In some previous posts, the title was “Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health.” I have changed the title since this post is not just directly about working for an employer.
As has been implied in the previous post on this topic, the shift to legislative measures to address health and safety concerns removed workers’ definition of problems of health and safety in relation to social causes and transformed the definition into a technical issue over health and safety.
This shift in turn involved a shift from concerns for legislation to concerns for administrative measures. This shift to administrative measures protects employers better by limiting democratic pressure by means of legislative processes. Of course, such legislative processes should not be idealized. They, too, are subject to pressures of various kinds, such as economic pressures, political (power) pressures and ideological pressures.
Legislative and Administrative Processes as Inadequate to Protect Workers
As a result, legislative measures to protect workers from dangers at work often end up being watered down–as I pointed out in another post:
However, peeling back the veneer of the federal government’s so-called crackdown on violent crime reveals a much different story. To start, it took more than ten years to introduce a new law in response to a single and violent mass killing in which twenty-six Canadians died. What is more, despite widespread political support, many politicians – particularly those with an affinity for law-and-order policies – cautioned against going too far in terms of holding offenders criminally responsible for their harmful acts (Bittle and Snider 2006).
The implicit attitude of many legislators and administrators–that deaths at work are simply unintended and inevitable facts of the world that cannot be changed–points to the inadequacy of legislative and administrative measures for protecting life and limb of workers. From Steven Bittle, doctoral dissertation, Still Dying for a Living: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster, pages 88-89:
… we argued that conservative conceptualizations of corporate crime dominated the process leading to the enactment of the Westray bill, thereby limiting the reform options that were given serious consideration. Three main arguments supported the analysis. First, legislators emphasized the importance of traditional legal language–particularly the doctrine of mens rea, or the legal need to establish the guilty mind of an individual – which downplayed alternative approaches to combating corporate criminal liability (also see Wells 1993: 1). Second, neo-liberal discourses helped ensure that the legislative framework conceptualized workplace safety as a shared responsibility amongst workers, managers and employers, despite the fact that few employees, namely those who carry out day-to-day production processes, have control over their working conditions (even though they bear the costs of unsafe working environments). Third, dominant conceptualizations of corporate capitalism, the idea that corporations are vital for the effective functioning of the Canadian economy, helped protect against the enactment of overly stringent legislation. Overall, given the convergence of various conservative discourses that dominated the reform process, we questioned the ability of the Westray bill to hold corporations to account for their harmful actions.
Why is it that the social-democratic left and unions do not discuss openly and thoroughly the issue of the systemic inadequacy of legislative and administrative efforts to protect workers? There is a definite need to enter into debate over such an issue, but there is an equally definite lack of discussion of such an issue. The current pandemic should have been an occasion to reassess the whole issue of the health and safety of workers–and indeed of the general population–in the context of a society dominated by a class of workers.
There has not been much real discussion about the need to overcome the power of the class of employers if we are to address adequately the health and safety of workers and the general population.
Indeed, the Trump’s administration’s efforts to downplay the tragedy of the pandemic has antecedents in the downplaying of the real cost of life, health and limb of workers and the general population in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.
Reported Statistics on Health and Safety Versus the Probable Real Situation of Workers and the General Population
In a previous post, I indicated that official statistics show that around 1,000 workers die at work yearly when compared to around 550 murders years (see The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of Employers). Official statistics are, however, just that, official. They are produced through administrative processes that define what constitutes an “official death.” By contrast, there have been estimates that express a much larger number of deaths in Canada due to work-related incidents. Thus, Steven Bittle, Ashley Chen and Jasmine Hébert report a much higher figure in their article (Fall 2018), ““Work-Related Deaths in Canada,”, pages 159-187, in Labour/Le Travail, Volume 82, page 186:
Relying on a range of data sources, and adopting a broad definition of what constitutes a work-related fatality, we generated a revised estimate of the number of annual work-related fatalities. Based on our analysis, we estimate that the number of annual work-related fatalities in Canada is at least ten to thirteen times higher than the approximately 900 to 1,000 annual average fatalities reported by the AWBC [The Canadian Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada]. This makes work-related fatalities one of the leading causes of death in this country
Undoubtedly the 554 murders reported in Canada are also an underestimate–probably due to racist and sexist attitudes and organizations (the underreporting of, for example, murdered Aboriginal women). However, it is highly unlikely that the number of unreported murders even approaches half the number of estimated work-related deaths.
