Inflammation and stories on Workplace Conditions

Shipbreaking Practices
The world transports roughly 90 percent of its goods by sea. Shipping is vital to the global economy — it enables trade among people, nations and companies, but rarely does one sit back and think about what happens to these mammoth-sized ships once they reach the end of their operational life. How does one manage the waste that a 100,000-ton cargo ship creates? The answer is shipbreaking practices.

Shipbreaking Practices 101

Shipbreaking, the process of recycling old ships so others may use them as piecemeal, is dangerous for workers and the environment. However, innovations in the field are paving a path for more sustainable and just shipping practices. Shipbreaking involves dismantling ships and selling them off in parts. The process occurs 25-30 years into a ship’s life at which point the costs of maintaining an old ship exceed those of building a new ship.

Shipbreaking is a dangerous industry for workers and the environment alike. Europe and the United States have placed heavy restrictions on the practice due to regard for social and environmental protection laws, but instead of addressing the industry’s problems, the crackdown has merely moved shipbreaking to the east. Today, an estimated 85 percent of the world’s ship recycling occurs in just four countries: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. 

The Human Cost of Shipbreaking Practices

 The International Labor Organization considers shipbreaking to be one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Most of the time, workers take apart ships by hand without protective gear or equipment. They do this in 40-degree heat on beaches far away from hospitals or emergency rooms in case things go awry. Most injuries and deaths occur due to general accidents like falling material and fires or exposure to toxic materials like radiation, mercury and asbestos.

It is difficult to estimate the number of fatalities since many shipyard workers are migrants. However, evaluations indicate that the accident rate lies at two in 1,000 people. Further, 16 percent of workers suffer from asbestos-related diseases. 

The Environmental Cost of Shipbreaking Practices

In addition to the cost to human lives, shipbreaking is detrimental to the environment. Much of shipbreaking occurs via beaching which is a method of ramming vessels into tidal flats, typically on a beach and stripping them of all usable materials by hammer and blowtorch. Beaching tends to be the most environmentally and socially damaging approach to ship recycling. Steel waste, oil from vessels and persistent organic pollutants enter waterways and pollute the air, killing valuable species and ecosystems in the process.

For instance, the Bay of Bengal, located in Bangladesh, is the world’s largest bay and boasts diverse marine life ranging from coral reefs and mangroves to fish spawning of vulnerable species. The Bay of Bengal is also in close proximity to one of the world’s biggest ship recycling sites: Chittagong. Metal waste that is not resellable often stays on shores, washing into the Bay at alarming rates, and thereby increasing the cadmium and copper levels in the water. This increases fish mortality and affects hatching around the port city. Waste and other pollutants put especially rare marine species at the risk of extinction.

A Better Future: Alternatives to Current Shipbreaking Practices 

Currently, the best alternative to beaching is dry-dock stand recycling. Using this method, workers safely recycle ships on a stable platform with the necessary toxic waste management systems and lifting equipment. Most ships are already built on dry-dock platforms so this method is simply giving existing docks a secondary purpose. It is a non-invasive approach to fixing a big problem. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a 10-year-old coalition of environmental, human and labor rights organizations, is making significant strides in advocating for dry-dock platform recycling methods. It has pushed through progressive E.U. laws on ship recycling standards and publishes annual data on ships dismantled globally. The publication allows investors to divest from shipping companies that engage in harmful shipbreaking practices. One such example is Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund divestment decision. Based on data that the NGO Shipbreaking Platform published, the fund decided to divest from two shipowners for poor ship recycling management in 2018.

Another potential solution to addressing shipbreaking is changing the manufacturing of vessels altogether. With an approach that is a more transformative approach, there are accompanying complications. Currently, ship transport generates 3 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions per year. Making ship design more environmental can tackle this larger issue in addition to greenifying ship recycling.

According to a 2020 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, hydrogen could power 99 percent of container vessels traversing the Pacific ocean. More than half of those vessels would require minimal changes to make this transition happen. Government-funded organizations like Sandia National Laboratories and private companies like Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine are currently researching hydrogen-based solutions in shipping. 

Hydrogen-powered ships are likely still 10 years out in the future but investment in these ideas will fundamentally change the way we approach the manufacturing and recycling of ships globally.

Current end-of-life ship recycling practices damage the environment and harm workers in developing countries who must work under life-threatening conditions within the industry. The good news is that an alternative exists. Dry-dock shipping yards provide a safe and environmentally sound alternative to current shipbreaking practices. Changing shipbreaking practices now depend on individuals and coalitions like the NGO Shipbreaking Platform to advocate for widespread adoption.

Kate McGinn
Photo: Wikimedia

Women in the Garment Industry
Breaking the ceiling of the minimum living cost per day remains a challenge for millions of the poorest people on the earth, especially women. Amongst the causes of poverty, the fact that women are often not part of the labor force is one of the biggest quagmires that keeps them struggling. However, one area that women in the developing world often work in is the garment industry. In fact, there are many women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh today.

Bangladesh’s garment industry’s products make up the majority of what it exports. The expansion of the garment industry is quickly pulling people out of poverty in Bangladesh. Women are the major source of labor, where they make up 80 percent of workers. One might ask whether the garment and textile industry could be a gateway for women in the rest of the world to escape poverty.

Demand for Growth

Despite the fact that international trade has recently encountered uncertainty, a report from Mckinsey pointed out that the demand for growth from major populated countries, such as India and Indonesia, will continually saturate the market. With the demand continually persisting, many expect that the supply will continue to expand as well.

Beyond Asia, many in Africa see opportunities in the rising garment industry. Case studies from the African Development Bank Group indicate that women make up a significant part of the garment industry in Africa. In Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire, the two major cotton cultivators in the world, 80 percent of garment workers are women. Moreover, these countries’ start-up entrepreneurs are largely women.

Lifting Women Out of Poverty

The rising figures of women in the garment industry excite people’s outlook on the economy, but this is not the final answer to lifting women out of poverty. The problems of delayed or no and low payment, forced labor, dangerous working environments and other exploitation of women pull the world’s attention and push for reform. From a global perspective, the campaign for humanitarian improvement is one major goal of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Beyond economic growth, acquiring decent work conditions, gender equality and opportunity for education matter when it comes to empowering women workers.

In Bangladesh, the international garment industry used to benefit from cheap labor because of loose legislative regulations and awful working conditions. More recently, the situation of underpayment has received challenges. For example, garment workers in Bangladesh raised their issues of low wages and poor working conditions, causing unrest and subsequently leading to Bangladesh increasing the minimum wage by 5 percent. This may seem minor, but it greatly impacted the garment industry in Bangladesh and started the process of reform. Consequential bills, including the signing of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, constantly forge the formal framework to ensure the well-being of women in the garment industry.

The development of the global garment industry is a good hammer for women to smash the wall of poverty, but they still require more. The problems rooted in the most impoverished countries are not only “money concerned.” Social injustice and gender bias also influence the liberation of women. Luckily, the action of women and their social power is opening another window for reforms and improvement.

Dingnan Zhang
Photo: Flickr

Migrant Poultry Workers
Chicken is one of the most consumed meats in America. According to the USDA, estimates determine that the per capita American consumption of chicken will rise from 28 pounds per person in 1960 to 94 pounds per person in 2020. This is in contrast to the per capita consumption of beef in America, which projections determine will fall from 94.1 pounds in 1976 to 57.5 pounds per person in 2020. This certainly reflects the rising demand for broiler meat, or commercial chicken farmers breed and raise for meat production in the U.S. However, not many Americans wish to work in poultry processing factories. In response to this shortage of workers, many poultry companies use migrant workers to fill their processing lines. Recent reports suggest that these migrant poultry workers are in danger of harsh working conditions and labor exploitation.

Issues with Poultry Processing Plants in the U.S.

Although poultry processing plants use machinery, much of killing, deboning and packaging of chicken still depend on human hands. The processing rooms’ temperature is usually at 40 degrees Fahrenheit in order to reduce microbial growth. However, this cold temperature makes it harder for the line workers to safely use their sharp cutting tools since their hands get stiff from the cold temperature. The factories’ demand to process chicken at a faster pace further compounds this hardship. The U.S. Department of Agriculture caps the speed of these processing lines at 140 chickens per minute. However, reports suggest that many processing plants increase their line speed in order to meet their company’s quota. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data further reflects these dangerous conditions. In addition, line workers repeat the same motion while performing their job of disassembling a chicken. Some reports suggest that 86 percent of line workers suffer from wrist pains, swollen joints and chronic pain in their hands and arms.

Migrant Poultry Workers in the U.S.

Migrant poultry workers fill the labor demand of the poultry industry. The EB-3 visa allows poultry companies to hire migrant workers. As long as a company places two want ads seeking American workers in a local newspaper and a notice on the state jobs board, poultry companies can justify hiring an immigrant instead of an American. Many migrant poultry workers, if documented, agree to what might be less-than-ideal working conditions for a promise of green-sponsorship by their employers.  Responding to this high demand, there are migration consultants outside of the U.S. who charge between $20,000 and $130,000 to help a migrant worker immigrate to America. This high fee can be a cause of poverty for many migrant poultry workers since the majority of them will make less than $20,000 a year.

