On the First of May. Tragic and shameful: the life and death of Richard Laco
On 6 November 2013, Richard Laco, a 31 year old migrant worker from Slovakia, was killed by a falling sheet of steel whilst working on a construction site in north London. The construction industry is, to be sure, a dangerous one and is notorious throughout the world for its high mortality and accident rates. Yet in the case of Britain, its inherent dangers have undoubtedly been exacerbated by more than thirty years of rampant and unrestrained neoliberalism under successive Conservative and Labour governments, characterized by irresponsible deregulation, the elimination of any perceived obstacle to the free functioning of the market and, above all, the enactment of anti-union legislation which is, arguably, even more draconian than that of the USA.
Only 10% of construction workers are unionized, those who do involve themselves with unions are routinely blacklisted, while unions are systematically barred from gaining access to construction sites in order to organize the workforce. In such a context, the health, safety and welfare of workers are subordinated, totally, to the pursuit of profit. Speaking shortly after Richard Laco's death, Peter Farrell, chairman of the Construction Safety Campaign, declared: “These things are happening because the government .. [has] .. declared that health and safety is a burden on the industry. It is cutting regulations. These things were put in place to defend and safeguard the lives of workers like Richard. He is dead because of these cutbacks. Companies are blacklisting workers who speak out about safety. It is an absolute disgrace”. (Camden New Journal, 15 November 2013).
Farrell was not exaggerating. The consequences of weak protection for vulnerable workers in a dangerous industry have been nothing short of catastrophic. In a recent report on Richard Laco's death, The Observer presented a staggering statistic: since 2001, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. During the same period, over 760 workers have been killed on construction sites in Britain. An absolute disgrace indeed.
If such carnage can take place in a so-called advanced democracy, what of workers' rights in the developing world? The situation is abysmal and the construction industry, once again, emerges as one of the worst abusers. The Guardian reported on 14 April 2014 that the global construction industry is one of the world's biggest employers with a huge migrant workforce. Global construction output will grow by more than 70% to $ 15 trillion by 2025, with almost 60% of growth accounted for by China, India and the USA –none of which are known for their respect for, or tolerance of, strong unions in the workplace–.
Like many other global industries, construction, in structural terms, is a labyrinth involving multinationals, national companies and governments, and an infinite number of subcontractors. In these conditions, the enforcement of labour law is either weak or nonexistent, while the worst abusers of workers' rights are invariably able to escape blame and punishment. Nowhere has this dynamic been seen more clearly than in the massive construction projects which have preceded recent and current global sporting events.
As The Guardian put it, “the construction binges that precede major global events such as sporting tournaments provide fertile ground for the abuse of such a vulnerable and often unregulated workforce to thrive”. Thus in 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that migrant workers involved in the construction of Russian facilities for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games were often subject to sub-standard working conditions and non-payment of salaries. Qatar's preparations for the 2020 FIFA Football World Cup have become notorious. Amnesty International and The Guardian itself, via its Modern-day Slavery Project, have both highlighted and condemned the appalling death toll of migrant workers, and evidence of forced labour conditions, on Qatari construction sites.
Sadly, construction is but one example, albeit an illuminating one, of the abuses perpetrated by a global scale industry involving the employment, either directly or indirectly, by powerful Western companies of poor and vulnerable workers in the developing world. In this regard, the garment industry has achieved –deservedly– even greater notoriety than that of construction. Recently, for example, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR), based in Pittsburgh, has issued two damning reports on the cases of Guatemala and Bangladesh.
In Guatemala, the IGLHR describes how from 2001 to March 2013, between 1,050 and 1,500 workers –mostly indigenous Maya Indians– toiled at the Alianza Fashion factory in Chimaltenango. During this period, they produced some 52 million garments for export to the USA and Canada for many leading fashion labels, including Macy's, JC Penney, Philips-Van Heusen, Nordstrom and Wal-Mart.
While extremely generous tax concessions saved the factory's owners and their US clients millions of dollars, Guatemala's Ministry of Labour failed to implement the country's own labour laws. Lacking any legal rights, and with attempts at union organization regularly crushed, Alianza workers earned just $ 1.05 per hour, the lowest wage in Guatemala and well below subsistence levels.
Almost unbelievably, conditions in Bangladesh are even worse. In its report on the Next Collections factory in Ashulia, on the outskirts of Dhaka, the IGLHR exposed horrific and systematic abuse of the workforce. Employing 3,750 workers, the factory is part of the Ha-Meem Group, Bangladesh's second largest garment exporter which owns 26 factories and employs over 30,000 workers. At Ashulia, approximately 70% of production is for leading US brands Gap and Old Navy.
The report describes a litany of abuse, including working weeks of over 100 hours, poverty-level wages of between 20 and 24 cents per hour, the systematic use of physical punishment and illegal firings (particularly –and abominably– with respect to pregnant female employees), and the issuing of false pay slips enabling Gap to appear to be complying with legal standards on wages and working hours. In addition, the Ha-Meem Group has consistently blocked the garment workers' right to organize an independent union in the workplace. As the report concludes, the garment workers of Bangladesh continue to be the hardest working but amongst the poorest paid in the world.
Even in the harsh context of neoliberal Britain, conditions at the construction site in north London are far, far, removed from the hellish conditions of a Bangladeshi sweatshop. Yet they still claimed the life of Richard Laco, reminding us that workers' rights –especially that to a safe working environment– are, in an increasingly globalized economy, under threat everywhere. All progressive forces of the Left –parties, unions and social movements– should place, and consolidate, this concern at the very heart of their political agenda. They would also do well, on May 1st, to recall and heed the words of the old miners' hymn: “the cause of labour is the hope of the world”.
Andrew Richards en investigador senior en el Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales del Instituto Juan March. Doctor por la Universidad de Princeton, es autor del libro Miners on Strike (Berg, 1996). En la actualidad está escribiendo una biografía de Salvador Allende.
En el Primero de Mayo: la muerte trágica y vergonzosa de Richard Laco