The authors provide the following table to substantiate their claims (slightly modified to accommodate the formatting of this post), page 169:
|Work-related cause of death||Estimated fatalities||Estimated fatalities|
|Injury fatalities||Occupational-disease fatalities|
|AWCB’s average from 2014–16 (see note a below)||332|
|Commuting/Driving to and from work||466|
|Non-working victims||90 (see note b below)|
|copd (see note c below)||2,062|
|Estimated injury total||972|
|Estimated disease total||8,906–12,275|
|ESTIMATED TOTAL: 9,878–13,246|
Note a: The AWCB’s statistics include only deaths from a traumatic incident or “accident.” We exclude occupational diseases and cancers to avoid duplication with our revised numbers concerning these fatalities.
Note b: This figure is based on TSB (Transportation Safety Board of Canada) information and is thus a conservative estimate. There are a significant number of unknown cases that could also be included in this category.
Note c: copd (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) refers to progressive and incurable lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma.
Given the threat to their health of many workers and citizens, there should be persistent discussions of how legislation (and administration procedures) fail to protect workers–systematically, and not accidentally–in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.
Accidents there will always be–but it is necessary to create a society that minimizes the probability of such accidents. Where is the movement or organization that is consciously aiming to abolish this carnage?
Is there fear among the social-democratic left and union reps to do so? What else would explain such silence over an issue that is of vital concern for workers? Union reps and the social-democratic left may complain about such facts and try to reduce the number of deaths, but unless the root cause of such deaths–the lack of control by workers and citizens over their own lives–is addressed, all complaints and proposed solutions will be measures that may reduce but not eliminate unnecessary deaths.
I have quoted this before, but it is often appropriate when addressing the inadequacies of social-democratic deficiencies. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (page 91):
Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.
The Monster Pandemic
The monster called the COVID-19 pandemic still exists, but there is little direct questioning of the kind of society that permits millions to die–while the stock market rises.
For example, it is implied that there is a crisis in Ontario health care, especially in long-term care homes, due to the Covid pandemic in a post on the Socialist Project’s website on January 8 (see https://socialistproject.ca/2021/01/covid19-crisis-situation-ontario/). The title of the post is “COVID-19 Crisis Situation In Ontario: Deadliest Day of the Pandemic,” produced by the Ontario Health Coalition. It is divided into four sections: a short introduction, a section titled “Hospitals,” another titled “Long-Term Care,” and a final section titled “Stronger Public Health Measures Needed Now.”
The introduction points out that January 7, 2021 constituted the highest number of deaths in Ontario (a province in Canada) since the pandemic became official. It argues that stronger measures are required and greater supports are required for the most vulnerable. In other words, it outlines some of the problems and offers some solutions.
The sections on hospitals and long-term care outline the dire situation of hospitals and long-term care homes–such as hospitals filled to capacity, morgues in some cities full, a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in long-term care homes.
The final section outlines some immediate solutions:
- “stronger safety and infection control measures in open businesses, full public reporting of outbreaks, more effective and coherent shutdowns.”
- “individuals whose employment has been or will be impacted need full support for income and housing, and local businesses need full supports to survive the pandemic.”
- “Our government can do a much better job of providing coordination and supports for these protections.” Including:
- “Stronger, more coherent public health measures, including a fast ramp up of testing, contact tracing and quarantine capacity in public health and labs must be undertaken now so that the province can get the spread of the virus under control.
- There must be fewer contacts among people to reduce community and workplace transmission and stronger public health measures across the board, including shutdowns and stronger safety measures in open businesses, must be undertaken.
- The crisis in staffing capacity in long-term care must be addressed without any further delay.
- The vaccine roll-out needs to be coherent, competent and much faster.
- Community care, which is taking more of the burden of COVID-19 cases as hospitals are full, must be provided with clear directives to ensure staff have proper PPE including N95 masks.”