According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, nearly 30 percent of meat and poultry workers were foreign-born non-citizens in 2015. Among this number, an estimated one-fourth of the migrant workers were undocumented. This visa sponsorship by poultry companies makes it harder for the migrant workers to protest against the harsh working conditions of poultry processing factories. Whether a migrant worker is documented or undocumented, the recent rhetoric of the U.S. government toward migrants is making many workers in the poultry industry nervous. In 2019, for example, accusations emerged that multiple poultry companies conspired to keep the wages down for their immigrant workforce.

Improving the Poultry Industry in the U.S.

There are many people and organizations that are striving to improve the working conditions in the poultry industry. Many human rights groups encourage the consumers to voice their dissatisfaction with the current state of working conditions in poultry processing plants. By voicing their dissatisfaction, humanitarian groups believe that this will give more power to the migrant poultry workers to voice their plights.

Tyson, one of the biggest poultry meat suppliers in the U.S., made a pledge in 2017 that it will improve the working conditions in its factories. In the pledge, Tyson stated its commitment to reduce worker injury rate by 15 percent until it reaches zero, increase employee retention by 10 percent each year and improve the transparency between the public and its factories. In 2020, the Humane Society of the U.S. and other groups sued the USDA for increasing the line speed at U.S. poultry processing plants. In its 2019 report, The Human Rights Watch encouraged the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take charge of improving the work conditions.

The harsh working conditions and treatment of migrant poultry workers in the poultry industry certainly presents a complicated picture. Chicken is becoming America’s favorite choice of protein as it is surpassing beef in terms of per capita consumption. However, behind every piece of chicken, there are migrant workers who must face constant hardships on a daily basis. The cold temperature of the factories causes numerous physical ailments for the workers, while many forego voicing their plight in fear of deportation. The solution is not to stop eating chicken. Instead, as many human rights organizations have demonstrated, consumers must voice their dissatisfaction with the poultry industry. With the recent surge in the public interest for the working conditions of the poultry industry, many hope that better and more fulfilling working conditions are coming for the poultry workers of the U.S.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

fast fashion and poverty
In recent years, brands like Zara, Topshop, Uniqlo, H&M and Forever 21 have come under fire for creating fast fashion. Fast fashion products are clothing and accessories that companies price significantly lower than the competition, produce more quickly and make of lower quality. Like many products, the world’s poor produces fast fashion, and thus, helps continue the cycle of poverty. Here are three facts about fast fashion and poverty.

Sweatshops

People create fast fashion in dangerous sweatshops. To provide cheap, ever-changing inventories for customers, fast fashion companies perpetuate fast fashion and poverty by relying on factories in countries with poverty wages, where safety, sustainable practices and suitable working conditions are nearly nonexistent.

One such factory complex was Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where the collapsing of a building in 2013 killed over 1,100 people and injured thousands more. Rana Plaza housed five garment factories that manufactured products for almost 30 major European and North American fashion companies.

Today, however, there has been an increasing demand for company transparency and ethical manufacturing practices. In the wake of the Rana Plaza Tragedy, the Bangladeshi government has sought to improve safety measures in garment factories and had 38 people charged with murder in 2016 for their roles in the building collapse. Along with the Bangladeshi government’s efforts, companies and trade unions signed two major safety agreements: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Brands like Nike and Patagonia committed to adhering to higher transparency standards after the tragedy.

Environmental Impact

The business model of fast fashion companies emerged from the idea that consumers always want to stay on top of trends, and thus, will buy new clothes as trends change. To change trends more quickly, fast fashion brands release new clothing once a week or more, which creates a great deal of waste. Instead of the Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer clothing seasons that were once prevalent, fast fashion companies have created 52 micro-seasons.

Since the clothes are only trendy for one week or less, companies do not create them to last. Often, fast fashion clothing falls apart in the washing machine or dryer after only one or two wears. If the clothing falls apart in one wash and was no longer trendy anyway, consumers automatically go back out to buy new, cheap pieces from the fast fashion brands. The clothing is so cheap to buy that consumers may not realize that they are spending more money in the long run in terms of cost-per-wear on a fast fashion garment compared to a more high-quality one.

The destroyed and unwearable fast fashion, which contributes to nearly 70 pounds of textile waste per person, per year in the United States, ends up in U.S. landfills or ships, along with other garbage, to developing countries. Many of these developing countries do not have the capacity to deal with all of this additional waste, and therefore, cannot prevent pollution or other waste-related problems.

To combat the issue of the fast-fashion causes, retailers like Asos and Gap, along with dozens of others, signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment in 2017; the Commitment encourages brands to use monofibers instead of mixed-fiber and synthetic fabrics. These practices make it easier for people to recycle fabrics and garments going forward.

