This came up in comments to the anti-Chinese post from yesterday. Some of you have no doubt seen this, others have not. From Time Magazine, December 1941.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
One thing about Texas is how strongly its residents buy into the whole mythologizing bullshit about how great it is. This is true even of a lot of lefty Texans, as I found out in my 3 years there. It’s eyerolling at best. At worst, it helps lead to workplace deaths. As we already knew, the West fertilizer explosion is going to make absolutely no difference in regulating workplace safety in Texas going forward. Texans themselves have the basic response: “We’re Texas and we don’t do it that way. Go Cowboys!” But there are real things that Texas could do to protect workers. Fire codes for instance:
But federal officials and fire safety experts contend that fire codes and other requirements would probably have made a difference. A fire code would have required frequent inspections by fire marshals who might have prohibited the plant’s owner from storing the fertilizer just hundreds of feet from a school, a hospital, a railroad and other public buildings, they say. A fire code also would probably have mandated sprinklers and forbidden the storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials. (Investigators say the fertilizer was stored in a largely wooden building near piles of seed, one possible factor in the fire.)
“It’s tough to overstate the importance fire codes would have made,” said Scott Harris, a former emergency management coordinator in Texas for the Environmental Protection Agency, who is now with UL Workplace Health and Safety, a safety science company. “Texas just hasn’t wrapped its brain around this fact yet.”
In chemical fires, firefighters often bear a heavy toll. Ten of the at least 14 people who died in West were firefighters, and two more were residents helping fight the flames. This week, officials from the state firefighters’ association said the 50-foot-tall memorial to volunteers killed in the line of duty, on the Capitol grounds in Austin, had no room left for new names, not even those from West.
But hey, Rick Perry and his friends are all about maximizing corporate profit, even though fire codes would reduce corporate profits by like almost nothing. Firefighters dying fighting fertilizer conflagrations, that’s just the price of freedom!
On May 10, 1993, the Kader toy factory in the Nakhom Pathom province of Thailand, just outside of Bangkok, caught on fire, killing 188 workers, severely injuring over 500, and breaking the all-time death toll for a factory workplace, previously held by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911. The largest workplace disaster in Thai history, the Kader fire should have demonstrated the to the world the very real costs of outsourcing unsafe working conditions to the world’s poor countries. Unfortunately, the event received relatively little media attention and created no momentum for improving safety standards in the world’s factories.
The Kader factory was largely owned by Charoen Pokphand Group, a huge Thai conglomerate with concerns primarily in agribusiness; as of 2003 it was the world’s 5th largest transnational food corporation. CP owned 80% of the factory, the Hong-Kong based Kader Company owned about 20%, including the name. The factory manufactured toys, mostly stuffed animals and plastic dolls, for the international market. It received large contracts from Arco, Hasboro, Tyco, Toys-R-Us, Fisher Price, and other leading toy companies. Approximately 3000 workers toiled in this factory, with about 1500 in Building No. 1. Most of the workers were young women, some underage using fake IDs to get by age restrictions on labor. Thai women frequently add to family income, so many families encouraged their daughters to travel to Bangkok for factory labor.
This factory opened in January 1989, but already had a history of unsafe conditions. The original plant burned in August 1989 and the company’s license was suspended that November. But the Thai Ministry of Industry allowed the new plant to open on July 4, 1990. In February 1993, another fire struck one of the factory buildings. It was still closed when the main fire started in May. Thai law only provided minimum wage for full-time workers. Thus Kader and other manufacturers rarely employed people as full-time laborers. 47% of Thai employers did not pay the minimum wage. Compulsory overtime frequently kept workers until midnight, or even 5 a.m. if a deadline approached. Workers had their pay docked if they did not meet production quotas. On the 4th floor of Kader, 800 workers toiled. On that floor were 8 toilets.