Given the emergency situation, certainly the identification of such immediate problems and proposed solutions to such problems is warranted. They are necessary and urgent. We need, as the post does, guidelines about what needs to be done immediately to address the inadequate responses by the Doug Ford government to the crisis in health care in the context of the pandemic.
However, this short-term could at least have been linked to both the specification of the longer-term problems that led to the pandemic and to longer-term goals that address the problem of overcoming economic, political and social structures that treat human beings as expendable costs in the production and exchange of commodities or as costs in long-term home care.
Some of the longer-term conditions for the emergence of Covid-19 are outlined by Mike Davis in his work (2020) The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism:
But this time around there was little mystery about the identity of the microbe—SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced almost overnight in January—or the steps necessary to fight it. Since the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 and the recognition that it had jumped from apes to humans, science has been on high alert against the appearance of deadly new diseases with pandemic potential that have crossed over from wild fauna. This new age of plagues, like previous pandemic epochs, is directly the result of economic globalization. … Today, as was the case when I wrote Monster fifteen years ago, multinational capital has been the driver of disease evolution through the burning or logging out of tropical forests, the proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums and concomitantly of “informal employment,” and the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to find profit in mass producing lifeline antivirals, new-generation antibiotics, and universal vaccines.
Forest destruction, whether by multinationals or desperate subsistence farmers, eliminates the barrier between human populations and the reclusive wild viruses endemic to birds, bats, and mammals. Factory farms and giant feedlots act as huge incubators of novel viruses while appalling sanitary conditions in slums produce populations that are both densely packed and immune compromised. The inability of global capitalism to create jobs in the so-called “developing world” means that a billion or more subsistence workers (the “informal proletariat”) lack an employer link to healthcare or the income to purchase treatment from the private sector, leaving them dependent upon collapsing public hospitals systems, if they even exist. Permanent bio-protection against new plagues, accordingly, would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these
“structures of disease emergence” through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake.
Does the Ontario Health Coalition look at not only the immediate threat and its solutions but also the wider social context? The indirect criticism of neoliberal cuts in health care are implied: “The crisis in staffing capacity in long-term care must be addressed without any further delay.” The longer-term problems associated with the kind of society that is dominated by a class of employers is shuffled off into outer space, where it will be addressed who knows when or how.
Surely, the issue of health and safety in a society dominated by a class of employers should be a center-point for discussion and what can be done about it. Short-term problems and appropriate measures to be taken do indeed need to be discussed, but this pandemic is no longer something a few weeks or months old. We are now in 2021. Why are not the longer-term problems associated with an economic, political and social structure that has not only fostered conditions for the emergence of deadly viruses and their spread not discussed? Why are there not deep discussions about possible solutions to this large-scale problem?
The Ontario Health Coalition, in its article, instead of providing such a discussion and a vision of how we can prevent this situation from ever happening again, mainly focuses on immediate problems. These are indeed necessary–but they are hardly sufficient.
One last point. The Ontario Health Coalition is just that, a coalition. The interests of the working class do indeed require entering into coalitions, but first workers need to create their own independent position so that their interests are not absorbed into high-sounding phrases that lead nowhere. For example, this is what we find on the Ontario Health Coalition website in its section on “About Us” ( https://www.ontariohealthcoalition.ca/index.php/about-us/mission-mandate/):
Our primary goal is to protect and improve our public health care system. We work to honour and strengthen the principles of the Canada Health Act. We are led by our shared commitment to core values of equality, democracy, social inclusion and social justice; and by the five principles of the Act: universality; comprehensiveness; portability; accessibility and public administration. We are a non-profit, non-partisan public interest activist coalition and network.
What is meant by “equality, democracy and social justice?” Can such goals ever be achieved in a society dominated by a society characterized by the dominance of a class of employers? How is that possible, given that workers are means to be used by employers and costs to the employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital)? Is it possible where workers are dictated to by management as the representative of employers in various ways (see, for example, Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia and, more generally, Employers as Dictators, Part One)?
We do not need rhetoric. We need an accurate assessment of what threatens us in the world and what we can do about it.
Or do we deserve less than this?