Chemicals in Clothes

Fast fashion products often contain lead to create bold colors and shiny accessories. Vinyl and plastic products that are red, green, orange and yellow are more likely to have high contamination than products in darker or more muted hues.

Even in low concentrations, lead is extremely dangerous to human health. When it comes to fast fashion merchandise, experts are concerned that these products will leave microscopic particles of lead and other chemicals on consumers’ hands; without proper sanitation practices, these particles can end up on food, drink and other accessories, which can create an environment for repeated exposure.

The Dangers of Lead

Lead contamination, even at low levels, can cause kidney failure, nervous system issues and cardiovascular risks. Lead accumulation in bones and tissues can also cause reproductive issues in women, such as infertility; lead released during pregnancy puts both the mother and fetus in danger. Many experts, considering these risks, have stated that there is no safe level of lead contamination.

The women and children charged with producing these garments and accessories are in danger of lead contamination, just like the women purchasing and wearing these products. For these workers, treatments for health conditions related to lead contamination are either too costly to afford or unavailable. Often, workers may die from complications related to lead contamination in the products they manufacture.

To combat these problems, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is fighting against fast fashion companies to eliminate lead contamination on clothing and accessories. In 2010, the CEH sued retailers regarding toxins in accessories; since then, the CEH has been testing accessories sold in-store and online by fast fashion brands for lead contamination.

As more disturbing facts come to light about the fast fashion industry, consumers continue to demand change. With the rise of ethical fashion brands and the increased popularity of secondhand shopping, both fast fashion and poverty may disappear in the future.

– Shania Kennedy
Photo: Pixabay

Why people should shop fair tradeOver three years ago, Cathy Marks was hired for the managing position at the fair trade store, Ten Thousand Villages, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When the previous company she worked for, a franchising company, was sold, Marks was temporarily unemployed. During this time, she decided to look for a career in “something more meaningful.”

Having shopped at Ten Thousand Villages in the past, Marks said she was “intrigued as a customer” from the positive impact Ten Thousand Villages makes in preventing global poverty. It didn’t take long before she applied for the position. Since then, Marks is enjoying her job in the fair trade industry. She says her favorite part is telling stories about the artists to customers because the stories allow customers to make connections between specific artisans and their culture with their products.

Marks believes fair trade is necessary because it helps people in developing countries have higher standards for their communities, their homes and their educational systems. Here are 10 reasons why people should shop fair trade.

10 Reasons Why People Should Shop Fair Trade

  1. Fights Global Poverty and Hunger – Fair trade guarantees workers are paid at least a “minimum floor price,” or the amount it costs for them to produce their product. This standard ensures workers are not living in poverty, resulting in them being able to live comfortably with an income that fulfills their basic household needs such as food and clothing. On top of that, it also ensures workers have a surplus sum of money which they are able to save for future needs.
  2. Empowers Workers – Because fair trade ensures workers are living above the poverty line, workers are able to spend less time worrying about where their next meal is coming from, and more time planning for their future. Instead of depending on others for help, they have control over their own lives. They have the ability, time and resources to make choices for the good of themselves and their community.
  3. Positively Impacts Communities – On top of their wages, workers in the fair trade industry are also given premiums. Premiums are funds that workers can put toward whatever they feel will best benefit their community. For instance, workers can use premiums to better their community’s educational system, healthcare system, environment, recreational facilities or water access. This ensures better conditions and futures for workers’ communities.
  4. Ensures Safe Working Conditions – Fair trade protects workers’ basic human rights. It ensures they work reasonable hours and work in an environment that is free of harmful chemicals and substances. Marginalized and vulnerable populations are equally protected under fair trade standards. Workers are paid a wage that allows them better health and better nutrition.
  5. Prohibits Child Labor – Fair trade standards ensure no forms of child labor and child slavery are used on farms. Children under the age of 18 are then able to attend school and lead healthier lives. The fair wage gives workers the resources they need to ensure their children receive proper nutrition.
  6. Protects Women’s and Minorities’ Rights – Fair trade ensures that women and minority workers are not discriminated against. No matter the workers’ age, race, religion, gender or ethnicity, all are treated equally. All are guaranteed fair wages and ethical working conditions.
  7. Promotes Environment Sustainability – Fair trade products are created using limited amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. They are not genetically engineered and utilize the most efficient amount of waste, water and energy as possible. In addition, many fair trade products are made from recycled materials. This helps preserve our planet’s natural resources.
  8. Keeps Indigenous Cultures Alive – When people shop fair trade, they get to experience multiple cultures from across the globe without having to go overseas. Each product, whether it be clothing, coffee beans, baskets or jewelry, comes from an artisan who spent their time and talent crafting the product. Through fair trade, artisans are able to keep their culture alive, share it with others and pass it down to the younger generations.
  9. Supports Ethicality – When shopping fair trade, people make a statement about how they think employees in developing countries should be treated– with fairness and equality. They are saying they believe all farmers and artisans should be paid at least minimum wage for the products they produce and that all farmers and artisans deserve to live a comfortable, healthy life. Buying fair trade raises awareness of the issue of unethical labor tactics.
  10. Meaningful Impact – Every time someone consumes a fair trade product, they are fulfilled, since they know their purchase is helping someone across the globe live a life free from poverty.

