Dusts of Death: Asian Activists Gather to Fight Workplace Illnesses

Melody Kemp

Sugio Furuya, director of BANJAN (Ban Asbestos Network Japan), at the annual meeting of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims last week, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. BANJAN has successfully pushed for a ban on asbestos in Japan.

PNOMH PENH, CAMBODIA – Prem Lal was fighting for breath. Each inhalation wracked his body with spasms of effort. The charpoy on which he lay was soaked with sweat. His soon-to-be widow stood by in quiet, fatalistic horror.

If Prem had been sputtering and gasping while being waterboarded, he would be front-page news. But he suffers from silicosis, an occupational illness that afflicts millions of workers worldwide. It will soon kill Prem, who is 39, old enough to have 2 children.

His crime? Trying to make a living and being poor.

Prem grinds gemstones next to his house for those who can afford them. Fine dust reaches his lungs, causing parts of them to progressively harden as his body lays down fibrous scar tissue to protect itself from the sharp silica molecules being inhaled.

That the deaths of workers like Prem are virtually invisible, while celebrities catch endless attention for minor weight gain or baby bumps,” is one of the tragedies of our time. 

The 120 people who attended the annual meeting of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) this past week in Phnom Penh were palpably frustrated and angry. 

The group has been growing exponentially since its formation in 1997; sixteen countries now actively participate in the network. Earlier this year ANROAV gave birth to the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, or A-BAN. Asbestos is a toxic product that continues to be produced and consumed despite being banned in parts of the global north.

As Chennai activist Madhu Dutta commented during the meeting, held September 22-24, silicosis has become ghettoized in comparison to the more publicity attracting asbestos. 

The poor health of global workers exemplifies contradictions in the global economy which grants privilege to employers. As Rory O’Neil of UK’s Hazard magazine wrote, a UK employer can be arrested if he willfully kills the factory cat, but will get off scot-free if he kills workers.

Silicosis afflicts workers working with gems, ceramics, rock blasting, drilling and crushing, and mining. It haunts unprotected workers in glassworks, mines and foundries, as well as those who live within reach of the dust. It’s usually fatal by the time it is diagnosed.

Largely eradicated in the economic North, silicosis is now the scourge of the Global South. Millions die from the illness each year.

Prem lives far from city-based medical and legal services, and is far too sick to travel. He will die without compensation, his work having been subcontracted out many times through the complex supply chains that make establishing liability an exercise in Pinkerton-like detective work. 

Even if he did manage to get his silicosis confirmed by a sympathetic doctor, India’s courts are so inefficient that he would most likely die before the case is heard.

The erosion of trade union power and labor standards mean that more people die per day of workplace illness than are killed by terrorist attacks, wars or by the various pandemics (such as Avian and swine flus) that attract huge institutional research funding. 

Development budgets rarely mandate labor inspections or reform for inequitable worker compensation systems, and donors are seemingly happy to let the technocrats of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) struggle with an increasingly international burden. 

The ILO’s mandate allows them to work with trade unions, employers and governments. But a large and growing number of workers worldwide are classified as informal and unorganized (up to 70 percent of some nation’s workforces), effectively excluding them from being represented in that system.

Worker deaths and injuries are rarely mentioned by politicians and economists talking up trade. Like damage to the environment, worker deaths and injuries are not factored into costs and prices.

Why is there no move to merge environmental and workplace standards?” asked Mandy Hawes, an American who has studied occupational disease in Asia’s semiconductor industry. She held up a photo at the ANROAV meeting. This is Lucy. You can see her, but she can’t see you. [She was] blinded by solvents while making semiconductors.”

We have to give people moral support. Workers are shocked when they are told they are going to die,” said Chi Leong, a worker from Macau who has stage-three silicosis. They often just got back to their village. They must stay and fight. We need to get them some compensation for their families.” (Chi’s name has been changed to protect him from harassment.)

Sanjiv Pandita, director of ANROAV’s partner organization, the Asia Monitor Resource Center, pointed out that we know more about the subtle shifts in stocks and commodities than we do about the welfare of the workers who support that economy.

Meeting participants from host nation Cambodia commented that the epidemic of construction in their nation would inevitably lead to a rise in the number of cases of workers with lung disease. They said they have no diagnostic capacity, much less treatment facilities or compensation for sick people. 

With its rapid infrastructure development, an uneducated population and lack of services, Laos is in a similar situation. Serious medical conditions still have to be diagnosed and treated in neighboring Thailand because Laos lacks the medical technology to sense many occupational lung diseases. 

The World Health Organization and Harvard University have both reported that road and workplace accidents are rapidly overtaking infectious disease as the major cause of death in the Global South. That disturbing reality was mirrored in stories told by ANROAV delegates.

China alone reports over 100,000 new cases of industrial lung disease per year, and has more than 4 million existing cases. And those are just the official figures. Even industrially advanced South Korea sees over 1,000 new cases of occupational chest disease each year, reported Dr. Domyung Paek, a pulmonary specialist from Seoul National University.

This quiet Asian epidemic is threatening to undermine any economic or moral imperatives gained by trade. In response, workers are angry — and getting organized. Despite consistent harassment and provocation, they’re determined to stop the slaughter.

Melody Kemp, a full-time writer covering labor and environmental issues, worked in occupational health and safety for 30 years. She is the author of Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women, which is available for free download at the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, and has worked for the United Nations in Asia. She speaks fluent Indonesian and lives in Vientiane, Laos.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.