Make no mistake about it, working in an auto factory can be extremely dangerous.
A new Bloomberg Businessweek story by Peter Waldman focuses on just how dangerous, and even deadly, a job in a car-parts plant is — especially in the US South.
For decades, Southern states welcomed carmakers from Germany, Japan, and South Korea — states such as Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi.
These are all “right to work” states where the auto unions have almost no presence, unlike in the Upper Midwest, where Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles operate.
That means lower wages and no collectively bargained contracts to negotiate.
The upshot has been the establishment of “Detroit South,” with both auto assembly plants and an extensive chain of suppliers creating what’s been labelled a manufacturing comeback in the South.
But according to Waldman the South’s auto-parts plants epitomize “the global economy’s race to the bottom.”
Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.
The accidents Waldman describes are harrowing: a young woman impaled by a welding robot, fatally injured; a worker who falls into vat of acid and miraculously emerged without serious injury; a janitor made to operate a piece of machinery that causes him to lose an arm.
Be advised, if you read the story, and you should, bring a strong stomach.
Waldman zeroes in on the suppliers to the big car companies, but it’s important to note that — as his reporting suggests — that the automakers can’t be let off the hook for reckless labour practices. They aren’t able to assemble vehicles without the supply chain, and so they bear some responsibility for what happens outside their own factories.
The story is an at-times gruesome reminder of how manufacturing jobs put workers at exceptional risk — and how vigilant companies and governments must be to ensure that safety really is as good as it can be.
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