February 22, 2011 Elizabeth Grossman 8Comment

By Elizabeth Grossman

As I’ve watched the hearings House Republicans have been holding over the past couple of weeks on the economic impact of environmental and occupational health and safety regulations, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about and seen of the working and environmental conditions in places that are now the hub of world manufacturing. I’ve been picturing the smog that hangs over Chinese cities. I’ve been thinking about the fatal despair of young high-tech workers at Foxconn and Samsung factories in China and South Korea, about the depressed wages and severe working conditions at factories in the Philippines, and about the electronics workers I met in Indonesia this past fall who overflowed with questions about the health effects of their working conditions.

During the weeks of February 7 and 14 – in the run-up to the February 19 vote on the FY2011 budget bill – the House Education and Workforce, Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, Oversight, and Rules Committees have all held hearings examining how environmental and workplace safety regulations impact job creation.

The House Republicans’ premise is that the regulations created to implement current United States environmental and occupational health standards are costly impediments to job and business growth, and prevent the U.S. from fully competing as a manufacturing power in the global economy. These regulations, we’ve heard from Republican House members and from witnesses representing business associations and manufacturing companies, have caused the U.S. to lose jobs to foreign countries, particularly to developing Asian nations, like China. Without such regulatory obligations, these speakers imply, domestic manufacturing could be booming.

Michael Friedrich, president of a Wisconsin company called MCM Composites, gave this assessment in testimony before the Oversight Committee on February 10th:

We cannot compete on labor costs…The total cost of production labor (hourly wage plus health care, payroll taxes, unemployment compensation, etc) in China, India, East Asia, and Mexico is only a fraction of the cost in the US. What costs $30 per hour to produce in the U.S. costs $15 per hour in East Asia and $5.00 in Mexico. The only way we can compete – and we can compete – in the world economy is through higher productivity coupled with lower overhead burden. The current burden includes the compliance costs of federal regulations, and with the threat of additional burden the U.S. is moving entirely in the wrong direction.

By contrast, Democratic members and witnesses from academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, and also some businesses maintain that government regulations that safeguard occupational, environmental, and public health result in net benefits (including financial benefits) that outweigh any upfront financial costs of implementation – for instance, see University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor’s testimony before the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Economics. They also maintain that the regulations and the standards they implement can produce and preserve jobs – and are essential to basic public safety. “I defy you not to think about regulations the next time you get on a commuter airline or the next time you drink tap water in Chicago. Think about it in the morning when you have your eggs,” said Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) during a February 10th House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

The hearings’ exchanges have largely been long on rhetoric and principles, and short on legislative specifics, with each side – and their witnesses – citing competing studies to prove their points.

From what’s been voiced by House Republicans, their goal appears to be removal of what they consider regulatory obstacles to industrial productivity – the legally enforceable occupational and environmental safety standards designed to protect workers and the public from adverse health effects of industrial processes. Regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce air-quality standards and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to address workplace noise are among their top targets.

While U.S. House leaders have been calling for these rollbacks ostensibly to compete with China, it’s worth considering environmental and working conditions are like in what is currently the world’s manufacturing hub. Here is some recent news to bear in mind when considering what life is like in the absence of rigorous environmental and occupational safety standards two generations after The Great Leap Forward, China’s rapid industrialization campaign (led by Mao Zedong starting in the late 1950s) that did begin to transform the country from a rural agrarian to urban industrial society but at devastating human cost:

  • In March 2010, the Chinese government reported that in the first two months of the year there had been 10,854 workplace fatalities (a decrease of 15.2 % from the previous year) and 63,552 workplace accidents. The official 2009 death toll from “work safety accidents” in China in 2009 was reported at 83,196. In 2009, 2,000 workers died in coal mine disasters, down from almost 7,000 in 2002, reports the Chinese news agency Xinhua. These large numbers of deaths translate into high fatality rates; for instance, in 2004 (the most recent year for which rates could be located), China’s fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 10.8, while the US’s was 4.1 (and the UK’s was just 0.81).
  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 2.3 million people die each year in Asia from occupational accidents and work-related illnesses – or about 2 people every minute, according to figures from the Asia Resource Monitor Center. And it’s well recognized that official occupational accident, illness and fatality numbers are likely incomplete given the large number of informal workers and problem of under-reporting, particularly of work-related illnesses.
  • A study published on February 8th in Environmental Health Perspectives by researchers from Oregon State University and Peking University shows that China emits the most polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, the air pollutants that result from fuel combustion) of any country (followed by India and the United States). The study also indicates that at current levels of PAH pollution, Beijing – population 22 million – would see about 21,200 lifetime cases of lung cancer. If pollution controls adopted during the 2008 Olympics were maintained, the study says, that number would drop to 11,400. The researchers cite estimates that put annual heart disease and lung cancer deaths associated with air pollution in China at 300,000.

