Tag Archives: labour rights

The High Price of Industry: Cancer Villages in China

Starting in the 1990s, cancer rates in China began rising at an astounding rate. By 2007, cancer was accounting for one in five deaths in China. Similarly rapid increases in cancer rates are being seen in many other nations that are in the process of industrialising. Once considered a disease of the industrialised world, cancer is a growing problem in many nations that are struggling to gain a foothold in the global economy, as well as nations that are already well positioned, but still rapidly growing, like China.

A lot of news stories like to blame this on the acquisition of ‘Western habits’ and the ‘Western diet,’ or on smoking. These are, after all, convenient and popular targets for blame in the industrialised world as well. Other studies point to increased life expectancy that increases the chance that people will develop cancers simply by nature of living longer.

However, many of these stories ignore a major hidden contributor to rising cancer rates: environmental pollution.

Industrialising countries tend to have extremely high pollution rates. Environmental pollutants like heavy metals in the water have been clearly and substantively linked with cancer in numerous studies. Air, water, and soil pollution have been associated with a wide range of cancers including breast, liver, stomach, and lung cancers. Need evidence of pollution in China? There’s the Asian brown cloud, a proliferation of e-waste in China, and, of course, the pall cast by coal fired power plants, among many other things.

The tendency to attribute rising cancer rates to personal habits is one that places the responsibility for cancer solely on the individual. It’s easy to see why leaning towards ‘habits’ when it comes to attributing cancer rates is appealing, especially for policy makers and corporations, because it dodges the environmental link and any government or corporate-level responsibility. If cancer can be blamed on people, instead of institutions, it eliminates the need to address environmental causes of cancer, like pollutants that sicken people in their own communities, occupational hazards like workplace exposures to chemicals, and pollutants that disseminate and sicken people far from the source.

Regulation of pollution is erratic and sometimes very lax in rapidly industrialising countries, many of which have ‘economic zones’ of some form or another that are specifically designed to attract foreign companies with lax environmental, labour, and tax laws. Historically, people have presented this as some sort of flaw on the part of the populations and policymakers in these nations, implying that people are greedy for the potential profits of industrialisation, or not very knowledgeable about environmental issues, or that they are susceptible to bribery and thus can’t be trusted to make sound policy.

The truth is actually more complicated. Industrialising nations are subjected to immense pressure from industrialised nations to keep their regulations lax and incomplete and to meet demands from multinational companies to create ‘hospitable’ business climates. Many of these industrialised nations are former colonisers, adding another layer to the situation, and many of these corporations take a role in policymaking and governance which might surprise you, like using armed paramilitary forces to silence human rights advocates, Indigenous people, and communities. Many nations with international trade agreements are pressured by corporations that want to cut down on the costs of production by making products in countries with less stringent environmental and labour laws; look at the maquiladoras that line the United States-Mexico border for an example.

We need only look to BP operating in the United States to see how aggressively corporations resist environmental regulations in industrialised nations. In industrialising nations, which are largely regarded as low-hanging fruit for profit, that resistance is magnified, and corporations are much bolder about pressuring nations to refuse to adopt or change environmental regulations and violating those regulations when they are put in place. The same holds true with labour laws; many companies outsource production to nations with less stringent labour regulations to take advantage of the low, low costs of child and slave labour.

China represents a perfect storm. An industrialising nation with environmental regulations that are not keeping pace with pollution and the rise of vast factory towns where companies from all over the world expect to obtain a source of low-cost labour in a lax regulatory environment. Entire villages are sickening and dying as a result of environmental pollution (link via abcsoupspot). Reporting on China’s ‘cancer villages’ is suppressed, and it’s difficult to estimate the full extent of the phenomenon.

What’s happening in China is also happening in communities all over the world. As concerns about pollution rise and regulators tighten up, which they are doing in China, the pollution doesn’t disappear, it just moves. Sources of pollution such as industrial waste dumps and factories don’t just disappear. These things are still ‘needed.’ They simply move to other locations.

Those locations tend to be impoverished communities. Either they are forced on communities that are not given a choice, or they are actively welcomed by communities in dire need of jobs and income. As goes Xinglong, so goes Kettleman City. There is a long and ignominious history of shunting pollution on to poor communities that are the least equipped to deal with it, the least equipped to protest it, and the least likely to have infrastructures in place for early diagnosis and treatment of pollution-related illnesses. Many of these communities also have big minority populations, with environmental racism coming into play when it comes to deciding where polluting industries should be situated.

Environmental pollution is a global human rights issue, not a problem limited to tree huggers. With pollution comes much, much more than loss of biodiversity, extinction of endangered species, destruction of topsoil, and a host of other specifically environmental problems. Death and disease ride with environmental pollution, just as classism and racism perpetuate and determine which communities will be affected by it.

