MARCH 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 2
Labor Battles Hazard Exports
A prominent trade union leader examines the flight of hazardous industries to developing countries and workers' efforts to combat this global corporate crime.
Geneva, Switzerland - To the writer of detective thrillers, arsenic is still a good old-fashioned way to finish someone off in a hurry. But the poison is more than a favorite murderer's agent employed by mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Arsenic is an important industrial by-product of copper smelting and is in demand for the manufacture of pesticides and herbicides. And in the workplace, it is as deadly as in detective novels.
The leading form of commercial arsenic sold in the United States is arsenic trioxide, or white arsenic. Extracted from copper ore during the smelting process, the chemical compound is used primarily in the production of herbicides applied to cotton crops in Oklahoma and Texas, and in the manufacture of wood preservatives.
Increasingly, white arsenic consumed in the U.S. is being produced abroad. Last year, U.S. imports reached their highest total since 1975, climbing to 12,000 tons. This new pattern of production comes in the wake of mounting evidence that exposure to arsenic poses grave dangers to human health. As regulatory agencies in the U.S. have strengthened standards governing copper workers' exposure to the compound, multinationals have shifted production abroad to less regulated havens in the developing world.
The export of hazardous work processes is becoming a massive problem, and is threatening the health of workers around the globe. The case of arsenic trioxide dramatically illustrates the effects of corporate policies that place profits above a concern for worker health, and the willingness of multinationals to condemn workers in the Third World to facing health risks deemed intolerable in industrialized countries.
In the United States, the sole producer of arsenic is a copper smelter in Tacoma, Washington owned by Asarco, a mining multinational with earnings totalling $259 million in 1979. The Tacoma smelter is uniquely designed to process ore containing unusually high levels of arsenic, and for years supplied about 50 percent of the domestic market for arsenic trioxide.
The smelter also marketed something else, for which there were no voluntary consumers: cancer studies as far back as 1940 identified inorganic arsenic as a carcinogen, and in May, 1978, , the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took action to protect workers from further hazardous exposure. After considering studies such as one presented by Dow Chemical, documenting that workers exposed to arsenic developed lung cancer at a rate 300 percent higher than expected and lymphatic cancer at a rate 500 percent higher than expected, OSHA ordered the maximum arsenic content of workplace air reduced from 500 micrograms per cubic meter to 10 micrograms. Asarco officials, despite federally-funded studies concluding that former workers at the Tacoma smelter were dying from lung cancer at a rate three times greater than the population of Washington state, quickly applied for a relaxation of the regulations. The suit is still pending in a federal appeals court.
Asarco's reaction to the new standard, however, far surpassed mere courtroom negotiations. In 1976, while the debate over possible new regulations was heating up, Asarco began curtailing its production of arsenic trioxide at Tacoma. The multinational terminated agreements with other firms to process high arsenic residues these companies could not refine. In 1977, according to the U.S.. Bureau of Mines, production of arsenic trioxide at the smelter plummeted 28 percent from 1976 levels. Production continued to decline and in January 1979, the company put the copper refinery on "stand-by," and began drastically reducing its smelting operations. Workers are now better protected from lung cancer, not as a result of Asarco installing new environmental technology at the 65-year old plant, but by unemployment.
While production at Tacoma has been declining steadily, production of arsenic trioxide overseas and imports into the U.S. have been skyrocketing. Between 1976 and last year, imports of arsenic trioxide increased nearly threefold. Mexico's largest mining company has set the pace for expanded production. Industrial Minera Mexico (I MM), 34 percent owned by Asarco, increased its arsenic trioxide production from approximately 4500 tons in 1975 to 5500 tons in 1979, the largest increase of any developing country. ,increase to Peter Austin, the company's U.S. representative, 75 percent of its output is earmarked for .export to the U.S.
Asarco's Mexican affiliate, helping to compensate for the company's reduction in domestic arsenic trioxide production, operates without environmental restraints comparable to those imposed by the U.S. government. Discussing standards for worker exposure to arsenic, IMM official Austin stated that the Mexican government "doesn't have those kinds of regulations yet."
U.S. Bureau of Mines statistics indicate that between 1975 and 1978, production at I M M accounted for 39 percent of all arsenic trioxide imports into the United States.
