Freedom at Work and Consumer Safety
Ever since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the brutal working conditions and unsanitary environment in Chicago’s meat packing houses, the connection between labor rights and consumer rights has been clear. It boils down to this basic principle: dangerous workplaces produce dangerous products. Just as Sinclair’s study resulted in new health standards in the meat and food processing industries, labor unions fight for decent working conditions that often result in cleaner environments, and safety standards that can lead to safer products. Lax health and safety standards in a factory or rushed production can jeopardize the quality of the final product, putting the consumer at risk. As the first line of defense for product safety, workers need a voice on the job and legally-binding union contracts.
On June 21, 2008, ten tons of the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan were illegally loaded onto a passenger ship bound for Del Monte Philippines’ pineapple plantation that crashed and caused the death of over 800 passengers. Studies of populations exposed to endosulfan have been published suggesting that endosulfan can increase the risk of autism, delay puberty in boys, and cause birth defects of the male reproductive system amongst other complications. While the U.S. and other countries continue to use millions of tons of endosulfan for agricultural use, the controversy led the Philippine government to completely ban the dangerous chemical. Unfortunately, consumers have already ingested dangerous amounts of endosulfan since pineapples have a non-resistant peel, allowing toxic pesticides to absorb into the flesh of the fruit.
Why should it take a massive chemical disaster and front page news coverage to drive bans on toxic chemical use? Hundreds of other highly toxic chemicals used for pineapple production are inevitably putting workers, community drinking water and consumers at risk. Many Costa Rican and Filipino union leaders have joined with environmental groups to call for reduced chemical use on pineapple plantations. Freedom for workers to protect their own health and voice their concerns through unions has the added affect of protecting consumers.
Another example of the link between worker and consumer safety is the case of a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) factory operated by General Electrics Co. (GE) in southern China. In late 2007, Policy Matters Ohio conducted a study at the CFL factory that found numerous violations of safety and workers’ rights standards. The report found that workers at the plant receive “little safety training and often do not know the basic facts about factory safety.” In fact, “the majority of workers interviewed told researchers they had no idea the company was using mercury.” Mercury, which is used in the production of CFLs, is highly toxic, and can cause severe damage to the central nervous system upon exposure. But the lack of workplace safety education does not just endanger workers— consumers are also put at risk because workers without proper training do not know to report production errors or practices that lead to hazardous light bulbs, while educated workers would. But education is not enough.
Without the job security and complaint processes provided by unions, workers fear that reporting safety violations will put their jobs at risk. Without workers who are educated and able to freely report safety violations, consumers end up paying the price.