On 27 May, the Washington Post published an article about deaths among migrant workers building stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. It wasn’t, by a very long way, the first piece on the subject. Human Rights Watch published a report about it last year, and The Guardian has consistently reported about migrant worker deaths over the past few years. On a more specialised level, the radical French collective 1W1P – 1Week1Project – has had widespread coverage in the architectural press of its concept for a skyscraper memorial in the desert, created from large concrete blocks – one for each dead worker. This would be created from large concrete blocks – one for each dead worker – and would theoretically reach a height of 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) if the death rate is not reduced.
Qatar issues rebuttal
So nothing new here, please move along? Well no. This time, the Qatari government was roused to respond and on 2 June, the Government Communication Office issued a long and detailed rebuttal of the Washington Post story. This claimed that the figures were distorted, that they covered all migrant-worker deaths – including those from natural causes such as heart attacks – and that in fact no migrant workers had died building the eight World Cup stadiums.
So why has Qatar responded so fiercely and passionately this time? Well, to be sure, Fifa has been front page news for the past couple of weeks. The Washington Post article appeared on the same day – 27 May – that the Swiss authorities raided Fifa headquarters, and the US Justice Department issued an indictment against 14 Fifa staff and suppliers, accusing them of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. But that doesn’t explain Qatar’s response: the country is an absolute monarchy, and doesn’t really need anyone’s approval of what it does.
Hundreds of deaths can’t be an “unmissable footnote” any longer
One reason could be that the story went viral in a matter of a few hours after publication. As Marina Hyde, one of The Guardian’s columnists, observed, social media “does not permit…the deaths of hundreds upon hundreds of nameless migrants building Qatar infrastructure to be a missable footnote, as once they would have been.” Perhaps more important is the fact that, according to online new-media magazine NMR many of these Facebook posts, Tweets, Google Plus shares and the rest were accompanied by logos of Fifa sponsors, doctored to refer directly to the migrant-worker story. In other words, could it be that the Washington Post article – later corrected in a tacit acceptance that it was somewhat inaccurate – was not the issue for the Qatari authorities and Fifa? Could the likes of McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Sony and Budweiser have had the quiet word and pointed out that they did not want their brand to be sullied by association with Qatar’s occupational health and safety (OHS) failings?
Not in my backyard
We will probably never know, at least in the foreseeable future. But it makes sense. After all, these organisations have been steeped in the European and North American traditions of correct health and safety procedures. And while they may, sometimes, turn a blind eye to what is going on elsewhere, if the issue is brought to their doorstep, they are duty bound to do something about it.
Social Media – a force for good?
This raises an interesting issue, which has been quietly developing over the past few years, of the growing influence of digital media in shaping corporate attitudes towards workplace safety. We have grown used, in the developed world, to certain standards of OHS practice. You rarely see someone on a building site without protective clothing, and most workplaces have written health and safety procedures.
The system is not perfect and not every business treats OHS with the respect that it deserves. But it’s probably fair to say that if we come across failures of correct practice, we want something done about it. And if we find out that these failures cause death or serious injury, the likelihood is that some of us will go public with our opinions – often using social media as the tool to do so.
There are two key points about social media in this context. One is that it is public – it’s out there in the big wide world. The second is that it is, like it says on the tin, social: it’s a conversation, an opinion, a point of view that can be shared, almost instantly, and globally.
The power of the ‘big’ brand in OHS
Brands – like those Fifa sponsors – recognise the power of social media and most use it as a core element in their online marketing. But it’s a two-edged sword: consumers talk back, and if something upsets them, they will talk back with a loud voice – and the brand has to react. So when someone Tweets about [brand ‘x’ or ‘y’] not following correct OHS standards, you can bet your life that the company will react quickly and properly.
But what if it is a supplier who is failing to maintain the correct standards? Call us cynical if you like, but you can probably wager that, ten years ago, many companies would have reacted with a shake of the head and a resigned shrug of the shoulders. But that won’t happen now, if it starts trending on social media – because the brands will be inextricably linked with the offending suppliers.
