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[The following information is taken from the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network Newsletter #2, published in email form on June 11, 1997. The MHSSN is a volunteer effort by 300 occupational health and safety professionals who provide technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the over 3,500 maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants) along the U.S.-Mexico border. To subscribe to the newsletter, send a message to editor Peter Dillard at ishmaelMD@aol.com. To find out how to volunteer with the network, contact coordinator Garrett Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
For anyone who cares about workers' health and safety on the U.S.-Mexico border (and in the countries on either side), two recent developments are cause for great concern. The reputation for professionalism and ethical behavior of occupational health professions, especially that of industrial hygiene, is also at stake.
On January 21, 1997, the Mexican government promulgated a new "Federal Regulation on Workplace Safety and Health" to replace its 1978 predecessor. While the new law has some positive aspects, the most notable change is the privatization of government enforcement and regulation of occupational health and safety in Mexico.
The government has decided to permit privately-owned "verification units" to conduct workplace inspections and, upon "verification of compliance" with regulations, to exempt the inspected companies from further inspections and fines by the government's Secretaria del Trabajo y Prevision Social (STPS - Department of Labor and Social Welfare). The Mexican government has apparently given up on improving the professionalism and technical capacity of STPS inspectors, who have a widespread reputation for ineffectiveness and corruption. Numerous private companies, including US-owned insurance companies and consulting firms, have submitted applications to be certified by the STPS as official "verification units."
North of the border, both Republican "OSHA reformers" and Clintonian "government re-inventors" have proposed allowing "independent, third-party certification" by private consultants which would also lead, with a positive "certification," to exemption from OSHA inspections and other benefits for the inspected employers. This privatization plan has not yet been enacted (unlike Mexico), but is under serious consideration in Washington and has garnered the support of several professional associations whose membership is heavily drawn from private consulting firms.
Consultants hired and paid by corporations to conduct "certification inspections" are anything but "independent third parties;" in fact, these firms are entirely dependent on corporate clients for their current and future livelihoods. Any consulting firm which gains a reputation for being a "stickler" for accurately assessing corporate compliance (which might lead to loss of certification and denial of exemptions to its clients) risks seeing its client base shrink into oblivion. In order to maintain their clients, "independent" consultants will be under tremendous pressure to minimize, overlook or simply ignore workplace hazards.
In addition to the real danger of "certifying" unsafe conditions and work practices as "in compliance," the obvious conflict-of-interest inherent in the proposed third-party certifications threatens to taint and sully the reputations and ethical standing of the inspecting professionals. "Third party IH consultant" may well end up with "company doctor" as titles of professionals who place the welfare of their corporate clients above that of the workers and patients their professions were designed to protect.
The Mexican law is already approved and in the implementation process. The law merits close examination to see whether it does more for workers' health and safety in Mexico than simply line the pockets of politically-connected companies who will win government approval as "verification units." The changes in the U.S. are under discussion and everyone concerned with occupational health in North America should be part of the discussions occurring in Washington and inside many professional organizations.
In any case, these developments reaffirm the importance of efforts like those of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network to provide information and assistance to those to whom workers' health and safety is of primary importance: the workers themselves. Although the Network's efforts are very modest in scale at present, the importance of volunteers' donation of expertise, technical assistance, training instruction and other forms of support, should not be underestimated. All the more so in the context of for-profit privatization of government regulatory enforcement throughout North America.
With this in mind, please remember that there are many roles for Network volunteers who don't happen to live on the U.S.-Mexico border, or who don't speak Spanish. So if you have an idea or suggestion for the Network, or for how your skills might best be utilized, please do not hesitate to contact Garrett Brown at email@example.com or 510-558-1014. There's plenty of work to do and the door is wide open for new ideas, energy and projects.
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