GUEST BLOG: James Robb – Capitalism’s trail of blood and ‘exemptions’

GUEST BLOG: James Robb – Capitalism’s trail of blood and ‘exemptions’

On June 8 Murray Taylor became the fourth person this year to die while working in a quarry in New Zealand. The excavator Taylor was operating became buried under 1500 tonnes of rock when a cliff-face collapsed above him in a North Canterbury limestone quarry.

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Taylor was the manager of the small quarry, and had been for 15 years, supplying crushed lime for dairy farm lanes in the region. Existing Health and Safety laws require that all quarry operators hold a certificate, and are liable to a $250,000 fine if they operate a quarry without it. Taylor had never been certificated at any time in those 15 years, nor did anyone appear to notice this until the day he was killed. There is some evidence that Taylor was operating the quarry in a particularly unsafe manner, such as by failing to leave ‘benches,’ wide ledges at intervals down the rockface to avoid overhanging. WorkSafe NZ, the government agency responsible for workplace safety, said getting the certification was the manager’s responsibility – and it wasn’t WorkSafe’s responsibility to check up on them.

This string of deaths in quarries comes at an embarrassing time for the government.

As Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions, pointed out in a statement, “Health and safety laws in 

mining were strengthened in 2013 responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Tragedy at Pike River Mine. But after lobbying from industry and assurances that quarries were safer than mines, the Government excluded quarries from the protections of the new law.”

Prime Minister John Key defended the decision to exclude the quarries. “We need to continue to work with the quarry industry to make sure the settings are right,” Key said. There were different risks in quarries and they had different characteristics from underground mines, he added. “I suspect there will be a new improved set of guidelines[my emphasis – JR] that will be introduced fairly shortly.”

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A broader review of health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, is presently stalled due to opposition from various business groups, who are pressuring the government to water down its provisions on the grounds that it will be ‘too costly’ to implement. The main questions yet to be decided are whether businesses employing less than 20 workers will be exempted from the new law, and whether it will allow for whole categories of business to be exempted later by regulation.

Among those loudly protesting the Health and Safety Bill is the frozen food conglomerate Talleys. Their submission against the Bill raises particularly vehement objections to workers electing health and safety representatives. “Talleys also already spends millions of dollars a year on health and safety matters… It does that under the present Act in a focused and controlled way using the best people and seeking to achieve the best results. It is therefore totally opposed to a system that proposes to instead hand power over to the Unions and employees in a manner which cannot possibly achieve the true health and safety outcomes that the Act should be aimed at but instead simply increases the power of unions and allows an unwarranted intrusion into company matters and relationships,” Peter Talley states in his submission.

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“We see it as inevitable that passing control of health and safety representatives and committees to unions will also inevitably lead to the misuse of that power, under the guise of health and safety, to impose increased manning levels and create demarcation issues, both of which have been fundamental principles historically promoted by unions at unjustified cost to both industry and the nation… Given both the purpose of [health and safety] training and the fact that it is to be paid for by employers it is imperative that organisations providing such training are qualified to do so, that they have no ulterior motive or contrary interests and that any training provided is restricted to health and safety matters. Unions and associated organisations must therefore be excluded as approved training organisations. Employers should not be forced to pay for employees to attend union arranged training where the interests of the unions and their members are promoted to the detriment of employers in the guise of health and safety training.”

The entire submission makes interesting reading, as a very frank view by a major New Zealand capitalist on unions and the question of health and safety on the job.

Talleys was recently ordered to pay $6000 compensation to former meat worker David Brine, who suffered headache, burning eyes, respiratory problems, vomiting and diarrhoea, and coughed up blood after cleaning a meat chiller at the Malvern freezing works which had been treated with toxic chemical sterilisers. Brine told the Employment Relations Authority he and a colleague complained to their supervisors but were told there was nothing wrong with the chemicals – that the smell was safe and they should go back to work. This week the Meat Workers Union went to the Employment Court seeking an injunction to prevent Talleys locking out the workforce at its Rangiuru plant and compelling them to accept oppressive new individual employment agreements.

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New Zealand already has one of the highest rates of workplace death and injury in the developed world. According to a comparative study based on reported workplace deaths published by the International Labour Organisation, New Zealand has 4.2 deaths per 100,000 workers annually, compared to about 2.1 in Australia and 1.3 in the United Kingdom.

This is the direct consequence of the de-unionisation of workers that has taken place over the last two decades. A central component of this process has been laying off employees in large workplaces (where workers can join together in unions to exercise some control over safety) and replacing them with ‘independent contractors’ and other small businesses carrying out the same work. (Parallel with this process, state-imposed regulations, laws and inspection regimes were relaxed.)

These ‘independent’ contracting businesses operate in desperate competition with each other, scrapping over the crumbs from the table of the parent industry’s profits, while taking upon themselves part of its market risks and the pressure to cut corners on safety. In respect of health and safety they work largely under voluntary ‘guidelines,’exempted from regulations. As the circumstances of the latest quarry death indicate, they are mostly left to police themselves in relation to those laws that do apply to them. Because each ‘contractor’ has only a small number of employees or none at all, union control over safety is more difficult.

The quarrying operation of Murray Taylor was typical of the type of ‘small business’ that emerged from this process, but the classic example of this kind of de-unionisation is work in the commercial pine forests. Back in the 1980s the forest workers formed a union stronghold; today it is an industry populated by independent contractors with ashocking safety record. Let us not forget, also, that almost half of the 29 workers killed at Pike River were not employees of Pike River Coal, but contractors themselves or employees of contractors.