Like Marks encourages her customers, these 10 reasons show why people should shop fair trade. By shopping fair trade, workers’ rights are protected. They are treated equally and paid fairly. They are able to attend school and live in a comfortable, healthy environment. Their cultures are kept alive. When someone shops fair trade, they are helping keep the industry alive. Through a simple Google search, people can find a fair trade store near them to shop at and join the fight.

– Emily Turner
Photo: Fair Trade Product by Emily Turner

Poverty Among Workers in the Cashew IndustryWithin the past few decades, diet culture has no doubt become a fad in the United States. From weight loss pills and body slimmers to obsessive calorie counting, diet fads are everywhere. For many, dieting means consuming foods that are high in protein and low in cholesterol and saturated fats. A popular type of food that fits this category is cashews. Convenient when it comes to on-the-go snacks, these moon-shaped nuts are full of protein and healthy monounsaturated fats that make them an ideal snack for dieters.

The top importer of cashews for the past decade, the U.S. imported over 147,000 tons of cashews in 2016, a 32 percent increase from the past four years. Of these imports, 92 percent came from Brazil, India and Vietnam. While the high demand for cashews makes them easily accessible to first-world consumers, these tasty treats come with a price: the poverty among workers in the cashew industry.

The Problem: Hazardous & Unethical Working Conditions

Tamil Nadu, a state in India, is home to a vast amount of cashew farms. Around 500,000 Indian citizens work on these farms, the majority of whom are women, some as young as 13. Because these employees are hired without contracts, their employers have no obligation to provide steady incomes, pensions or holiday pay. On top of that, cashew harvesting is physically dangerous.

When harvesting cashews, one must break through two layers of shells to get to the nut. In between those two layers of shells are two chemicals, known as cardol and anacardic acid. Upon coming into contact with the skin, these chemicals leave painful burns. While a simple pair of gloves could protect the hands and flesh of cashew harvesters, employers refuse to permit or provide gloves because they slow down the harvesting process.

The average cashew harvester in India earns around 160 rupees per 10-hour day. This equates to $1.90 per 10-hour day. This amount is not just below the poverty line but below the extreme poverty line. In 2015, around 70,000 cashew harvesters in India went on strike, demanding an increase of 70 cents per day. However, with or without this raise, this wage remains below the poverty line.

Multiple supermarkets that import cashews from Tamil Nadu have voluntarily signed up to be members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). However, they have not taken action to prevent the unethical conditions of the cashew plantations contributing to the overall poverty among workers in the cashew industry.

The Solution: Combating Unethicality

In 2013, upon acknowledging the poverty among workers in the cashew industry, a company in India called Acceso Cashew Enterprise Private Limited (ACE) was formed. Partnering with U.S. nonprofit Technoserve, ACE works to address inefficiencies in farming practices and conditions of the cashew industry. ACE created an agriculture program to increase the number of cashew crops grown in India utilizing the least amount of resources. This program also improves farmers’ incomes by teaching them sustainability techniques and strengthening their market linkages. In 2014, over 1,000 farmers participated in the program.

Aatmaram Yashvant Agre, a farmer who participated in ACE’s agricultural program, successfully implemented the sustainability techniques to improve his farming. As a result, Agre’s overall cashew production grew by 30 percent. ACE, which works to end global poverty through business solutions, encourages advocacy on the issue of poverty and always accepts donations. By ensuring cashew harvesters are utilizing more efficient farming practices, their profits increase. Thus, poverty among workers in the cashew industry decreases. More efficient farming practices also ensure cashew harvesters avoid practices that cause them physical harm. And ultimately, this enables cashew harvesters to live humanely and lead healthier lives.

– Emily Turner
Photo: Flickr

Artisanal Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo is both one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries and consistently one of the poorest. The mining industry makes up a significant part of the country’s economy with over 90 percent of its revenue coming from the export of these minerals. Many of these mines in Congo are artisanal mining operations; small-scale entrepreneurial operations that often exist in a legal and economic gray zone.

