GarrettBrownInterview

June/July 2011 Synergist

At AIHce 2011 in Portland, Ore., AIHA awarded its Social Responsibility Award to the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network (MHSSN). MHSSN provides information, technical assistance and on-site insturction regarding workplace hazards to workers in the "maquiladora," or foreign-owned assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Recently, MHSSN has expanded its programs to other countries in Central America and Asia.

In the June/July issue of The Synergist, Assistant Editor Brooke Morris profiles Garrett Brown, MPH, CIH, the founder and volunteer coordinator of MHSSN. Here, we provide the full transcript of Morris' interview with Brown.

What prompted you to get involved with Maquiladora Network?

I was one of the founders. There were a number of us in 1993 that were concerned about what would be the impact of the implementation of NAFTA, which went into effect in January of 1994. Our concern was that there would be many U.S.-based companies that would move their factories into Mexico where occupational health and safety regulations are not actively enforced. This would mean that, as a result of the treaty, there would be a tremendous increase in workplace hazards and an increase of illnesses and deaths as a result of this transfer of work. This is basically what happened. Because we saw this coming down the road, we set up the Maquiladora Heath and Safety Support Network, primarily with members of AIHA® and the American Public Health Association's Occupational Health and Safety section.

In your opinion, why is Maquiladora Network significant, and why should other AIHA members volunteer for this organization?

Our network provides a unique opportunity for AIHA members and occupational health professionals in general to use their expertise, talents and skills to help some of the most vulnerable and exploited people on the earth. Traditionally, OHS has been considered to have three key players: government, employers and workers. Generally speaking, governments and employers have a fair amount of resources at their disposal and actually play roles (sometimes more aggressively than other times) in protecting worker health and safety. Workers, who in my view are an indispensible part of any effective health and safety program, do not have sufficient resources at their disposal to play the role they should in developing plant-level health and safety programs. This is true in the United States, and is particularly true in the developing world, where there are almost no unions so workers have no voice or way to protect themselves on the job, where levels of formal education are not as high as they are in developed countries, and where the absolute necessity for people to work and earn a living to feed their families, no matter how unsafe or dangerous or unhealthy their workplaces are, is even more intense. So our Network was established to build the capacity of local, grassroots worker and community organizations to understand basic health and safety concepts, to understand the hazards and available controls, and to exercise their rights under the law, both nationally and internationally.

What are some of the current projects that Maquiladora Network is involved in?

Since 1993, we have been involved in the "training of trainers" to build the OHS capacity on a grassroots level. We started working on the U.S.-Mexico border just as NAFTA was being implemented, partnering with Mexican organizations on the Mexican side of the border, and training staff members of organizations, community members, or leading workers within a given industry or set of factories. We have provided a lot of technical assistance and information in Spanish and English to worker organizations. Since 1993, the work has expanded from the U.S.-Mexico border throughout Mexico to Central America and the Caribbean. In 2000, we started working in Asia—first in Indonesia, then in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, which is one the big industrial areas of China. We worked with employers such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas in 2001 on a training program for both worker and management members of health and safety committees that were being set up in three contract factories. We did a five-day training inside a factory for 30,000 workers in Dongguan, China. The training agenda alternated between classroom activities and field work in an operating factory, one very similar to the two other factories from which the participants also came.

Recently, we've had a couple of big projects, one of which was working with Knights Apparel, which is based in Spartanburg, S.C. We partnered with Knights and a human rights organization, the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., to establish the world's only genuinely non-sweatshop garment factory, located in the Dominican Republic. Members of our Network have been able to make a series of visits to the factory in the Dominican Republic, both before it began operations and then a year later to ensure that the conditions not only meet Dominican law, but also our profession's "best practices" to provide safe and healthful conditions for the workers. 

Another project that we just did a couple of years ago was with the Mexican miners union that was on strike in Cananea, Mexico. We assembled a team of eight occupational health professionals from the U.S., Colombia and Mexico to do a health survey of 70 miners and to evaluate the plant equipment and facilities. We discovered that they had some tremendous problems in this plant, even though it was owned by a huge transnational mining company called Grupo Mexico, which has mines in the U.S., Peru and Mexico. The silica exposures in this plant were at least ten times the Mexican permissible exposure limits.

We've also helped Mexican organizations file complaints under the labor side agreement of NAFTA, pointing out that Mexico was not enforcing its own health and safety regulations. We helped the workers write their complaints, which were later confirmed by the U.S. government's investigation.

What is the biggest health and safety problem facing workers in global supply chains?

In general, the big problem is that there is no political will on the part of the governments to actually enforce regulations or to create new regulations. So, for example, in the case of Mexico, they have a regulatory setup very similar to the U.S., but there is absolutely no enforcement of health and safety regulations. This is not only due to the corruption in the Mexican government, but also because it has a huge foreign debt, like most developing countries, and is desperate for the foreign exchange and the foreign income that comes with foreign investments. So, as a result of their financial situation and this burden of debt, the Mexican government is unable to enforce the regulations it has on its books. Anything that would "discourage foreign investment"—such as the actual enforcement of occupational and environmental health regulations—is economic suicide and a political impossibility for Mexico and many other developing countries.

Similarly, in China, there are 24 million young people coming out of high school every year who need jobs. Twenty-four million people is more than the population of Australia. So if you're the Chinese government, you're in a situation where you have to provide a new job every year for every man, woman and child in Australia, and failure to do so creates a great deal of social tensions and potential social unrest. So China, which again has a regulatory framework and regulations very similar to the U.S., is in a situation where it is economically and politically impossible for them to actually enforce these regulations because there would be less foreign investment, and thus fewer jobs for an ever-growing working population that they have to employ and feed.

The other part of the problem is that there are transnational corporations, many based in the U.S.,  that roam the world looking for the most vulnerable work populations and the most compliant governments. That's why you see the shifting in manufacturing all across the globe as these transnationals look to reduce the production costs at the expense of the workforce and their communities.       

What are some of the training methods Maquiladora Network uses during its on-site instruction?

Our organization is a big believer in a participatory, interactive training methods. Our trainings are done as a training of trainers, so our participants acquire the information, knowledge and skills to share what they learn. We've found that the methods that work best are ones in which there is interaction between instructors and participants, drawing on the participants' own experiences and knowledge. There will be some lecture, but a lot of hands-on activities—either small-group activities where people go over regulations and how they apply to case studies, or there might be some hands-on use of equipment. And there are activities like "sociodramas" or play-acting, so workers can practice how to deal with employers or government agencies when filing complaints. We want to provide trainers with the confidence and skills necessary so that they can put on their own trainings and multiple the impact of our efforts.

What is the Developing World Outreach Initiative (DWOI)?

This initiative began in 2006 by the Northern California local section of AIHA. It's a committee within the local section of 20 people who are working very much along the lines of the Maquiladora Network in the sense that they're trying to build the capacity of local organizations—local NGOs, local universities, worker organizations—in the area of occupational health and safety.

One of the two big projects that the DWOI has been involved in is collecting IH resources and reference books that we've shipped to various universities and NGOs in Africa. The other project is a partnership with grassroots health and safety organizations within Asia. There's a network of Asian OHS grassroots organizations called ANROEV (Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims), which includes 21 organizations in 14 countries in Asia. The DWOI has provided scholarships for the staff members of ANROEV organizations to attend professional-quality health and safety trainings in China, Indonesia, India and Singapore.

DWOI members have also attended annual meetings of ANROEV since 2007. So it's a great local-section initiative within AIHA that tries to connect the skills and talents and experience of OHS professionals in the U.S. with grassroots health and safety organizations in Africa and Asia. Hopefully, the Northern California Section won't be the only AIHA local section that works in the international arena.