A guest post by James Elliott
What are you wearing right now? Is it a pair of blue jeans? If it is, then it’s more than likely they were made in the Guangdong province of China, where over half the world’s denim is produced. If they’re sandblasted, then someone may well have died making them for you.
Occupational health and safety is seen as something of a joke in the UK. Just as ‘political correctness gone mad’ is usually a knee-jerk justification for all types of bigotry, phobia and misogyny, ‘health and safety gone mad’ is used to trivialise the rights of workers to a secure working environment.
Recently, the anti-poverty campaigning group War on Want published a report on the deadly conditions in factories in Guangdong province, and analysed how millions of workers’ lives are put under threat due to a process called ‘sandblasting’. The report explains, ‘Often performed without proper ventilation, safety equipment or training, the practice exposes workers to serious risk of silicosis, the deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust.’
Time to check the brand on those jeans of yours. Many brands have admitted to sandblasting their jeans, announcing they will gradually phase the process out. Armani, Benetton, Burberry, Gucci, New Look, and Versace were amongst those, whilst Dolce and Gabbana refused to ban sandblasting. Mind you, they may have bigger issues to worry about than their workers rights, as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have just been convicted of a €1bn tax fraud.
Factories and brands are able to get away with this deadly practice because of the absence of basic human rights in China. The dangers to workers are clear and present. An experienced sandblaster can get through about five or six hundred pairs of jeans a day, and whilst some companies use mechanical sandblasters, these still present risks to workers. Manual sandblasting is most commonly used in the ‘global south’, and according to War on Want, ‘is often used without installing proper ventilation equipment, exposing workers directly to silica particles that are released from air compressor guns’. The result, silicosis, is an incurable lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust containing free crystalline silica, and leads to thousands of deaths every year worldwide. It was these dangers that led to sandblasting regulations being introduced to Europe in the 1960s.
Workplace health and safety is a killer, and not just in the sense of ‘paperwork’ that we face in the West. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that 2.3m workers die each year as a result of workplace accidents or diseases, whilst 340m are injured. China has so far only signed up to four ILO core conventions, and has outlawed independent trade unions and banned strike action. The only vehicle workers have to struggle for rights or gain compensation is the official Chinese trade union, which usually backs the interests of local government. Seven out of ten workers refuse to pursue any legal action whatsoever, preferring informal negotiations, and many simply die before the courts award them any compensation.
Conditions are notoriously harsh in China, and in the city of Dongguan, less than 2% of eligible workers receive the occupational health check-ups they were entitled to. In the six factories War on Want investigated, none provided the sandblasters with adequate safety equipment and there were high levels of sand dust in the air. Many had even installed CCTV to monitor the sandblasters and prevented them from speaking with other workers. They toil for up to 12 hours at a time, before taking a short meal break, then resuming for another 4 hours.
Whereas a coal miner might develop silicosis after several decades down the pits, a Chinese sandblaster can contract the deadly disease just months into their job. Working for a pittance, almost always without regular days off and no rights, we cannot estimate how many workers have died in Guangdong due to this practice. Given that so few occupational health accidents and diseases are reported to authorities, the figure is likely to be higher than any official number.
What this abuse and violation of workers’ rights requires is not a self-interested, consumer-centered ‘ethical’ boycott of the brands that use sandblasting, but a simple and direct EU ban on the import of any sandblasted denim. Brands may complain, retailers will despair at the temporary loss of revenue, and the free-marketeers will decry another violation in the sanctity of the market.
But let us not forget: It used to be the case in Britain in the 19th century that a child under 9 could work in a textile factory, risking injury and death. The Factory Act of 1833 outlawed that. The EU needs a similar ban on sandblasted jeans to support Chinese workers’ rights.
James Elliott is a freelance journalist who writes regularly on foreign affairs and British politics.