As CTU President Helen Kelly has said, “Every worker should be confident that they can complete a day’s work and return home uninjured.” Winning this right is not so much a matter of pressing for new laws with tougher wording, but is mainly a fight for union of the workers. In the absence of union, any health and safety law will sink into a swamp of exemptions and lax enforcement.

My first and best lesson in industrial safety happened a few weeks after I started work on the production line at the Ford car assembly plant in Wellington, back in 1978 – that is, before the big decline in union organisation.

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Workers in the body shop at Fords used spot-welding guns. Hung on a wire from the ceiling, these machines had a pair of copper-tipped jaws, and when you pressed the trigger, the jaws closed over a pair of sheet metal plates in the frame of the car, gave a shot of electric power which sent a shower of sparks flying, and welded the metal plates together. One of these spot-welding guns had developed a hair-trigger, which made it hazardous for the worker operating it and those around him. This worker told the foreman about the problem, and attempted to work with the machine for a little while longer. But then he had a near-miss, and at that point he stopped work.

The foreman told him to carry on working while they found a solution to the problem. “You give me a safe machine to work with, and I’ll start work,” the worker replied, with folded arms. Soon three or four more foremen came running, as they always did as soon as production stopped. One of them started yelling at the worker and threatening him with dismissal if he didn’t start work instantly. Other workers joined the argument, relieving the worker of the pressure being brought against him.

Soon the plant union delegate appeared and took over the argument. After a few more minutes, a fitter came running with a replacement spot-welding machine, and work resumed. I have never seen an industrial safety issue resolved so quickly and easily. No accident, no injury, no forms filled out, no ACC claims, no hazard report filed, no Royal Commission of Inquiry, no court case! The worker closest to the situation identified the problem, and supported by his workmates, saw to it that the problem was fixed before any accident or injury occurred.

The key to this speedy resolution was the confidence this worker had that his workmates would stand behind him, would refuse to take over the unsafe task he had refused, and would make sure he was not unfairly victimised over the incident; in a word, his confidence in union. How different this was from David Brine’s experience, or Murray Taylor’s!

More than a hundred years ago, Harry Holland published a weekly labour movement newspaper in Sydney, Australia, called the International Socialist (some issues of which can be read online at the Trove Digitised newspapers site operated by the National Library of Australia.) A regular column in this newspaper, called Capitalism’s Trail of Blood, detailed the grim toll of deaths, injuries and suicides among workers in the course of the ordinary workings of capitalist economy worldwide – most of which went unreported and unremarked elsewhere.

In the issue of December 10, 1910, for example, we read, “A miner named Parry was severely injured by a fall of coal in Mount Keira pit. F. Schwierer, fencer, at Goorangoola, near Singleton, was struck in the eye with one end of a wire. The sight was destroyed. W. T. Butler, a Sydney labourer, aged 60, ended his life by cutting his throat. The struggle for existence had got ahead of him. Richard Elphink, butcher, who had been out of work some time, attempted to commit suicide at Maitland by cutting his throat. D. McLeod, jockey, had his skull fractured through his mount falling in a race at Murwillumbah. Lo Yaw, a Chinese employed on the steamer Franklyn, fell into the crank pit while the vessel was at Newcastle, and the crank, coming down on his stomach, crushed him to death.”

A year later the toll continued unabated. The 17 December 1911 issue includes the following: “Leslie Roberts, shunter, was killed through having his head crushed between some timber on a truck he was coupling, and the tap at the back of the engine. His skull was smashed. Within six months, seven vessels (mostly coffin ships), bound to or from Sydney, have gone to the bottom of the sea, with a loss of some 250 lives. E. Dennis, miner, was killed at the South Blocks mine, Broken Hill, by a portion of a machine which fell while being lowered into the mine. Michael Callaghan, machinist, was struck on the head by falling timber at McKenzie’s timber yards, Glebe Island, and had half of his scalp torn away. Thomas Devitt, miner, was killed by a fall of stone in the South mine, Broken Hill.  Andrew Campbell, labourer, was run over by a train at Erskineville, and had his left foot severed. Twenty-six miners have been killed by an explosion of fire-damp in a colliery at St. Étienne, France. W Trewarn, 60, miner, was precipitated 237 feet down a mine at Eaglehawk, Victoria, and killed.”

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By this time the column included under its heading a line from a poem popular in the labour movement at the time. “If blood be the price of all your wealth, Good God! We have paid in full.” The popularity of this poem shows how central was the fight for safety on the job to the movement for class-struggle unions and political independence of labour throughout Australasia. The same line appeared on a banner carried by striking Waterside Workers Union members and their supporters in Auckland during the Great Strike of 1913.

The poem itself is a re-working by militant workers of another poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “The Song of the Dead”, an 1893 tribute to the sailors sacrificed so the British Navy could rule the waves. It was printed in the West Coast newspaper Grey River Argus in 1920, and the full text below is based on that version.

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s not a dollar of all your wealth.
But marks the workers dead.

We have given our best to yield you rest,
And you lie on a crimson wool.
But if blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid in full.

There’s never a mine blown skywards now,
But we’re buried alive for you,
There’s never a wreck drifts shorewards now,
But we are the ghastly crew.

Go, count our dead by the forges red,
And the factories where we spin,
For if blood is the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in.

We have toiled for you all these thousand years,
For that was our doom we know,
From the days you chained us in your fields,
To the strike of a week ago.

We have given our lives, our babes and our wives,
And you claim ’tis your legal share,
But if blood is the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have bought it fair.

 

James Robb:  For most of my adult life I have been an industrial worker. For twenty-five years I worked on the production line in meat packing and car assembly plants, and in diverse other industries, from fish processing to carpet to biscuits to leather tanning. In recent years I have been a high school teacher and part-time scribbler. My first novel, The Chain, was published last year.