The Dangers of Artisanal Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

While mining is a dangerous job, the conditions of artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in particular, are problematic. These conditions include unsafe mining conditions for the workers, a lack of rights for those employed in many of Congo’s mines, as well as permanent environmental damage coming from mining methods. Further, the unregulated nature of the artisanal and small scale mining industry can lead to the proliferation of issues like child labor and conflict resources.

A lack of appropriate safety equipment is an endemic issue in many mines. Many of the resources that miners extract is toxic. Air quality is a consistent issue and face masks are rarely available. Gold, copper, cobalt and other dust pose numerous health issues. Heavy metal dust can lead to respiratory issues, and one can easily absorb the fine particles of these toxic metals through the skin, causing numerous problems. Mine conditions are also dark and dangerous. Long hours and a lack of structural reinforcement in the mines mean that accidents are common and tunnel collapses are not infrequent.

Artisanal Mining Impacts the Environment

Environmental issues are also a great concern. Chinese mining companies are particularly egregious when it comes to a lack of environmental awareness. Many companies make promises to pay for environmental restoration for the area when a mining operation shuts down. Wastewater runoff, heavy with toxic minerals, often destroys the livelihoods of those that originally lived near a mining site. The environmental destruction turns once arable land fallow. Moreover, some companies intentionally mislead local communities about their impact, both environmentally as well as economically.

Can Artisanal Mining Help People?

However, one should note that artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not inherently problematic all on its own. Small-scale mines can help pull people out of poverty when they function properly and regulate efficiently.

An International Conference on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining and Quarrying occurred in Livingstone, Zambia, in September 2018. One of the key things that came out of the three-day event was the Mosi-oa-Tunya Declaration at the end of the conference, which called for the recognition and regulation of artisanal mines. The declaration stated that improvements must happen in general regulation to formalize and stabilize the artisanal mining industry. Amongst these reforms, a call for the improvement of the status of women in mines and for the reduction of child labor stood out. These reforms need to also consider the economic, societal and regulatory realities. The Mosi-oa-Tunya Declaration also called for supply chain integration to occur to help highlight the opportunities to eliminate money laundering and the exploitation of workers through conflict resources. Resource scarcity and ever-increasing prices for minerals also help drive reforms. The German automaker BMW partnered with the Swedish chemical company BASF, as well as Korean electronics firm Samsung and GIZ GmbH, a German aid and development organization. The companies engaged in a pilot program to push for mine reforms at a cobalt mine in Congo in order to improve efficiencies and consolidate BMW’s cobalt supply chain. If the program succeeds, it will expand to other mines and other materials.

The US Makes Legislative Moves

The U.S. made significant legislative moves to help combat the most abusive practices in artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While people mostly know the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act for its Wall Street reforms and various consumer protections in the financial services sector, it also has provisions surrounding the tracing of the most common conflict materials: columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, gold and wolframite, which are metals key to tech and jewelry manufacturing. While companies do not have to proactively and publicly make a declaration about the status of the sourcing resources, they must track the sourcing of these materials. If the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) request it, companies must also be able to provide proof that they did their due diligence to ensure that the resources used were conflict-free.

There is no penalty for the use of conflict resources, however, nor is there a ban from the use of minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some believed that this disclosure alone would create public pressure to move away from conflict resources from the region. However, after a 2012 ruling in a case brought by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable against the SEC, the original mandatory disclosures significantly changed after it found that it violated the First Amendment. Indeed, manufacturers have to disclose that their products are DRC conflict-free if they cannot ensure a conflict-free status proactively.

Further, there are many academics and think tanks that study this issue. Tom Burgis, for instance, suggests that to fix the problems in artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other underdeveloped countries, Congo has to stop exporting its resources. He believes that only by keeping the resources within the country and shifting the country’s economy toward manufacturing goods made of those extracted resources, can the so-called resource curse break so that the lives of those working in the mines can become better.

John Dolan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clothing brands that pay a living wage

In the age of fast fashion, headlines about clothing brands often highlight unfathomably low wages and inhumane working conditions. Companies like Nike have been accused of using sweatshops in Southeast Asia to produce their clothing and shoes on and off since the 1970s. Documentaries like The True Cost have increased public awareness about the grueling working conditions in Asian garment factories, often illegal even when workers’ rights laws are far from comprehensive, all to yield excessive profit margins for large American- or European-based clothing brands. However, some clothing companies have made ethical production a key component of their business, and they prioritize living wage for their employees over excessive profits. This article will highlight five clothing brands that pay a living wage, exemplifying ethical and transparent production practices in garment factories in developing countries.