None of this mattered to the American and European corporations outsourcing toy production to the developing world. They sent orders to Kader, demanding exact specifications for their markets, and asked no questions about wages, hours, working conditions, or safety. That was the advantage of outsourcing. These became irrelevant questions for corporations–so long as the costs were kept low. If costs rose, Tyco and Hasboro would move operations to another factory, another country.
At about 4 pm, a small fire broke out in one corner of Building No. 1. No one is really sure how the fire started, although a cigarette seems most likely. The workers were told to continue working. The fire alarm did not work and the fire spread rapidly in a factory full of finished plastic products. Security guards and employees tried to put the fire out but found themselves quickly overwhelmed with a rapidly spreading conflagration that soon spread to Buildings No. 2 and 3. Much like the Triangle Fire of 1911 in the United States, employers had locked the downstairs fire exits in order to maintain more control over workers. Fleeing back upstairs, the workers flooded the upper fire exits, causing them to collapse under all the weight. Workers began jumping from the upper stories to escape the flames. Then the main building collapsed from the heat of the fire. If this sounds much like the procession of events at Triangle, outside of the structural collapse, commenters at the time noted the same thing as well, ranging from a lack of fire safety training to highly combustible industrial products unsafely stored to the high number of women killed.
Said one survivor, “I didn’t know what to do. Finally I had no other choice but to join others and jump out the window. I saw many of my friends lying dead on the ground beside me. I injured my legs but I came out alive.” Said another, “In desperation, I went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was so thick and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped too. She died.” The symbol of the fire was a melted Bart Simpson doll. The fire took place at the height of The Simpsons craze and the factory is where most Simpsons material was produced.
Melted Bart, symbol of the Kader fire.
Like many horrible factory accidents, shoddy design combined with employer malfeasance and a lack of basic safety standards to create an easily preventable disaster. The building was constructed with uninsulated steel girders that would collapse in 15 minutes during a fire. Basic infrastructure investment, even if none of the other problems had been alleviated, would have likely saved dozens of lives.
Although initially resisting any compensation, CP agreed to pay $8000 to the families of each dead worker and agreed to help pay the education costs of orphaned children. The Thai government announced improved safety and health standards. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai traveled to the factory site on the night of the tragedy and pledged greater fire safety for Thai workers. But no one from CP or the factory managers received even a day in jail. The management was fined $12,000 for building code violations. Safety and health standards in Thai factories have not improved in any meaningful fashion since 1993, nor have they in many of the other manufacturing nations of southeast Asia. One big reason for this of course is that all the incentive for governments and business owners is to do nothing because the less they do, the more the big American, European, and Japanese corporations are pleased with low costs.
A memorial to Kader victims.
As I have suggested in the aftermath of the Bangladesh fire, now the largest tragedy in the history of industrial factories, with over 900 dead, perhaps the only way to stop corporations from taking advantage of poor nations and corrupt politicians to replicate the terrible working conditions of the Triangle Fire, Kader fire, and Bangladesh building collapse is to tie corporate legal status with their subcontractors’ behavior, making them civilly and criminally responsible for the conditions in factories to which they subcontract work. Otherwise, Disney can make a big stink of pulling out of Bangladesh to make themselves look good without doing anything to help Bangladeshi workers stay alive or ensure that workers in Cambodia, Vietnam, or wherever aren’t subject to the same conditions when no one is looking.
The better details in here came from Fiona Haines, Globalization and Regulatory Character: Regulatory Reform after the Kader Toy Factory Fire
This is the 60th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
There’s no question that one lesson from the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas is that we need much harsher fines and criminal statutes against corporations when workers die, as well as the regulatory structure to prosecute the owners of these corporations. The latest AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report, released this week, shows that according to data complied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 4,693 workers died on the job. That’s 13 workers every day. 50,000 workers died from occupational disease. Workers suffered between 7.6 and 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses.
This might just be an inconvenience for the corporations who employ these workers, but it is devastating to the workers and their families. They need real compensation for their pain and it needs to come out of corporate profits.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, the factory collapse has now claimed the lives of at least 912 people, making it by far the greatest workplace accident in human history. And another factory fire has killed 8 people in that country, including, ironically, one of the biggest defenders of the nation’s unsafe factory system. The multinational clothing corporations responsible for this system will not suffer at all for all these deaths.
