April 30, 2008 The Pump Handle 3Comment

In Congo, an estimated two million artisanal miners account for as much of 90% of the country’s mineral exports. The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen reports on how this unofficial economy works:

The diggers usually work in groups of three, heaving out bags of ore. The haphazard tunneling undermines the stability of the earth above, which often collapses. Every week, about 10 miners die in accidents, provincial officials said.

[Freelance miner Innocent] Luamba’s three-man team can produce perhaps two 220-pound sacks of copper ore a day, a bounty quickly consumed by a slew of dubious taxes, fees and prices.

After those costs, each miner ends the day with about $4, perhaps a fifth of the value of one 220-pound sack. The going rate for a decent loaf of bread is $1.50.

A middleman sells the ore to buyers such as Daniel Tam, a British citizen from Hong Kong who declined to give his company’s name. Though he has his own mining concession, Tam said he buys only from diggers working other spots, “because it is cheaper.” With a single phone call, he can find a buyer abroad.

“The Chinese, the Indians, the South Africans,” he said, naming all the buyers. “The selling is easy.”

The diggers are not the only ones suffering in such transactions. Congo is also losing out on taxes and jobs as the less-valuable raw ore is hauled out of the country before being processed into a final product worth four times as much.

Congo’s government is trying to build a modern, mechanized industry to extract copper and cobalt, but it’s a difficult transition given how entrenched the artisanal mining system is. Crews hired by foreign mining companies often arrive at their new concessions and find thousands of diggers already there – which in some cases leads to riots, or growing militancy among diggers who’ve been chased from sites they feel they have a might to mine.

In other news:

Salt Lake Tribune: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is examining whether current OSHA penalties are strong enough to correct workplace safety problems.

Reuters India: A study of blood samples from men in the U.S. military, published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute, reports that a chemical that comes from the pesticide DDT may raise men’s risk of developing testicular cancer.

Washington Post: Some veterans returning from Iraq find that the GI Bill falls short in providing them with educational opportunities.

Washington Post: Three former DC government employees say they were fired for blowing the whistle on illegal and unethical behavior and hazardous conditions.

Boston Globe (editorial): There’s an acute need for paid leave, and New Jersey’s paid-leave law (passed by the legislature and expected to be signed by the Governor) is a promising plan. The state will need to be vigilant about fraud and abuse, and ensure the system’s financial soundness.

3 thoughts on “Occupational Health News Roundup

  1. There was one thing that bothered me about the Salt Lake Tribune article. It talks about Ron Hayes, the director of FIGHT who lost his son in a workplace fatality. The article states that it took two years for OSHA to issue a formal apology for his sons death. However, it offers this in such a connotation as to imply that OSHA is responsible for his son’s death.

    Now, don’t get me wrong… I believe that OSHA (particularly federal OSHA) is not doing it’s job up to par in many areas. However, in our criticism of this agency, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is the employers who are ultimately responsible for an avoidable workplace death. The employer is the one who should be taking the initiative to provide a safe workplace and prevent accidents before they happen, and it is the employer who should be issuing the formal apology if they do.

    We should always prepare for the worst (employers not doing their job), but hope for the best (employers actively engaged in safety issues). I know that many of us believe that some employers will forfeit safety for production and profit, but I refuse to accept this as an acceptabe status quo, and this is not an excuse to shift the blame away from the employer to OSHA.

  2. Good point, Tasha. You’re right that there’s a widespread belief that companies will cut corners (on product safety as well as worker safety) if they think they might be able to get away with it. One response, of course, is to make it harder for them to get away with it through more inspections and heftier penalties. I wonder if it requires some kind of broad cultural shift in expectations, too – it doesn’t seem like there’s as much outrage as there should be when corporate corner-cutting gets exposed, because we seem to be hearing about it all the time.

  3. I absolutely agree. Although, as Celeste pointed out earlier, nothing seems to get employer’s attentions quicker than an article in the Wall Street Journal. We risk diluting that effect when we point fingers at OSHA instead of at the employers who are ultimately responsible.

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