Despite polls showing support for continuing the lockdown, employers are attempting to put people back to work. Eddie Conlon discusses the relationship between capitalism and workers’ safety, and argues that the lockdown should continue – on workers’ terms.
Each year hundreds of thousands of workers…die of work-related accidents and illnesses. Despite the major advances in occupational health and safety legislation, the issue of costs versus safety looms large on the unofficial agenda in many corporate decisions…In many situations ‘the bottom line’ tends to come first and safety second”
So says Gareth Morgan in his magnus opus, Images of Organisations.
But this is not the main approach to understanding workplace safety, which instead tends to be dominated by notions to do with operator errors that blame workers for deaths and accidents. The outcome is to tell workers to be more careful. This is clearly useful for companies as it shifts the blame from them, despite there being much more to deaths at work than operator error.
Much analysis tends to have a significant amount of discussion of systems failure: organisational, cultural, and technical. While this is useful in identifying some of the organisational preconditions for safe worker behaviour, this work tends to omit any reference to the most important system of all: the capitalist system.
Marxists seek to locate accidents in the process of capital accumulation and the relations between different classes. Our understanding of ‘safety crimes’ must take account of the prevailing economic system leading to a focus on the relationship between profit and safety, management and workers, and the role of the state in regulating safety. In this context, the advent of a neo-liberalism committed to deregulation and the valorisation of risk has had a detrimental effect on workplace safety.
This approach does not argue that there is always a conflict between safety and profits. For example, their interests might align when a record of consistent accidents and injuries is disrupting the production process. The danger of posing too sharp a conflict between safety and profits is that we might end up arguing that accidents are inevitable. This could lead to political passivity as production based on profits can often seem natural and irreplaceable, potentially rendering struggle against it pointless.
So, at the heart of understanding employer approaches to workplace safety is a calculus between profits and lives and the application of cost-benefit analysis to determine what’s an acceptable level of risk. In the last instance what determines their approach to safety is whether it hinders or helps the process of accumulation.
And with that in mind, while there may be variance in how safety is treated across different companies, the current crisis has generated a high level of risk across the economy as a whole. It naturally poses the question whether it’s safe to go to work at all, and whether enough is being done by the state and the workers movement to question the primacy of profit-making over workers lives. Therefore, the issue of the lockdown is a class issue. Mike Davis has argued “re-opening the economy could send us to hell” and as reopening commences the degree of class struggle around it may intensify.
We should be wary of attempts to shift the terms of the current debate from a focus on eliminating the risks of COVID-19 to one of an orderly resumption of business at the behest of employers. The big employers’ organisation, IBEC, want us to believe that the “health of the public and the workforce remains the primary concern for us all”. But in reality, what they really want is to “apply a risk-based approach to balance these health concerns with wider wellbeing issues and the need to have a functioning economy”. The debate about lives versus livelihoods is a false one. What it is really about is a calculation about how many lives are to be sacrificed to get business going again.
What employers want is to get as many people back to work as quickly as possible. In a remarkable interview on, April 25th, IBEC’s CEO, Danny Mc Coy, said:
the term ‘essential’ might not be appropriate when it comes to reopening Ireland. One criterion [for reopening] would be that labour-intensive industries would become more essential to get people back to work to deal with the economic problem. The idea of getting mass groups back to work, while it might seem counter-intuitive from a public health dimension, is very important for the economic problem we have.”
It is counter-intuitive because it is only by limiting population density can social distancing be facilitated. Workers working shoulder to shoulder will not be safe, despite what McCoy and his ilk say. And this attempt to widen the definition of ‘essential’ is nothing new. At every opportunity employers, North and South, have sought to widen the number of workplaces that fall under this term. In one case reported to People Before Profit, a large warehouse, which distributed household good to supermarkets, started distributing food simply so that it could be considered essential.
It is worth reminding ourselves of what we know about the dangers of COVID-19. It is a massive threat to older workers, and those with underlying conditions or who are overweight (one study suggests overweight or obesity more than doubled the risk of developing severe pneumonia as a result of COVID-19, particularly in men). Employment statistics show clearly how a generalised reopening will put significant numbers of workers at risk in the South:
- The employment rate for older workers is almost twice the rate the average for the EU. Over one in ten workers are over 60.
- Respiratory disease led to 14.3% of all inpatient hospitalisations in 2016 and causes almost 1 in 5 deaths. The respiratory death rate is the fourth highest in the EU and 38% higher than the EU average.
- Some 66% of men in Ireland are overweight or obese.
So what employers are proposing is a significant reopening which will put large numbers of workers at risk, adding to those who are already at risk.
Safety or Profits
Leaving aside the important issues in health care, which accounts for 25% of all cases, those workplaces that have remained open are not safe. Data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show a 75% increase in workplace-related clusters between April 19 and 27 April. There are now 28 clusters.
