More must be done to protect employees in international supply chains

by Estelle Clark | Chartered Quality Institute (CQI)
Friday, 18 May 2018 14:23 GMT

A labourer works in a construction site at a new residential area in Turpan, Xinjiang province October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Businesses with a global reach must do more to prevent catastrophes such as the Bangladeshi factory collapse and deadly pollution leaks.

From the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which led to the deaths of an estimated 1,134 people, through to revelations of carcinogenic pollution around materials factories in India and Indonesia, it is unfortunately the case that organisations operating globally, either through their own operations or the supply chain, are falling short of their responsibility to local staff and communities.

An estimated 2.78 million work-related deaths occur annually throughout the world. This equates to five people dying every minute. Incidents such as those in Bangladesh, India and Indonesia suggest that our biggest businesses are attempting to offshore their responsibility when it comes to worker health and safety.

In the UK, health and safety practice has improved significantly since the 1970s. This is due, in part, to the introduction of health and safety standards and legislation, which have made safety at work a priority and resulted in a 79 percent drop in work-related fatalities in Britain since 1974.

Up until now, however, there has not been an international standard for health and safety. In the past, countries could opt to use the British OHSAS 18001 (a minimum set of requirements for best practice of health and safety management). While this provided an effective framework, it was, by its nature, primarily developed for use in the UK. Thankfully, that has now changed with the introduction of ISO 45001 - the world’s first global standard for health and safety. Fed into, and backed by, more than 70 countries across all continents, including China and India, the standard is designed to be applied anywhere in the world.

While this isn’t a silver bullet for health and safety, it does provide a lever that will allow organisations to ask more of their international supply chains. In order for this standard to take effect, however, businesses need to change their mindset.

Instances like the Rana Plaza collapse demonstrate that society now expects concern for employee welfare to extend throughout the supply chain, as well as business operations. It has never been morally justifiable for workers to be placed at risk, simply because of where they happen to be working in the world. Those remote from the corporate ivory tower have the same right to go home at the end of the day as anyone else. If, for any reason, this isn’t the case, senior management need to be confronted with the reality of what has happened.

I remember showing a senior executive an image of a particularly horrific accident. His response was: “I’m really affected by the picture of the guy with a spike in his eye and I don’t want to see it anymore.”

Executives may find it uncomfortable viewing, but when workers die, or are injured doing the job they have been asked to do, the executive needs to be made aware and take action. The questions I would ask anyone who felt the need to turn away from such incidents are:  how do you think that person felt? How do you think their family felt? It’s not okay to ignore the situation, that after all, they allowed to happen. The key responsibility of any manager is to ensure that their staff go home at night as physically and mentally able as when they arrived. 

Placing a contract and washing our hands of all responsibility is simply not good enough. Businesses need to be asking themselves: what are we asking people to do, and are they going to be safe while they do it?

ISO 45001 is by no means a fix-all solution. It is, however, a first step. The world is starting to wake up to the fact that we need to act and behave differently. It is not, and never has been, justifiable that your safety at work depends entirely on the country in which you happen to be working.

Major businesses must now encourage suppliers to work towards the adoption of ISO 45001, and make certification a necessary requirement of their purchasing and specification process.

Estelle Clark is Director of Policy at the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI).