Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why should we care about OH&S for Migrant Workers in China?

Migrant labour, temporary foreign workers and in-country migration of workers are becoming more common to many economies. While the “newness” of a worker to any jobsite increases the risk of injury [see Institute for Work and Health, “Newness” and the risk of occupational injury, Issue Briefings, May 2009], a worker in any of these categories faces greater risk if language, education, training, experience are at the low end of the spectrum.

I was in Chongqing China last week as a technical advisor to a project reducing risks to workers. The Canada-China Migrant Labour Occupational Health and Safety project seeks to increase health and safety among the 1.3 million migrant workers concentrated in the coal mining, construction and textile industries in the Chongqing municipality—an administrative jurisdiction serving a population of about 33 million.

Whatever your political views, the simple reality of China’s modernization coupled with the demographic, economic and environmental realities of a billion-plus people create significant challenges. Whether you are in China, Canada or California, you can’t sustain economic growth in sectors like construction without an adequate, safe and healthy labour force. Increasingly, that labour force demand cannot be met through natural population growth and traditional educational streams. For Canada, this means a growing reliance on temporary foreign workers and immigration to meet labour requirements; for places like Chongqing, it’s a matter of temporarily filling demand through migrant labour.

WorkSafeBC’s contribution of training materials, videos and expertise is making a difference. We produce materials for our multicultural labour force in British Columbia so the marginal cost of sending a Chinese translation of a safety brochure in a pdf file or a subtitled two-minute instructional video clip attached to an email is insignificant. The impact on the lives of migrant workers in China (and elsewhere in the world) can be life changing for the better.

At a symposium I attended in Chongqing, I heard first hand (through an interpreter) from migrant workers how many of the safety precautions, work procedures and protective equipment we take for granted are just being implemented in the project’s demonstration sites. More importantly, I heard these worker representatives—not just officials—speak proudly of their advancements in occupational health and safety.

In one of the most humbling moments, I was told how more than 2 million migrant and resident workers in Chongqing have heard about WorkSafeBC and benefitted directly from the materials we produced. That number is almost equivalent to the total labour force in British Columbia.

What happens in China is no longer something that simply occurs far off on the other side of the world. In a global economy, we are all linked; the health and safety of workers who are part of that world-wide supply chain ought to be a concern for all of us. In Chongqing, we drove in German cars, used Dutch translating devices, and watched American software present Canadian knowledge through Japanese projectors.

In a world where there are growing concerns about an “averaging down” of worker health and safety, WorkSafeBC is proudly playing its part in raising OH&S standards for workers in B.C. and elsewhere in our shrinking and interdependent world.

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