By Ed Mattos, International Labor Rights Forum
Having worked in the construction industry for nearly 40 years, I’ve noticed many changes. From the current emphasis on safety to newer work processes and materials, today’s construction sites are very different than the one onto which I walked in 1971. Gone is the summertime practice of working in cut-off shorts, hard hat, work shoes and nothing else other than the tool belt. These have been replaced by long pants, shirts with minimum 4-inch sleeves, high visibility vests, safety glasses, ear plugs and tools suspended on a safety harness with twin lanyards and, often, a climbing hook. Today’s North American construction worker carries a lot of weight – and that’s before picking up any material!
Why the “North American” qualifier? Labor standards in other countries are not as stringent. Hard hats are much less ubiquitous, shoes are often optional as are gloves and other personal protective equipment. Ironically, many countries in the Global South produce an abundance of shoes, gloves and vests – largely for export to North America. The Global South also produces building materials and tools which are exported to the US and Canada. All of these products are manufactured under conditions of labor that are questionable at best.
According to the US International Trade Commission (USITC), China is the leading exporter of construction-related material to the United States. China’s record on human rights is widely known to be unacceptable, yet every day US construction workers use Chinese-made fasteners to install Chinese-made plumbing and electrical fixtures and other products. They use Chinese-made rigging equipment to raise machinery made in Thailand or Mexico, other countries with lax labor standards relative to North America. Many of these products are made under the auspices of US manufacturers who have made direct investments in the economies of the Global South.
One of these companies is the Apex Tool Group, who’s Crescent, Wiss, and Lufkin brands are well known to construction workers. Headquartered in Sparks, MD, Apex was formed as a joint venture of Danaher Tool Group and Cooper Industries. The joint venture was dissolved and Apex emerged as a privately held company in July of 2010. The company maintains a distribution center in Apex, NC which receives much of the imported merchandise coming from all over the world. According to importgenius.com, a shipment of wrenches came from Danaher Tools (Shandong) Co., Ltd. to the Apex facility in Hanover MD on May 29 of this year. Made in Shandong, China, the shipment traveled 11,550 miles from the Chinese port of Tsingtao to Norfolk, VA and then over land to Hanover. The cross-border production has supplanted the company’s US production. For example, Lufkin measuring tools were manufactured by unionized workers in Saginaw, MI from 1892 until 1967 when the company merged with Cooper Industries.
Another country from which Apex imports tools is Colombia. A report issued in June by the US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) shows that since 1986, more than 2,800 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia, most by paramilitary groups. That is an average of 132 per year, 11 every 4 days. Such statistics would not be tolerated in the US and are among the reasons that the Colombian Free Trade Agreement with the United States has not been approved. A broad coalition of labor unions and NGOs continue to oppose this agreement exactly because they are concerned the agreement does not go far enough to ensure labor rights in Colombia. For more information about how to join this coalition go to the website of the Latin America Working Group.
It’s important for US construction workers to stand in solidarity with Colombian and Chinese workers, just as Egyptian and Tunisian labor leaders expressed their solidarity with the struggle for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin last April. Not only can this solidarity help improve labor justice abroad, it can also help US workers become aware of how integrated their industry is in the global economy.