The disaster in Mexico last month that took the lives of 65 miners should renew a push for global labor standards. While hope for survivors has long vanished, the search for answers has just begun.
Mexican government officials and representatives of the Unidad Pasta de los Conchos mine in the town of San Juan de Sabinas have insisted that the country's mining regulations met international standards. They said that the mine had passed inspection earlier in February with only minor infractions, and all of those had been addressed.
But these statements may be no more than lip service.
With little government oversight, mine inspectors are susceptible to corruption. And at a time when the price for coal is skyrocketing, the pressure to boost profits for the company could have been great.
Last year, coal production in Mexico increased nearly 20 percent. The base pay for miners, however, is as little as $50 a week. Any extra income they make is determined by how much coal they mine.
The Unidad Pasta de los Conchos mine is located 80 miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas, in a border region that has become fertile ground for the shadowy economies of the free-trade market.
While worker exploitation and shoddy safety conditions have always been dangerous to the health of miners, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has increasingly threatened labor standards.
Although it has produced benefits like lower-cost commodities for participating countries, NAFTA and other globalization policies have diminished the ability of workers to protect themselves. Such policies encourage countries to compete with each other by lowering labor protections as a way to attract investment.
For example, coal mine accidents in China, which has the world's deadliest mining industry, kill more than 5,000 miners each year because of poor safety conditions.
Labor unions in the United States have urged the adoption of international standards so that these dangerous situations can be avoided. But the difficulty of organizing across borders and the natural conflicts between workers in competing countries have made such efforts difficult.
As globalization policies continue to spread unabated, governments and private industry need to join with labor unions to standardize labor practices so that disasters like the Unidad Pasta de los Conchos mine can be averted.
Failure to do so will only result in more tragedies like this one. The lives of miners are not incidental costs on corporate balance sheets. They are precious, and we need to protect them.
Ed Morales is a contributor to The New York Times and Newsday, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.