Where's the law?
Hazards issue 114, April-June 2011
“There’s a worrying trend towards lawlessness at work, as the business lobby in a succession of countries claims ‘burdensome’ safety regulations and meddling regulators are bringing the economy to its knees and stifling job creation,” commented Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Speaking out on 28 April 2011, International Workers’ Memorial Day, she said: “The problem is it is dangerous rubbish based on rigged statistics and bogus arguments. The business lobby might not like ‘red tape’, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work and isn’t entirely essential.
STANDING UP Relatives of those killed at work in Gujurat, India, protested on 28 April over the lack of safety protection at work, creating the Gujurat Accident Victims Association. They say families are routinely denied justice and even the tiny compensation payments to which they are entitled. www.hazards.org/votetodie
“It was under-regulation of the marketplace and a lack of external scrutiny that paved the way to global recession. Calls for the removal of employment and safety protection at work will mean lost lives join lost jobs in the casualties column” (Hazards 113).
It is not hard to find instances of an absence of effective regulation enabling the devastation of the economy and of communities in a fatal double-whammy. “You only have to consider the devastation wrought a year ago by the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said Burrow. “Eleven lives lost, the environment devastated and costs to the economy in the billions – all down to a criminal disregard for safety aided and abetted by an absence of effective regulation and official oversight.”
She added that ‘slow burn’ industrial disasters like asbestos mean today’s failures to regulate can have a deadly legacy spanning two generations and killing millions. “The World Health Organisation’s conservative estimate puts the annual toll from asbestos-related disease at 107,000 deaths a year,” she said. “Once every five minutes around the clock the wholly unnecessary product sucks the life from someone.”
DEATH MERCHANTS Every five minutes around the clock someone dies from asbestos-related disease. In April 2011, Canada’s federal and Quebec’s state government backed a massive expansion of asbestos mining in the country, with their deadly exports earmarked for Asia [more].
Burrow noted that a succession of studies have confirmed better regulation can play an essential role in delivering both economic success and fairness at work. “And when it comes to workplace health and safety, success means fewer occupational fatalities, fewer injuries and fewer cases of industrial disease.”
She cites an April 2011 paper from the US Economic Policy Institute (EPI), ‘Regulation, employment, and the economy: Fears of job loss are overblown’. The paper found “regulations have generally and consistently struck a reasonable balance, with their benefits to health, safety, and well-being far exceeding their costs” [See: Body blow, Hazards 114].
Ignoring this indisputable case for better regulation means hundreds of thousands die in occupational ‘accidents’ each year, she said. But this number is dwarfed by the number of lives cut short by occupational diseases including silicosis, asbestosis and occupational cancers. “Studies suggest at least 10 per cent and possibly over 20 per cent of major workplace killers worldwide, including cancers, heart and respiratory disease, are related to work. All are preventable.”
ITUC’s theme for International Workers' Memorial Day 2011 was the crucial role played by trade unions, strong regulation and effective enforcement in securing safer workplaces. “Whether it is safety-driven innovation, not making workers sick or not haemorrhaging valuable skills, there are real business benefits to not maiming your staff,” said Burrow.
“Harnessing the on-the-ground knowledge of workers, backed by union power and resources, is the other crucial piece in the prevention jigsaw – and should be expanded, not curtailed in a deadly outbreak of deregulatory fever. We cannot afford a further lurch toward lawlessness – the Wild West school of regulatory irresponsibility will not only hurt the economy, it will hurt workers and it will hurt communities. Somewhere down the line, people die when regulatory protection is removed. We need more sheriffs and fewer villains, not the reverse.”
Regulation, employment, and the economy: Fears of job loss are overblown, EPI, April 2011. www.epi.org
'Flexible with the truth? Exploring the relationship between labour market flexibility and labour market performance, TUC, 2010 [pdf].
The deadly lesson of asbestos
Laurie Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat warns the newly announced dramatic expansion of Canada’s asbestos mining and exports provides a deadly warning of how far the industry ‘mafia’ will go to wring out profits at the expense of your health.
We have tried logic, we have tried facts. We have liaised, consulted and demonstrated until we were blue in the face. Nothing seems capable of prising the asbestos baton out of the cold dead hands of Quebec's industry of mass destruction. Cuddly old Canada and proud Quebec don't give a rat's ass about the deaths they are exporting along with their shipments of chrysotile (white) asbestos.
In the face of condemnation from Quebec's own public and occupational health professionals, the province's asbestos stakeholders remain resolute in their determination to prioritise 450 local jobs over the lives of millions of vulnerable people. After all, surely the job of an asbestos worker in the asbestos mining town of Thetford matters more than the lives of Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos and others in countries that import Canadian asbestos. Anyway, the people in Mumbai, Jakarta and Manila don't vote in the Canadian and Quebec elections so who cares about them – surely not Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Quebec's Premier Jean Charest.
The April 2011 announcement by the Quebec government that it will provide a $58 million loan guarantee for a new asbestos mine, subject to minor provisos, signals a total and utter disregard for anyone and anything other than the iconic industry which is held in such high regard in Quebec.
Enough is enough. The entrepreneurs, industry lobbyists and stakeholders in Quebec have to evolve. They have to find new reasons to get out of bed in the morning. They have to let go of their asbestos security blanket and move with the times. Asbestos has been discredited; in the end, the industry will not save you.
If you are lucky it might not kill you but it will kill some of the mine workers and many of the people in the Canadian mining regions. It will also kill people overseas; for them, hazardous exposures will be a matter of routine. When they get ill, there will be no diagnosis, no treatment and no cure – just an excruciating and predictable death.
Canada and Quebec stand condemned for their crimes against humanity. These once proud states have, through their own wilful acts, destroyed their reputations and reduced their legacy to one best summed up by the cartoon featured here. As offensive as it might be, it is not nearly as offensive as dumping millions of tonnes of a known carcinogen on innocent human beings.
Where's the law?
Deadly employers will be the sole beneficiaries of a business-driven trend towards less health and safety regulation in workplaces worldwide, trades unions worldwide are warning.
• The deadly lesson of asbestos
• We didn’t vote to die at work campaign
• The ‘union safety effect’
• Workers’ Memorial Day
A Google map and details of International Workers’ Memorial Day events worldwide can be found on the ITUC/Hazards 28 April webpages
MAIN PHOTO Villagers of Vishunpur-Chainpur, Bihar state, India, protested the construction of an asbestos plant near their homes.
A further lurch towards lawlessness will not only hurt the economy, it will hurt workers and it will hurt communities. We need more sheriffs and fewer villains, not the reverse. more