5 clothing brands that pay a living wage

  1. Matter is a Singapore-based clothing company that sources its materials directly from rural artisans in India and Indonesia. Its philosophy is to serve as a link between these rural artisans and the global market, thus adopting a hybrid supply chain model that combines hand- and machine-woven garments. Matter’s garment factory is closely monitored to live up to international compliance standards and provide its workers with a living wage. It also exclusively uses eco-friendly and natural dyes to protect the environments of the communities where its artisans live and work.
  2. Grana’s business and production both take place in Hong Kong, modeling ethical manufacturing in a metropolis known for its sweatshops while minimizing global shipping costs to maximize affordability for the consumer. Designing, manufacturing, and shipping from Hong Kong allow Grana to pay its workers a living wage while still having a mark-up of less than half of that of most brands. Its factories are visited regularly to ensure that they live up to the company’s high ethical and safety standards. Grana is dedicated to using the highest quality materials sourced from around the world, such as Peruvian Pima cotton, Mongolian cashmere, and Chinese silk, and all these high-end fabrics are produced by workers receiving a living wage.
  3. Everlane is exceptionally transparent about its production practices. Its website shows every single factory where its clothing is produced, which of its clothing is produced there, the number of employees, and a promise that this factory lives up to international ethical production standards. Every factory the company selects to produce its clothing has received a score of 90 out of 100 or better on providing fair wages, reasonable hours and a good environment for its employees. Its website also details the exact breakdown of production cost and profit for every piece of clothing, ensuring that consumers know they are paying a fair price for an ethically produced and high-quality item.
  4. Tonlé, a clothing brand based in Cambodia, is built on the philosophy of zero-waste clothing. Its website details the exact environmental impact of every item produced, which is always significantly lower than the waste created by conventional production of the same item. To live into its zero-waste philosophy, the company either uses all of a material to create a product, or it produces the product entirely from scraps. Its products are handmade without machine assistance, and the company exclusively uses natural dyes. On top of environmental sustainability, Tonlé is also dedicated to paying its employees fairly. In a 45-hour work week, the garment workers in its Phnom Penh factory make between 1.5-2.5 times what the average Cambodian garment worker makes in a 60-hour work week. Tonlé also ensures that factory conditions are safe, and it provides healthcare benefits, free lunches and paid vacations to its garment workers.
  5. Patagonia is one of the most well-known outdoor clothing brands in the United States, and it also prioritizes transparent and sustainable production practices. Every textile mill and factory it uses, from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua, is listed on its website with information including the number and gender breakdown of employees and the items produced there. Patagonia vets all of its factories to ensure that they are “safe, fair, legal and humane,” and it additionally pledges at least one percent of sales to grassroots environmental protection groups.

These clothing brands that pay a living wage are part of an ever-growing movement toward safe, ethical and sustainable clothing. While fast fashion is far from dead, many companies are choosing living wages over profits, a crucial step toward reducing global poverty and creating a more equitable global economy.

– Macklyn Hutchison
Photo: Flickr

5 Most Hazardous IndustriesAmong the negative effects of living in a low-income country is the inadequacy of workplace safety. Regulations and monitoring organizations to protect workers might be absent. Without the resources for such programs, many developing nations and their citizens suffer high rates of work-related illness, accidents and death caused by unsafe workplaces.

Studies of occupational risk from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Tampere University in Finland show that workers in low and lower-middle income countries have a higher risk of falling sick or dying as a result of their occupation than workers in high-income countries. Up to 92 percent of all global workplace fatalities are reported in low-income countries. One example is the fatality rate of Myanmar, at 25 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is 30 times higher than the United Kindom, at 0.83 per 100,000.

This disparity is driven by a lack of occupational health services and monitoring in low-income countries. The risk becomes more pronounced within the following five most hazardous industries, which account for the majority of work-related harm.

5 Most Hazardous Industries

  1. Mining – Mining presents a great risk to workers and holds the highest share of work-related fatal injuries. In addition to the risk of cave-ins in underground mining operations, miners are often exposed to pollutants. These include asbestos, metal and silica dust, and radioactive waste. Exposure makes workers prone to respiratory diseases and lung cancers. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and other respiratory diseases caused by the inhalation of dust, vapors, gases and fumes are the third largest cause of occupational fatalities overall.
  2. Construction – Work-related deaths in the construction industry make up about 30 percent of annual workplace fatalities. The ILO has determined that the risk of fatal injury to construction workers in low-income countries is three to six times higher than in more developed economies. Falls are the greatest threat to workers in the industry, but heavy machinery and electrocution also present a significant risk. Construction workers frequently face exposure to carcinogens and toxins like asbestos, resulting in long-term illnesses and disability.
  3. Agriculture – The agricultural industry makes up half of all global employment. The ILO estimates that at least 170,000 agricultural workers are killed per year in work-related accidents. Accidents often involve farming or fishing equipment, drowning, tree falls or agrochemical poisonings. Due to the number of workers employed in the industry and the frequency of informal farm work in low-income countries, injuries and fatalities in agriculture are likely to be underreported.
  4. Transportation – Most cases of occupational injuries occur in transportation-related events. Transportation is the top cause of workplace fatalities in the United States, and transportation workers are among the top five most frequently injured. Though often understudied, injuries and crashes among transport workers in countries like China have drawn attention, with one driver badly injured or killed every 2.5 days in Shanghai.
  5. Ship-breaking – The ship-breaking industry, often informal or illegal, is a growing concern for occupational safety monitors. Demolition involves frequent exposure to harmful chemicals, carcinogens, welding fumes and asbestos. The ILO reports the informality of the industry as its greatest threat to workers, saying: “Inadequate safety controls, badly monitored work operations and high risk of explosions create very dangerous work situations.” In Bangladesh, experts fear that environmental contamination from job sites threatens the health of neighboring communities.