Building off my Chinese Exclusion Act post from the other day, here is a good example of pure, unadulterated anti-Chinese racism, from the New York Times, August 26, 1885. In short, they all look the same.
Credit to the Times for making this stuff available, even when it is less than flattering to their ancestors at the paper.
Oh for the love of all things holy. Of course it would be a self-proclaimed anarchist who developed the 3-D printed gun.
Thanks to djw for sending this my way.
Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.
Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.
In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.
In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.
Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.
It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.
So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.
There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.
In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.
Remember the West, Texas factory explosion. It’s been 2 weeks and the story has almost completely disappeared from the media while CNN continued its 24-hour coverage of the latest details in the Boston Marathon bombings at least until late last week. The lack of follow-up coverage is a huge boon to capitalists who prefer that nothing change in the lax regulatory culture that plagues this nation and especially Texas.
That said, the Texas legislature did hold hearings last week on the explosion in West, showing the utter lack of regulation that not only would allow a fertilizer plant to be next to a middle school and nursing home in West, but also a lack of knowledge about where fertilizer plants are actually located. This shoddy regulation says so much about the United States in 2013:
But since ammonium nitrate isn’t considered an “extremely hazardous” chemical by state and federal agencies, plants only have to report to authorities if they have more than 10,000 pounds of it on hand. The state could have stricter reporting requirements if it chose to, according to David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The maximum amount the West Fertilizer plant reported to the state was 270 tons.
And the burden for communities to know where these chemicals are stored, and how to respond to emergencies at facilities that store them, falls on local officials. There are over 14,000 facilities in Texas that self-report having “extremely hazardous substances” on site, according to Lakey of DSHS. Representatives from that agency testified that chlorine and battery acid are the most common hazardous substances near communities, but that they only oversee reporting, not safety.
“Have we done anything to survey the 41 [fertilizer plants] because of what happened in West?” Pickett asked.
W. Nim Kidd, Assistant Director of DPS and Chief of Emergency Management, answered that his agency doesn’t do surveys, but local fire chiefs have the authority to go in and inspect those facilities.
“Could you suggest that to them?” Pickett asked, wondering if the agency could do more to encourage local fire officials to conduct inspections and prepare emergency response plans.
Last week, I talked to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about how industry and pro-industry politicians use terrorist threats as an excuse to hide the location of hazardous materials from the public. (Part of my interview with Jonsson was also used in this piece). The Dallas Morning News tried to find out where fertilizer plants are located in Texas:
After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”
Industry uses terrorism as a bogeyman. Corporations have opposed right-to-know laws for decades. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse. If terrorists want to attack a chemical facility, there are thousands of poorly secured plants in the open they can target. Moreover, I am going to say this really slow and in bold letters to make this extra easy to understand,
If fertilizer plants are too dangerous to let people know where they are located, they are too dangerous to place next to middle schools and nursing homes.
If there is a real terrorist threat against fertilizer plants, then we need to regulate them like nuclear power plants. Place them away from neighborhoods and under the highest level of security with maximum regulation.
But of course, that’s not what corporations want and it’s extremely unlikely to happen because the terrorism threat is just fear-mongering and excuse-making.
One source of good Texas workers news at least–the United Auto Workers has won an election to represent workers at an Arlington auto parts factory.
The title for greatest beard in American history goes to one Peter Cooper, 1876 Greenback Party candidate for president.
I don’t see how the competition for this title even comes close.
Not sure when the picture was taken but Cooper died in 1883.
I was on the Alternet Radio Hour with Joshua Holland on Saturday, talking Texas, Bangladesh, and my joyous past with right-wingers trying to get me fired. Turns out the more I do this kind of thing, the less I sound like a bumbling idiot. Was on in good company too, with Dave Zirin and Lee Fang the other guests.