Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Three

The attitude of much of the left in Toronto (and I suspect elsewhere in Canada and the world) is that working for an employer is not all that bad. Why else would the left not object to references to “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “economic justice,” and so forth by union reps, or the coupling of some needed labour-law reforms and an increase in the minimum wage in Ontario with the concept of “fairness”? (All these terms are used by the social-democratic left in Toronto.) This attitude of treating working for an employer as really not that bad is something they share with their bourgeois counterparts.

Personal crime is considered to be real crime–but corporate crime is not really treated as something as bad or worse than personal crime. This can be seen when comparing the attitude of Canadian federal legislation towards personal crime and the attitude of that government and other participants when formulating legislation that was supposed to protect workers from acts deemed criminal in nature by corporations following the Westray mine explosion. The first quotation relates to the government’s attitude towards personal crime. From Steven Bittle, Still Dying for a Living:
Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster,
doctoral dissertation, page 2:

Consistent with the cultural obsession over crime control, in the fall of 2003, the
Canadian government introduced stringent new anti-violence legislation aimed at some of Canada’s worst offenders – those with a well documented track record of reckless behaviour and responsibility for multiple and egregious acts of violence. The legislation had all-party support (Archibald, Jull and Roach 2004: 367), signalling a consensus for the need to better protect Canadians from violent crime. The government characterized its legislative initiative as a significant step towards ensuring that offenders are held criminally responsible for their harmful
behaviour (Department of Justice Canada 2003). Legal observers suggested that it represented a fundamental change, perhaps even a revolution, in assigning criminal liability (Archibald, Jull and Roach 2004: 368). News items cautioned would-be criminals that they were in for a wake-up call once the new law took effect (Mann 2004: 29). It thus appeared that if violent crime was the problem, then harsh new penalties were the solution.

The proposed legislation for corporate crime expressed a different attitude in various ways, such as the time elapsed between the Westray mine explosion (May 9, 1992) and the proposal for legislation for corporate crime, or the attitude of participants in the legislative process concerning the seriousness of the crime. From Little, page 2:

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). Also curious was that both the media and general public expressed little interest in the new law, hardly the status quo for issues of violent crime. Moreover, since its enactment, there have been only two charges laid; a particularly worrisome trend given that recent research reveals an increase in the forms of violence that the legislation was intended to address (Sharpe and Hardt 2006). In fact, it would
appear that the most significant development associated with the new legislation is the emergence of a crime (un)control industry, one in which lawyers offer for-fee courses that potential offenders can take to learn about the new law and the steps they must follow to avoid criminal responsibility (for example, see Gonzalez 2005; Guthrie 2004).

The focus on violent personal crime that leads to injury or death and the absence of such focus on corporate crime that leads to injury or death is tantamount to a form of silent indoctrination. Such silent indoctrination parallels the silent indoctrination of school history curricula, which do not permit students to come to understand how and why employers (and employees) arose (see previous posts on this silent indoctrination in schools).

This focus on violent personal crime, of course, forms the regular diet of many television programs. Similarly, the silence concerning violent corporate crimes (if indeed they are considered crimes at all) also forms the regular diet of most television programs and documentaries.

Should there not be constant discussion concerning this silent indoctrination within the labour movement? Is there? If not, why not? Or is the macro problem of around one thousand workers dying every year at work and hundreds of thousands of injuries (and diseases) not a problem that is to be immediately addressed but only “in the long run?” For those who die or who are injured, there is no “long run” since the problem which they face is immediate and due to ignoring the macro problem in the past.

Where is the left that is bringing out these issues? Or is the left busy formulating platitudes, such as “decent work,” “fairness,” “economic justice,” and so forth? ]

Does not the left have an attitude that working for an employer is really not all that bad? Do they not share the same attitude as the politicians, who did not want to go too far in the legislation? Or those on the left who talk of “decent work,” “fairness,” “economic justice,” and so forth while all the while assuming that decent work, fairness and economic justice can somehow be realized while the class power of employers still exists.

What do you think?

Getting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law

Steven Bittle, in his doctoral dissertation, Still Dying for a Living: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster (Kingston, Ontario: Queen’s University argues the following (from page ii):

Overall, the dissertation suggests that the assumptions that animated Canada’s corporate criminal liability legislation and the meanings inscribed in its provisions throw serious doubt on its ability to hold corporations legally accountable for their harmful, anti-social acts. There is little reason to believe that the Westray bill will produce a crackdown on safety crimes, or seriously challenge corporations to address workplace injuries and death. While it will hold some corporations and corporate actors accountable – and thus far it has been the smallest and weakest – the primary causes of workplace injury and death (e.g., the tension between profit maximization and the costs of safety and the relative worth of workers/employees versus owners and investors) will continue.

