Sunday, October 26, 2008

Q&A with labor activist Garrett Brown: ‘I have never seen a place as bad’

“We have an opportunity to make small but meaningful contributions to change that will make a big difference in other people’s lives.”

— Garrett Brown, coordinator, Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network

The brainchild of APHA Occupational Health and Safety Section members, Brown’s network was founded at the 1993 APHA Annual Meeting in San Francisco and is still paving the way for better working conditions in foreign-owned factories along the U.S./Mexico border. In addition to shining a spotlight on health and safety atrocities in those maquiladoras (or foreign-owned factories), the network also has branched out to Asia and Central America. All of the network’s 400-plus members have full-time jobs, but volunteer their advocacy time.

“Those of us who live in the developed world have some moral obligation to assist workers who are producing the products we consume,” Brown said about those factories churning out televisions, toys, shoes and electronics, sometimes at high costs to its poorly paid workers. “I find it very inspiring to work with workers in the developing world who brave just incredible odds to protect health and others’ rights, and exercise those rights.”

The network’s most recent project sent an eight-member team (a physician, industrial hygienist, pulmonary technician and nurse among them) to Cananea just across the Arizona/Mexico border to assess the health of miners at the city’s large, open copper mine.

“I have never seen a place as bad,” Brown said about the mine’s processing plant, where the ventilation system was dismantled by owners retaliating against worker demands for better maintenance and clean-up of the site. He said piles of rock dust the size of snow drifts posed a major health hazard to workers because of exposure to silica. He expects “a wave of lung cancers” in the area within 10 years.

The “little network,” as Brown called it yesterday during our talk on the steps of a classroom at San Diego City College, where APHA Annual Meeting attendees gathered to learn more about border health and safety issues, struggles for funding and visibility like many grassroots advocacy groups. Learn more, volunteer or donate to the cause here.

— D.C.

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