A Trend Toward Safer Working Conditions

A growing number of countries have embraced efforts to increase regulation and monitoring of work conditions since the 1990s. Safety recommendations and training from the ILO have been implemented, with 134 nations ratifying the Labor Inspection Convention in 2005. However, regulation can’t come fast enough. In 2013, only 7 percent of international labor conventions had been passed in Asia, where the majority of injuries occur.

Decreased rates of workplace injury and fatal accidents over the last two decades are an encouraging sign that safety efforts are paying off in many developing nations. The number of people killed as a result of accidental occupational incidents in low-income countries dropped by 43 percent between 1996 and 2016. Experts note this decrease is lower than in high-income countries and that the five most hazardous industries still disproportionately burden these areas.

– Marissa Field
Photo: Flickr

Ethical TradingFair Trade is a buzzword these days, but what impact does it really have? As fair trade business models are around longer and grow in popularity, there is time to assess what positive impacts they actually have. The U.K.’s Ethical Trading Initiative is an alliance of organizations that work together to promote and support ethical codes of labor throughout the supply chain. Impacting the lives of more than 10 million workers every year, The Ethical Trading Initiative promotes giving a voice to local workers, transparent business practices and government intervention to protect workers’ rights. After 21 years of dedication to impoverished workers, people are able to measure the positive impacts of The Ethical Trading Initiative.

5 Positive Impacts of The Ethical Trading Initiative

  1. More Safety Regulations: One of the largest impacts has been on improving working conditions. This includes better training on emergency drills, improved fire safety and safer chemical use. Additionally, work environments have better hygienic standards as well as improved water and sanitation facilities. Changes in health and safety empower workers to feel safer at work and have better health, which improves their quality of life.
  2. Reasonable Working Hours: Overall, suppliers have reduced workers’ hours to be more reasonable although workers’ reactions to the reduced hours have been mixed. Those with families enjoy the extra free time while some single workers prefer to work (and thus earn) as much as possible. Additionally, workers are paid higher rates for overtime and earn double rates for working on Sundays. Ultimately, wages still need to be raised to combat the need to work as many hours as possible to support basic needs.
  3. A Reduction in Child Labor: Ethical codes and buyer pressure both aid in decreasing the employment of children. Specifically for children ages 16-17, an increase in checking age by official documents has contributed to lower rates in child employment. Poverty is the root cause of child labor. As ethical working conditions continue to improve, lifting more people out of poverty, child labor will continue to decrease.
  4. Worker & Manager Relations: Open, transparent dialogue between companies, managers and employees is key to establishing ethical working conditions. As a result of ethical labor codes, relations between management and workers continue to improve. On some sites, this has been the result of the establishment of workers’ committees that have improved communication practices. Establishing changes to increase communication and allow workers’ voices to be heard is foundational to deciding ethical labor codes.
  5. Physical and Social Well Being: As a result of all the previous improvements combined, workers’ physical and social well beings are increasing dramatically. Studies show that physical and social benefits are being felt by all workers and have effects not just in the workplace but also at home and on their long-term health. These improved and enforced ethical codes have a drastic impact on workers. Workers are less vulnerable to social problems resulting from income instability or health problems. This improves a worker’s ability to ultimately escape poverty.

In the face of increased demand for more products and faster production rates, the Ethical Trading Initiative helps raise awareness of ethical labor codes among managers. Ultimately, this awareness of codes pressures managers to adhere to more ethical practices. When companies take the time to think about the individuals behind every product produced as humans with rights, the ripple effects of change can begin. While there is still a lot of progress that needs to happen to empower impoverished workers globally, the positive impacts of the Ethical Trading Initiative continue to influence a consumer world that prioritizes human rights over profit.

Amy Dickens
Photo: Flickr