Safety takes workBeing from the United Kingdom, I’ve had a few people ask me about the Oxy scandal and Reckitt Benckiser lately. Other than the obvious response — that it is a horrendous, lamentable affair — I can say only one thing: I highly doubt whether anything like this could have happened back home in Britain.
RB’s predecessor, Reckitt and Colman, had been one of Britain’s most respected and long-lived corporate names. They offered a seemingly endless portfolio of products that could soothe your throat, remove stains from your clothes and clean your toilet. To the best of my knowledge, none of these ever killed anybody when used in the intended way. And yet it looks like Reckitt Benckiser products have done exactly that in Korea. How and why?
Capitalism is itself an amoral thing, in the literal sense of the word. Its practitioners are, theoretically at least, pursuing above-market rates of return and nothing else. In reality of course, many businesspeople are ethical and decent — but there will always be those who don’t mind getting a little blood on their hands as they go about their work.
My country has had plenty of them. Back in 1840, when Isaac Reckitt was busy opening his first milling company, we had far richer entrepreneurs peddling opium in China. Today, we’re the world’s sixth-biggest exporter of arms, eagerly supplying human rights-abusing regimes like Saudi Arabia. Korea has its share of unethical businesspeople, too.
Though one would hope for morally responsible capitalism at all times, it would be naïve to expect it. That’s where government comes in.
In a capitalist society, it still ultimately falls to the state to protect its citizens by deciding on and enforcing limits. Highly profitable activities as diverse as drug-dealing, the use of child labor, unsafe construction, false advertising and indeed the shirking of product safety standards, would soon flourish without the intervention of politicians, regulators, the police and the courts.
Where the physical well-being of U.K. citizens is concerned, the system works rather well. So if you told me that a large building in London or Manchester had simply collapsed, or a product made by one Britain’s biggest companies was killing hundreds of British people — and that that company might have known of the dangers long in advance, and attempted to cover them up — I would struggle to believe you.
Considering how rich and developed it is — yes, rich and developed — the Korean state has a persistently weak record on the protection of its citizens. Thinking of the Oxy case, the Sewol ferry tragedy or the nation’s high rate of industrial accidents and work-related deaths (I was considering quoting OECD statistics here, but doing so has become such a cliché — Korea seems to be statistically exceptional in almost everything, both good and bad!), I highly doubt that enough is being done to protect Korean citizens from the incentive to cut corners.
Here is a story from Reckitt Benckiser’s (and my) home country, which I would like to draw attention to in Korea. Following a 1974 chemical plant explosion in which 27 people died, the U.K. began to institute a strict system commonly known as Health and Safety. Today, business owners complain endlessly about these workplace regulations, and the fines they have to pay when inspectors come around and catch them slipping.
But Health and Safety is an unappreciated, silent savior; no one ever says, “Thanks to Health and Safety, that building didn’t collapse,”
but sometimes, it would be a true statement. Since its introduction, fatal workplace injuries have been reduced by 73 percent. The United Kingdom now has just 0.44 industrial accident deaths per 100,000 people per year compared to Korea’s eight. Endless road safety campaigns, drunk-driving crackdowns and speed-limit reductions in urban areas have saved thousands of lives on the roads. Such improvements are the result of a determined effort to do something for citizens in spite of inertia and sometimes powerful opposition.
Unfortunately in Korea, “regulation” is a politicized term. Old men will call you pro-North Korea if you think that the Sewol disaster was a symptom of a broader disease and that strong medicine is required to cure it. The government itself seems to dislike regulation as a general principle (though naturally, it still wants to regulate what you can read on the internet. If only safety were treated as of equal importance to security).
As a British citizen, it makes me sad to suspect that Reckitt Benckiser has committed disgraceful acts in Korea that they wouldn’t have been able to contemplate doing in the U.K. The company has trashed its name with supreme and deadly bad faith. But it is ultimately up to the state to use effective regulation, inspection and enforcement to minimize the likelihood of such public safety crises from occurring.
Safety ought to be one of the core items on a state’s scorecard.
*The author is co-founder and chief curator of Radish Fiction and author of “Korea: The Impossible Country” and “North Korea Confidential.” Twitter: @danielrtudor