Repeatedly, when relocating hazardous work processes abroad, multinationals have chosen countries where trade unions are weak, dominated by the government, or nonexistent. The arsenic pattern exists in many other industries. In Mauritius, a South African company has established a factory producing parts for hairdryers. There, 90 young women handle asbestos-the killer dust-with no effective protection. Over 35 years ago, when I was an auto worker in a General Motors plant in Chicago, we would sleep on bales of asbestos. It was the softest and most comfortable place we could find in the shop, and it provided a convenient place to hide from the foreman. U.S. government officials now estimate that over 400,000 workers will develop cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos. Yet these African workers, unable to challenge corporate health and safety practices through direct union action, toil unprotected.
In addition to endangering the lives of workers in developing countries, the export of hazardous industries, or the threat of potential export, often undermines the effectiveness of regulations in the developed world. Take the case of Danish shipyard workers. Since early 1979, the Danish safety authorities have banned epoxy spraying of ships because of the material's extremely hazardous nature and the difficulties in providing effective protection. Exposure to epoxy resin leads to the development of severe forms of excema, the crippling skin disease.
Most shipowners still insist on epoxy spraying of their ships, however, and in Denmark they have used a form of blackmail against their workers. Repeatedly, corporations have threat ened to place orders in Taiwan, South America or Eastern Europe unless workers petition for a special exemption from health and safety regulations. Faced with the prospect of further job losses in their , shipyards-the ship builders' job market has declined 30 percent since 1975-the union has reluctantly applied for and received the exemptions.
One of the most direct ways an international trade union federation can help stop the export of dangerous materials and work processes is by encouraging and actively supporting the development of strong, independent trade unions in the Third World. An authoritarian regime, neither accountable to nor representative of the general interests of its population, often is unconcerned about protecting its citizens from exposure to lethal substances and hazardous work.
It is consequently only through pressure from below-workers organized and determined to resist decisions made by their governments that the export of hazards can be stopped. With the support of international trade union secretariats, workers in the developing world will themselves stand up for the rights that have been won by trade unions in the industrialized world. It cannot be long before they revolt against being treated as the industrial garbage can of the United States, Europe and Japan.
In response to the growing threat posed by the export of hazardous industries, the IMF has expanded its health and safety department and is implementing a major program to combat this global corporate crime. We produce a regular bulletin on occupational disease designed for shop stewards in plants in developed and developing countries. For workers in the United States such a bulletin may amount to little more than preaching to the converted and to those with easy access to the faith. But in Latin America, Asia and Africa, our affiliated unions do not have large research departments or full-time health and safety officers. They can use material from the bulletin--which is printed in six languages--in their own educational activities.
Bulletins and seminars will not contribute to the political and economic clout of trade unions in the developing world, however, unless the information gets through to the man or woman on the shop floor. With that in mind, the IMF has initiated a training program for local union officers. In January, the union conducted a 20-day course on health and safety with workers in Malaysia and Singapore. The course is designed to teach unionists how to instruct their fellow workers in identifying dangerous substances, and hazardous work processes. The three-year program should prompt an educational chain reaction, resulting in the instruction of 15,000 trade union officials and stewards in health and safety.
In an effort to spur rapid education on a large-scale, the federation has produced a 200-page manual describing the most common industrial hazards: how to identify them, how to deal with them, and how to pressure multinationals to reduce workplace hazards. Over the next few years, the sight of thousands of shop stewards marching around plants and factories with this big blue book tucked under their arms, will be casting fear into the hearts of corporate executives who prefer a diseased or dying worker to spending money on a safe working environment.
For the trade unionist, knowledge is power and the ability to exchange information about the activities of multinationals as they manifest themselves in different countries is the first, key step in developing a multinational trade union campaign that will give the worker his basic rights whether he is in Baltimore or Bombay.
The I M F is spreading the word about dangerous substances and work processes that need either to be banned or brought under firm control. Through coordinated union activity, the world will become a safer place, where a worker's life is given more priority than the swelling bank balance of a multinational corporation.
Herman Rebhan is general secretary of the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF). Based in Geneva, the IMF is the largest international trade union secretariat in the world, representing more than 14 million workers.