Injury and death from construction accidents are so common in Manila that many building sites there are described as "war zones." Similar situations exist in many other developing countries. Worldwide, construction accidents claim an estimated 55,000 lives annually. Most happen in the developing world—and most are preventable.

DAY LABORERS. In developing countries, construction work is not only unnecessarily dangerous, it is badly paid and insecure. The majority of the workers are recruited through intermediaries, or labor agents, on a short-term (often daily) basis and dismissed when no longer required. They receive no holiday pay, sick leave, health care, pensions or other benefits. They work long hours, yet at the end of a 12-hour day they receive so little in wages that they barely can afford to buy food for themselves, let alone support their families.

These appalling conditions owe their persistence, at least in part, to the fact that construction workers are frequently prevented from exercising their fundamental rights, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. Many employers and their agents actively discourage unionization; workers who participate in union action are often victimized. As a result, union "density" is less than 1% in some countries. Discrimination in wages and conditions of work between different groups is also rife. Women suffer a double form of discrimination in places where they make up as much as one-third of the construction work force, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They may perform only tasks classified as unskilled, yet they receive lower wages than men doing similar work.

Such practices contravene the principles of the International Labor Organization—the United Nations agency with global responsibility for work, employment and labor issues. The ILO's mission is to promote opportunities for men and women everywhere to obtain decent, productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity. The ILO's 1998 "Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work" is accepted internationally, and binding on all member states.

RIGHTS. Two months ago in Geneva, the ILO convened a meeting of representatives of governments, workers and employers (ENR 12/17/01 p. 15). They agreed that workers in construction, as well as in other economic sectors, should be entitled to the rights enshrined in the ILO declaration, and that these rights should be respected all along the employment chain, with temporary workers having the same protections as permanent workers.

In bringing this about, the architecture, engineering and construction community has an important role to play. International contractors—predominantly firms from the rich, developed world—implement a high proportion (by value) of construction projects in developing countries. In such countries especially, construction firms should commit themselves to socially responsible business practices that protect and promote workers' rights. Indeed, a number of international companies have made such a commitment already. Germany's Hochtief, ranked as the world's largest international contractor, has signed an agreement with the International Federation of Building and Woodworkers, a trade union representing 11 million-plus construction workers in 124 countries.

Hochtief Senior Vice President Albrecht Ehlers sees social responsibility as a precondition for long-term survival in the international market. The IFBWW agreement commits Hochtief to promote fair pay and decent working conditions. Hochtief also requires compliance by all its subcontractors and joint venture partners. A similar IFBWW agreement has been signed by Sweden's Skanska AB, which ENR ranks second on its most recent list of the top 125 international contractors.

Other firms are likely to follow. But social responsibility requires a level playing field. Respect for international labor standards must become universal, as called for by the Confederation of International Contractors Associations. The World Bank, which funds much of the construction in developing countries and generally sets the rules for international bidding, must promote socially responsible business practices. Fortunately, the bank is revising its procurement procedures. Where it leads, others will follow. Responsible employers in the construction industry should not miss this opportunity to ensure minimum social standards in publicly funded projects in developing countries.

Jill Wells is the International Labor Organization's
Construction specialist in Geneva. She may be
e-mailed at

Until an accident two months ago, 21-year-old Renato Soriano worked on building sites in Manila. He fell from just a few meters, but hit some cement blocks as he landed. In the hospital, he lost an arm and a foot to amputations. Although an invalid now and unable to work, he will not receive a single peso in compensation.