You’ve probably seen the pictures: children looking for valuable scraps in junkyards full of electronic waste in Africa, chemical sludge from textile factories turning entire rivers red in Asia, workers toiling in crop fields while low-flying airplanes spray pesticides in Latin America. The horrific examples are many.
The globalisation of supply chains, and the fact that the new manufacturing hubs of the world are now located in low-income countries where worker protection and environmental safety laws are nowhere to be found, means that workers are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to their exposure to hazardous chemicals. And the further down the supply chain you go, the more hard-won it gets.
In an UN report from last year on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances, the Human Rights Council referred to workers as “canaries in the coal mine”. In the old days, miners brought caged canaries with them into the tunnels to detect dangerous levels of gas such as carbon monoxide. If the bird died, it meant that the miners should exit the mine immediately.