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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

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Safeguard Magazine

True confessions—Cultural differences

MAI CHEN reflects on differing expectations about health and safety across cultures, and how we need to accommodate diversity in all its forms.

My family was visiting Hanoi in Vietnam for the first time. We were wandering around at 10pm at night because we were newly in the city and taking in the sights. We walked past a construction site where barefoot workers were clambering up swaying bamboo scaffolding, working on a multi-storey building that disappeared into the darkness of the night.

There were tepid lights on the ground to assist the workers see what they were doing. They had no safety harnesses. They had no helmets. They had no other protective gear. Simply their bare feet gripping onto the swaying bamboo scaffolding – which looked very precarious – and the tools in their hands to build with.

I was struck by how different the health and safety culture in Vietnam was compared with New Zealand and I feared for the safety of those workers trying to earn a living at 10pm on a Saturday night halfway up a construction site! This working situation would have been illegal in New Zealand, but no one remarked on it and it was obviously a common occurrence.

I also remember going to the Beijing Women’s Conference as the senior adviser to the then prime minister, the Rt Hon Jenny Shipley. We were walking to try and find dinner about 7pm and it was dark. There were no street lights and all of a sudden somebody in our group screamed “Stop!” Just as well we did. There was a hole right in the middle of the pavement which was very deep and dark with wires protruding out of it; we couldn’t even see the bottom of it. There were no fences around it, no signposts, and no lights. We could easily have fallen down that hole.

I got a very real fright and it occurred to me that it was hard enough for able-bodied people with two legs to get themselves safely around the Beijing streets. I wondered how you could go anywhere safely in a wheelchair or how hard it would be if you had some other physical disability.

These incidents have led me to contemplate the impact of national culture on the health and safety of workers, and the increased vulnerability of diverse workers to injury and illness in the workplace. These memories of Vietnam and China stick in my mind as guiding lights when I think about the differences between the standards for keeping workers safe in New Zealand versus other countries.

As New Zealand increases in superdiversity, many of our workers may have been born in countries with health and safety cultures comparable to those I encountered. We need to make sure that their cultural and linguistic differences do not make them more vulnerable to injuries and that they receive the full protection of New Zealand’s laws, practices and culture.

There is no room to be complacent given the many migrant exploitation media stories and research studies.

Mai Chen is managing partner at Chen Palmer, an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland’s School of Law, and a director of the BNZ.

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