The typical presentation of what is dangerous in our society is–crime. You merely have to look at the different tv shows (or Netflix shows) that have as their theme murder (one person or serial) compared to the number of shows that show how serious corporate actions lead to death and injury.

However, this focus on individual crime and violence goes hand in hand with a lack of focus on social crime and social violence–the violence of a class of employers and the violence of the social structure that supports that class.

This lack of focus on the violence of the class of employers and the violence of the social structure is reflected in the social democratic left’s general attitude towards “accidents” at work. Undoubtedly, at particular work sites, and with particular union representatives, there is a sustained effort to reduce the possibility of injury and death. However, such efforts are inadequate because they do not address the systemic impact of the pursuit of profit on shifting the burden of danger towards workers (and, it should be said, consumers).

If the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular took seriously the violence perpetrated by the class of employers and the violence of the social structure that supports that class, would they not begin a movement for the abolition of the class of employers and the social structure that supports that class? Is there any such movement in Canada? Perhaps there is, but I am unaware of such a movement.

In a previous post, it was pointed out that about double the number of workers die each year on the job when compared to the number of murders in Canada (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of Employers) . Should this fact not be a constant topic of discussion for workers, for citizens, for permanent residents and for non-status immigrants?

What do you think of the health and safety of workers who work for an employer? Should it be a topic for constant discussion?

 

 

 

 

 

The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of Employers

I submitted an article for the popular education journal Our Schools/Our Selves concerning the issue of safety (and the lack of critical thinking skills that is embodied in two Ontario curricula on Equity and Social Justice). In that article, I quote:

More than 1000 employees die every year in Canada on the job, and about 630,000 are injured every year (Bob Barnetson, 2010, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, p. 2). The same year as the publication of that work saw 554 homicides (Tina Mahonny, 2011, Homicide in Canada, 2010. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, p. 1) —the number of employee deaths at work under the power of employers was around double the number of murders.

Murders are the focus of the social media and the criminal legal system. Inquiries into murders do occur, and some are very thorough. On the other hand, inquiries into the extent to which the pursuit of profit played a major role in the death of employees (or the extent to which the undemocratic nature of work of public-sector employers) are lacking. There is an implicit assumption that such deaths are acceptable and the cost of living in the modern world. Should not those concerned with social justice query such an assumption? Is there much discussion concerning the facts? Or is there silence over such facts? Should those concerned with social justice inquire into the ‘perspectives and values’ of curriculum designers? Should they attempt to “detect bias” in such documents?

Should not the issue of the relation between the pursuit of profit and needless deaths be a focus for public discussion on an ongoing basis if social justice is to be addressed? Where is the public discussion over the issue? Indeed, if critical thinking is to lead to “issues of power and justice in society,” you would expect to see inquiry into the power of employers and the relation of that power to the death, dismemberment and injury of workers. Is there any reference to such an issue in the two curricula documents?

Are not workers in our society bought and sold on a market called the labour market? As long as they are, they are “costs” to employers, and as costs employers tend to try to reduce such costs in order to obtain more profit (in the private sector). One of the ways in which they can reduce costs is by not spending much money on equipment and training that relates to safety. The temptation will always be there as long as employers exist and have control over workers. See (The Money Circuit of Capital) for an explanation.

What of public-sector workers? When I worked as a library technician for School District 57 in Prince George, B.C., we had a clause in the contract that indicated that we could do alternative work for 10 minutes per hour if we worked on a computer. I did this, but no one else did. Why not? It undoubtedly bothered my immediate supervisor (I performed work for those 10 minutes that clerks could do. I was being “inefficient” from an employer’s representative’s point of view). My hypothesis is that it was due to fear of reprisal. (I was also the union steward.)

This hypothesis receives some support from a study from a skills and employment survey in Britain (Fear at Work in Britain. Gallie, Feldstead, Green, & Inanc, 2013) found that workers’ feared job loss, unfair treatment and loss of job status; available historical statistics for the first two categories show that such fears have increased. In addition, when I took a health and safety course at the University of Manitoba in the early 1990s, the instructors (both government employees and trained in the science of occupational health and safety and inspectors themselves) implied that workers often would not complain because of the economic climate of high unemployment.

Should we not be discussing the issue of how a market for workers impacts on the health, safety and welfare of workers?

Should we not discuss such issues? Should not the class issue form a central element in any such discussion? Or is the class issue just a minor issue, one element among the many “identities” that we have?

The unions are not really addressing the class issue. Their reference to “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fairness”–without any justification whatsoever for the use of such terms, indicates that they wish to paper over and hide the real experiences of workers at work on a daily basis–an experience of economic dictatorship and economic coercion. How problems can be solved by hiding from them is beyond me. I guess the wise union representatives are far superior to us lowly workers.