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Sustaining Outrage and Organizing Efforts as Workers Continue to Fall Victim to Chemical Exposures

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On Sunday January 24, Carl "Danny" Fish, who worked at the DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia died after being exposed to phosgene - a chemical so acutely poisonous it was used as a weapon during World War I but is now used to make pesticides, plastics, and other chemical products - on the job the day before. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and OSHA are now investigating the incident. The plant has a history of safety violations.

"He was just walking by doing an inspection in the area," when a pipe carrying the toxic gas ruptured spraying Fish - a 32-year plant veteran - in the face, the Belle plant manager told the Charleston Gazette.

As this tragedy was unfolding on Saturday, I was speaking to Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of occupational accident and injury victims.

Founded in 1976, AMRC has been working, Sanjiv told me, toward creating a democratic labor movement in Asia. Their work spans the entire Asian region and supports workers in industries that include garment and electronics manufacturing, mining, construction, stone and gem cutting. Their work extends to informal labor - home workshops and day labor - and also supports affected communities.

Primary concerns have been occupational respiratory diseases - asbestosis and silicosis, from which workers continue to suffer and die - and toxic chemical exposures, particularly in the electronics industry. Sanjiv and his colleague Omana George are visiting the U.S. to raise awareness about the challenges faced by workers in Asia trying to secure health benefits and compensation for occupational injury and illness. Their first stop is California's Silicon Valley.

"Workers in Asia are now doing what U.S. workers in Silicon Valley did fifteen or twenty years ago," says Sanjiv. "Workers in Asia have a lot to learn form U.S. workers and we think it's very important to share resources and our struggles.

Among these struggles is that of electronics industry workers suffering from cancer. As has been documented in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere over the past 20-40 years, disturbing numbers of electronics workers have been diagnosed with cancer. It's known that numerous chemicals used in the industry can cause cancer and other serious health problems. But in Asia - as it has been elsewhere - it's very difficult to conduct epidemiological studies or definitively link occupational chemical exposure and one person's disease. Yet the rates of cancers in the industry have been remarkably high. Pursuing compensation for these cases - even publishing study results - has been controversial in the U.S. Doing so in Asia is even more difficult.

"There is not much awareness of toxics in electronics in Asia. It's still seen there as a 'green' industry. Many workers think it's all clean and safe and air conditioned, and since you don't see smoke coming out of chimneys, they don't know how chemically intensive the industry is," Sanjiv tells me.

"But victims are starting to come forward," he says, from countries that include Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. Workers from chip fabs, hard disk plants, and from electronics recycling. Among the stories emerging are stories like the one documented by this film - not previously aired in U.S. - about workers at Samsung in South Korea, made on behalf of SHARPS (a group of Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry).

Until we have manufacturing processes that eschew toxic chemicals, how do workers in places with less well developed labor laws cope with such problems if U.S. workers are still struggling with these hazards, I asked Sanjiv. "It's hard," he said, "and the extended supply chain makes it even more complex." But, he said, "We'd like to see these efforts happen through grassroots or even government campaigns rather than through privatized systems" that would add financial and other access barriers.

"We need toxics-free workplaces. We need to have occupational safety and health rights. And if workers are harmed, we need to make sure they are properly compensated. So we need to organize," says Sanjiv.

Latest developments in the Belle DuPont plant case are being followed by Ken Ward Jr., of the Charleston Gazette and in the paper's "Sustained Outrage" blog. Sanjiv Pandita speaks at 5 pm on 1.27 at the South Bay Central Labor Council in San Jose, California.

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