By the Way, Workers Are Still Dying on the Job Daily!

Little Rock       On Wade’s World, I visited recently with Jonathan Karmel about safety on the job for workers.  Karmel is 35-year, Chicago-based, labor side lawyer who after years in the legal trenches for unions, had an epiphany when he realized the continuing dangers faced by workers trying to make a living and sometimes dying while trying.  Karmel has written a book, Dying to Work:  Death and Injury in the American Workplace, that he was hoping would be a wakeup call once again to bring this issue to the forefront.

Karmel is right to take up this cause.  He notes in the introduction, “One hundred and fifty workers die each day because of their work.”  He comes to this figure by adding the daily death numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics of 4836 workers killed annually based on the most recent statistics before he published the book in 2015, adding up to 13 per day, with the federal Center for Disease Control report that estimates that “annually 50,000 deaths attributed to work-related illnesses – an average of 137 each day.”  Add the two figures together, and the tragic math totals 150 per day.  It’s safer to be a soldier.

It’s not getting better either.  It’s getting worse.  President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) almost fifty years ago, but the agency is still underfunded, understaffed, and decidedly unloved by business and their backers in both parties.   For example, Karmel points out there is one inspection officer for every 59,000 workers.  What?  Should we worry?

Of course, Karmel advocates updating the regulations, but that’s not happening under the current administration, so let’s look at some of his other suggestions.  Two areas would seem to offer some hope.  One is more accurate reporting to reduce the under-counting that allows policy makers and business executives to pretend that the “safety first” signs on numerous trucks and industrial gates actually means something.  The other is focusing on the state level.

There might be some opportunities in some places.  Of course, not Texas which allows companies to not bother with workers’ compensation since 1913 and more recently Oklahoma since 2013, so we’re talking about the other forty-eight states.

Karmel argues for reform in several areas.  First, he questions why after accidents workers are given unreliable marijuana tests, even when not driving and in cases where they were clearly not at fault.  Secondly, referral doctors should not be under the employ or contract to the company, giving them a conflict of interest.  Thirdly, workman’s compensation benefits need to be integrated into the rest of the health system, especially if we had single-payer.  Fourthly, the dispute resolution system should be streamlined.  Finally, to make sure there is some other enforcement of fairness, attorney’s fees should be allowed fairly.

These moves wouldn’t necessarily be lifesavers, but they would incentivize companies to act more aggressively to protect their workers if the costs they paid, even for deaths on the job, were not so miserly.  The rationale of employers, including their argument that there is a “risk premium” in pay that allows workers to accept the risk of injury and death for another buck or two an hour, have to be exposed for the falsehoods they are. Employers, insurers, and governments need to finally value protecting workers’ lives, as if their own lives were at stake without seeing their injuries and deaths as just another cost of doing business.

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Sweating Labor in the Gig Economy and People by Tech

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

New Orleans      In a piece about climate change, one author quoted a commonplace statement that the corporate business model in a capitalist economy puts no inherent value on public resources like land, air, and water, so that the costs are for acquisition, extraction, marketing, and delivery without concern for the after affects like global warming, downstream water or air pollution, and the like.  The burden then falls on the commons, the public, and the government to force regulation or cost recovery, often too little and too late, especially when wealth is increasingly concentrated, and people with lesser income cannot afford the price of restoration.

I’m really not talking about climate change though.  It seems to be that within that business model, app-based and other tech companies fit squarely, if we add people themselves as a natural resource in the same list with land, air, and water, and likely even valued less by many.

Take the business model for Facebook and the rest of the tech companies that is based on selling people’s privacy for their own and corporate billions without paying anything for it, and without being accountable or, until very recently, worrying about the consequences.   Take as another example the continued resistance to dealing with the ubiquitous consequences of enslaving millions that still reverberates throughout every level of the American economy and culture.  Democratic presidential candidates are quick to agree to study reparations, but take my word, oil companies will pay for climate change and Facebook will give us a residual payment on using and selling our data way before reparations are paid for slavery.

In the run up to Uber going public, the company offered a slightly lower opening price valuation than investors had placed on it privately, because they continue to lose literally billions.  A sidebar noted that like Lyft, the company has said they might pay between $100 and $10,000 to longtime drivers, that they don’t acknowledge as employees by paying benefits, social security or unemployment or anything else, but increasingly are finding it harder and harder to recruit in a tight employment market.  Here is another business model that tries to sweat a common resource, people, without paying in order to extract rents or excess profits from their labor for free.  There was a long story of a fulltime driver for Uber and sometimes Lyft in the Bay Area who was barely making it because despite his share of the fares, the fact that he was classified as an independent contractor though totally dependent on the company and their arbitrary division of income, he had to pay all the cost for the vehicle, gas, and maintenance which was clearly unsustainable.

This problem is global as well.  An organizer in Buenos Aires shared with me this week the embryonic efforts to organize personas de platformas or gig workers there.  We have organized multi-union and multinational meetings of bicycle delivery drivers in Europe, but everywhere the organizing problem continues to be the lack of leverage.

Air, water, and land are voiceless.  In modern economic labor, people doing the work are becoming as voiceless as the clickers and likers on social media.  Simply another natural resource to be exploited for as long as they can get away with it.  None of this is sustainable, but stopping it is another matter.

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