Thanks to implementation of the Clean Air Act and Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, hundreds of thousands of premature pollution-related deaths and thousands of work-related fatalities have been avoided. So the question policy-makers need to be asking as they consider the current attack on environmental, health and safety regulations is do we want to make a great leap backward?

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

8 thoughts on “The Great Leap Backward – Do we really want to roll back regulations and look more like China?

  1. Of course the real obstacles to American industrial (re)development are the American financial sector’s pernicious influence on industrial firms (not only in the form of onerous debt service – possibly more damaging is the fact that executives these days are drawn from banksters and accountants rather than engineers and technicians), and the American de-industrialisation policy (lack of government industrial projects, an overvalued currency, lack of macroeconomic stabilisation policy, a policy of persistent underemployment, etc.).

    You want to improve American industrial competitiveness? Drop a neutron bomb on Wall Street, discount the dollar against the Yuan and restore full employment with a massive infrastructure overhaul (given the deplorable state of the US rail net and electrical grid, you’ll run out of unemployment long before you run out of worthwhile infrastructure projects). Any suggestion on how to restore American industrial competitiveness that does not include at least one of those three is missing the point wider than the Mars Climate Orbiter.

    – Jake

  2. I’ve been a nurse now for 31 years and I’m so disappointed in the changes I see in healthcare, especially for the marginalized.
    Last fall I started back to school for a master’s in Public Health–cancelled due to state funding cuts. Switched over to Occupational Health–now the ERCs(Educational Research Centers)are being de-funded by the Federal government. Ohio is one of the states where the Republican governor is attempting to union-bust and stop collective bargaining for public employees. Workers in this country have a big target on their backs.
    BTW, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show made your same points last night… a little less fact sharing and more absurd facial expressions, though!

  3. Of course the wealthiest people want a return to the 18th century, to “satanic mills” and the days when labourers were a disposable resource – they get hurt, throw them away.

    The wealthy have spent the last 30 years trying to destroy the middle class. Why would it not surprise to see them try and return to other common traits of feudalism? The only difference will be that the new feudalism is worldwide, not just European-styled.


  4. Easy from a European point of view – we’ll just ban imports from the U.S. as we have done in other specific cases of sweat-shop labour.

  5. Depends on who you mean by “we”… If you mean ordinary workers, then no, of course we don’t want to look more like China. If you mean the CEO and investor class, then yes, they do. The deaths of workers are just a cost of doing business to them – and not a particularly onerous one at that. As long as the deceased didn’t have contracts that specify significant death benefits, that is… There is no column for workers’ health on a balance sheet.

  6. “What costs $30 per hour to produce in the U.S. costs $15 per hour in East Asia and $5.00 in Mexico.”

    How much would a Chinese CEO cost compared to a USian? How about outsourcing all the board of directors? You would probably save BILLIONS! Heck, you’d probably save millions just on the chauffeured company car alone!

  7. My step-father is missing digits from his hand, lost in an explosion during underground mining. His accident is nothing shocking, mining is dangerous, but it’s much less dangerous here than elsewhere in the world.

    He laughs about it these days, he laughs that two generations after his grandfather was tried for treason (Bill Blizzard, an American hero) for trying to make mines a safe place to work they still claim digits, limbs and lives.

    A century of philosophy, thought, organizing and struggle against murderous thieving fucks for nothing.

  8. I will offer two thoughts on this.
    1. There may be costs to create a safe work environment, but these are the costs of conducting business in an ethical manner. Righteous business keeps the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition espoused by many of the very legislators who object to these costs. The concepts behind OSHA regulations are 2500 year-old Biblical principals like: you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind (Hazard Communications), or you shall put a parapet/railing around your roof so someone does not fall (machine guarding). It does cost more to dig a trench safely, but then people don’t die in those trenches.
    2. I was in China in 2007 and took a picture of the harbor in Shanghai. On the PC I saw that the photo looked muddy because of the severe pollution. PhotoShop Elements could adjust the color to provide a nice picture, but my wife said that’s not what the sky in Shanghai looks like. You can’t PhotoShop away the terrible pollution or the adverse health effects.

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