to be done. However, as more Taiwanese businesses move their manufacturing overseas in search of cheaper labor and land, they also leave behind the standards they must follow in this nation. They could help by insisting upon similar standards in other locations.
The next time you take pride in finding a cheaper T-shirt, pair of jeans or dress, no matter where the item was made, think about the real, unseen cost of such garments. The Rana Plaza disaster is not just Bangladesh’s tragedy; it is a tragedy for everyone.