Despite the first case being on February 28th, MANDATE, the shop-workers union, reported on April 23rd, that almost half of workers said social distancing was not being adhered to and almost a third said they have insufficient PPE. 9% of workers said a colleague had been infected. The union’s report was based on a survey of 7000 workers in 300 locations – and all this in the context of record sales of groceries.
In meat plants the situation is a lot worse. For example, 120 of a total of 350 workers at the Rosderra Meats plant in Roscrea have tested positive and yet it’s still open. The Guardian spoke to a worker who said, “people are on top of each other, it’s like a cattle mart”. A complaint made to a line manager was ignored, they say. On April 30th, the Minister for Agriculture confirmed there were six clusters of infection in meat plants.
The Irish Times claims it’s been asking question of Rosderra management for over a week but got no response while the Migrants Rights Centre raised concerns in late March saying that, “We are also concerned that some employers are intensifying their rate of production in anticipation of closure and are exposing workers to greater risk at this time.” (The food industry, as highlighted by the Keelings industry, contains a significant proportion of migrant labour which often face intense levels of exploitation.)
None of this should be surprising given that the state has demonstrated criminal neglect of workers’ safety. On May 1st, nine weeks after the first case, it announced that a National Protocol is being agreed with unions and employers in relation to workplace safety. It is noteworthy that while Vadakar has identified five key issues that will determine government decision-making in relation to removing restrictions none of them mention worker safety.
Over the last nine weeks it has become clear that no state agency is responsible for enforcing public health guidelines in workplaces. Solidarity-PBP TDs have been pursuing this issue relentlessly. On April 27th, the Minister for Business told them that the Health and Safety Authority received 121 COVID-19 related complaints from workplaces in April. “These have been followed-up by the HSA with individual employers to ensure that those employers are fully aware of the relevant public health information and advice”. No mention of inspections, no mention of penalties, no mention of closing these places down.
The TDs were told previously that the HSA did not have power to enforce public health guidelines and that cases should be referred to the Environmental Health Service of the Health Service Executive. But when Paul Murphy did just that with the case of the Keelings workers he was told that the HSE Environmental Health Service has no statutory role in inspecting employee living accommodation or workplace health and safety. The Workplace Relations Commission which oversees compliance with employment rights ceased on-site inspections on March 13. The Minister for Justice has told Brid Smith TD that the Gardai have no role in enforcing social distancing in workplaces.
In short, no state agency will take responsibility for ensuring even minimal levels of worker safety – yet the Gardaí can break up protests by Debenhams workers fighting for their jobs.
The weakness of the safety regime in the South is further highlighted by the fact that while legislation provides for worker elected safety representatives, inspections in 2014 showed that there were present in only 38% of manufacturing and 31% of construction workplaces. Workers have been denied any significant voice in relation to safety, despite the fact that it is often workers who first and accurately recognise the dangers associated with particular production processes. Unfortunately, their expertise is often ignored.
A Lockdown on Workers Terms
In the face of all this, it’s up to workers to insist that their lives be prioritised and defend workplace closures until their safety can be guaranteed. Telling people to wash their hands and maintain a social distance amounts to a focus on avoiding operator error at the expense of a more structural approach to saving lives. Unfortunately, this approach has been supported by ICTU, who’s only advice to construction workers at the start of this crisis was to “wash their hands frequently.” No calls for action and no demands to shut workplaces. An added fear will be that companies which are reopening will seek to make up lost ground and push for accelerated production.
Workers themselves will have to put the brakes on. Our job now is to encourage greater combativity, drawing on the examples of walkouts at meat plants in the North. At this minute, the best way to guarantee workers safety is to get off the job and stay at home, especially for those at high risk. Where workers feel unsafe, they should walk out.
Along with significant ramping up of testing, any return to work must be premised on comprehensive provision of proper PPE and a huge programme of inspections to ensure social distancing can actually be practised. There must be heavy sanctions for employers who don’t protect the safety of their workers – sanctions which include closure.
Production and workflow should not return to previous levels. But most importantly, work should only commence when workers agree that it should. They understand best the questions of health and safety, and no one should be forced to go to their job, day-in day-out, in a constant state of fear.
Any new arrangement for managing safety must include provision that safety representatives be in place and have the right to halt work as necessary. Trade unions must have access to workplaces as a right.
While polls suggest significant support for continued restrictions to prevent COVID-19, there is an understandable danger that workers will want to get back to work to protect their incomes. We should argue for maintaining and extending the currents supports, and more generally we should demand that the state makes a massive intervention to ensure no worker is forced to choose between their livelihood on the one hand, and the lives of those around them on the other.
The record of the past few months has well and truly exposed lies of previous neoliberal decades: such an intervention is eminently doable. Let no government, in the south, the north, or anywhere else, say otherwise.
More fundamentally, all this raises issues about a system that balances worker lives against the requirements for profit-making, and places the onus on us to argue for alternative means of organising production that will neither encourage nor sustain the routine killing of workers by corporations.