A global storm of protest
We’ve already seen this happening to some extent in the case of the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh which, in November 2012, killed 177 clothing workers. They were making apparel for major retailers in the EU and the USA, and a global storm of protest erupted when the dangerous conditions at the factory became public knowledge, leading to the arrest of the owner in December 2013.
It was the first time that a factory owner had been charged with causing the death of workers in Bangladesh, and it was claimed that this came about as the result of international pressure from consumers using social media. It should be mentioned, however, that several of the brands whose clothes were made at Tazreen Fashion refused to contribute to a compensation fund, although Dutch retail giant C&A made a major contribution.
The deadliest garment-factory accident in history
In April 2013, less than six months after the Tazreen fire, an eight-storey building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, Rana Plaza, collapsed. It housed multiple clothing manufacturing companies, and over 1,100 workers were killed, and more than 2,000 were injured. The building had been evacuated just days earlier when a large crack was spotted on one of the outer walls, but nothing was done about it at the time and the garment workers were told to go back to work.
After the accident the owner of the building was arrested: the four upper floors of the building (where the clothing manufacturers were located) had been added illegally, and the building did not have adequate safety permits. Owners of four of the clothing factories were also arrested for ignoring warnings from building engineers, and making their employees work in unsafe conditions.
A time to remember
As with the Tazreen fire, the Rana Plaza disaster led to international protests from advocacy groups and consumers, who took to social media to vent their anger. On the back of this, Fashion Revolution Day was initiated. Held on 24 April each year – the day of the Rana Plaza collapse – it is a global event, taking place in almost 80 countries worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of people participating, all demanding to know “who makes my clothes”. The Rana Plaza factories made clothes for several major European and American clothing brands, some of whom have been targeted by demonstrators on Fashion Revolution Day, which uses and promotes social media as a campaigning tool.
In addition, a number of pressure groups have been established. Among the more active are the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Changing the World, both of which campaign for improved working conditions and ethical standards in the garment manufacturing industry, particularly in the developing world.
Collaborative campaigning is not a new phenomenon
These are small steps, to be sure, but they are reflective of a wider trend. It’s worth recalling that the original health and safety at work legislation, dating all the way back to the 1833 Factories Act, came about through collaborative action. Groups of like-minded philanthropists and social reformers toiled long and hard alongside workers’ groups to campaign for improved working conditions, first in factories, then in mines, quarries, farms and so on. This led eventually to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which was itself the result of several years of group campaigning.
Online and social media campaigns of the type we’ve identified here are also a form of collaborative action. The differences, and they should not be underestimated, are that social media is a global phenomenon, and that its effects can be seen much more quickly. Whereas 19th and 20th century campaigners wrote pamphlets, raised petitions and held meetings to raise awareness, a social-media campaign can reach millions of people worldwide in a matter of days. And, just as in the early days of OHS campaigning, the more people become aware of the issues, the more attitudes will change – away from blind acceptance of the problems towards positive action to deal with them.
Embrace the power of social
So it seems highly likely that online activity will lead to a worldwide shift in attitudes towards OHS attitudes, particularly in the developing world, and not before time. But there’s also a very good argument for businesses embracing the trend and using it. Social media is increasingly important for business promotion at every level, so why not use it positively to promote a successful OHS policy? Corporate social responsibility should not be a jargon phrase: it can be an affirmative strategy which can have real business benefits.
Why not, then, Tweet when people on your OHS team are awarded a NEBOSH Certificate or when someone in your HR or facilities management department gains an IOSH qualification? Or, taking it further, why not blog about how your preferred supplier programme requires a commitment to having fully trained OHS professionals on staff. It says a lot about you to your customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders, and – perhaps more importantly – it shows that you are not just paying ‘lip service’ to this key area of business practice.
At the very least, it will give you plenty of ammunition in the unlikely event that you become the target of a social media campaign!
For more information on how a clear and defined Occupational Health and Safety strategy can help the bottom line of your business, please get in touch.