Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health

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 deathEstimated fatalitiesEstimated fatalities
Injury fatalitiesOccupational-disease fatalities
AWCB’s average from 2014–16 (see note a below)332
Commuting/Driving to and from work466
Agricultural64
Non-reporting/reporting errors20
Non-working victims90 (see note b below)
Work-related suicides400–789
Mesothelioma485
Other cancers5,959–8,939
copd (see note c below)2,062
Estimated injury total972
Estimated disease total8,906–12,275
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:

  1. “stronger safety and infection control measures in open businesses, full public reporting of outbreaks, more effective and coherent shutdowns.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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?

 

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?

Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of Employers

In the context of the process of passing legislation related to the Westray mining disaster (ultimately diluted to satisfy the interests of employers), a union representative explicitly expressed the reality that workers face when they work for employers. The problem with this explicit admission of the power of employers is that it does not play any real role in the education of the working class. Compare what is said below with union rhetoric about “decent jobs” or a “fair wage.” From Steven Bittle, Still Dying for a Living: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster, doctoral dissertation, page 202:

Another union representative expressed concern [with the proposed government legislation] that unions can be held responsible for workplace accidents, noting that unions and employees have little decision-making control with the organization:

“…basically we wanted the legislation to go after corporate bosses, basically, because
they’re the ones that make the decisions. At the end of the day any decision that’s
made on anything to do with the business comes about as a result of management’s
decision. It doesn’t come about because of a union decision. We wish, but it doesn’t.
They have the ultimate authority to manage, and that authority is only restricted by
terms of a collective agreement, and in very few cases, maybe in terms of regulations or legislation. So we were hoping that it would focus more on criminal liability for those that have the power to make decisions. But in reality what it does is that it will hold anybody accountable if the investigation shows there was any part played in any particular incident by anybody from the janitor right up to the CEO. Now some people will argue, why not? Well normally, in my experience in almost forty years, is that any decision made by the janitor is usually something that is usually handed down from above, right. And there are very few cases where you could actually cite where somebody at that level had any type of malicious intent to do anything to cause harm “(Union representative, Interview 12).

One of the distinguishing features of human beings is our capacity to choose–our capacity to be free, to make decisions. The union representative openly admits that in the context of businesses, it is management that mainly decides and that all that a collective agreement does is restrict the authority of management to decide. Regulation and legislation, in a few cases, also limit that authority. Other than that, management has dictatorial powers at work. In other words, workers are treated as things at work–as objects to be used; they are thing-like objects, without the power to participate equally in decisions that affect their lives.

And the social-reformist left repeatedly refer to “decent jobs” and “fairness.” Even the so-called radical left (see the previous post, Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right) engage in such rhetoric. How being treated as things can be magically converted into decent jobs and fair wages is beyond me. The religious nature of this rhetoric (most frequently expressed by trade unionists) is obvious by the lack of any critical discussion concerning whether it reflects the experience of the millions (and indeed billions) of workers worldwide.

What do you think of the above honest statement of the reality or situation of even the more privileged section of the working class (for, generally, unionized workers are more privileged) when compared to the rhetoric of “decent work” and “fair wages” or “fairness” as expressed by the social-reformist left (and even the radical left)?

Should we not start discussing these issues openly and honestly? Are we? If we are not, why are we not doing so?