Abuse of Intellectually Disabled Workers at Iowa Meatpacking Plant

Note: There are a number of links to news stories in this post. All of them have problematic language.

A horrifying story out of Iowa has been getting some press attention over the last few days, if you know where to look1. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report detailed the abuse of workers with intellectual disabilities in a meat packing plant and it looks like the labour contractor responsible, Henry’s Turkey Service, is going to be brought up on charges. I can find stories on this dating back to early 2009; the uptick in interest appears to be the result of news that more federal charges are going to be filed.

The labour contractor, based in Texas, provides crews that go all over the country and has done so since the 1970s. This particular group of 21 men was sent to a plant in Iowa, West Liberty Foods. They were kept in a bunkhouse with boarded up windows and space heaters for heat; Iowa gets mighty cold in the winter and space heaters are unlikely to cut it. These men were getting up at three in the morning seven days a week to work in a meatpacking plant, and some of them were ’employed2for decades.

Here’s a description of the conditions:

“The living conditions were worse than squalor,” she said. “There were fire hazards, no heat, their rooms were crawling with cockroaches. It was just filth, a nightmare.” (source)

West Liberty was paying Henry’s Turkey Service around $11,000 United States Dollars a month for the men’s labour, and they were making, literally, pennies on the dollar:

The report found that West Liberty Foods paid Henry’s Turkey Service as much as $11,000 per week for the disabled men’s labor. Henry’s Turkey Service then paid the men a combined total of between $340 and $500 per week, or about 41 cents an hour, The Des Moines Register reported.

Compared to the pay the men would have gotten at minimum wage, the report found that the company underpaid them by more than $1 million during the last three years of the company’s operation. But the underpaid amount could climb because other workers doing the same job earned between $9 and $12 per hour. (source)

How was this justified?

…to justify lower wages the lawyer explained how by using a Department of Labor formula the company then calculated how much to pay based on how many disabled men it takes to equal the amount of work done any one man. His example was three-to-one. (source)

This story is primarily being reported as a case of employment discrimination and much of the litigation surrounds the back wages and pay these men are owed. This is definitely an issue and I’m glad to see it being addressed. But this is also a very clear case of abuse of people with disabilities. And I am deeply disturbed to learn how the EEOC deals with abuse of disabled workers:

Under federal law, once the EEOC determines that the rights of disabled workers have been violated, it must attempt to halt the violations through an informal process of “conference, conciliation and persuasion.” The commission plans to send a proposed conciliation agreement – a settlement of sorts – to Henry’s owners. If the owners reject the proposed settlement and refuse to negotiate, the EEOC has the option of taking the company to court. (source)

Evidently, if you are a disabled worker and you are being abused by an employer, including abuse like being kept in squalid conditions and being taunted and name-called by coworkers, attempts to work the situation out amicably must fail before more aggressive measures can be pursued.

This is a labour rights issue, but it is also an abuse issue. And it illustrates the critical need to get tougher protections in place for workers with disabilities. These conditions should never have happened in the first place and they definitely should not have been allowed to persist for decades. There would be widespread outrage if nondisabled people were involved in the case, but as it is, most of the reporting and attention seems to be happening in Iowa itself. This is being treated as a local news story, instead of what it is, which is a heinous outrage and a grave violation of human rights and all reasonable decency.

And it’s being treated as a one time event, rather than evidence of a systemic problem. Certainly, the news says, this case is awful and it’s good that charges are being filed. But there’s not a lot of exploration into how and why this happened. Some advocates are quoted in the articles, as well as family members, and they are righteously infuriated, but I don’t see any quotes from people with disabilities, including any of the workers involved; once they were removed from the bunkhouse, they were apparently whisked into group homes.

Henry’s Turkey Service is not the only agency that provides contract labour like this. West Liberty is not the only employer which tries to cut costs by using contract labour. This is a structural problem, not a local news issue. Workers with disabilities and workers with nebulous immigration status endure horrific abuses in this country; the situation at West Liberty is repeated over and over again all over the United States because of the attitude that these individuals are a cheap source of disposable labour, to be used up and thrown away.

And the people ‘in charge,’ the people who might be empowered to investigate and take action? Well:

Muscatine County Sheriff David White said recently that he is confident the people who ran Henry’s Turkey Service treated the bunkhouse residents well.

“Our take on it was, you know, that they were doing some pretty good things with these guys,” he said. (source)

The reason no one did anything about the hostile working environment, atrocious living conditions, and economic abuses of these men is that they were regarded as something less than human. And employment law appears to reinforce that idea by suggesting that the first step in abuse cases like this is not filing charges, but ‘conciliation and persuasion.’

  1. Which is to say, ‘if you have the time to search for news stories that are falling through the cracks.’
  2. I use scare quotes here because from what I understand of this case, this was more like servitude than employment.

Recommended Reading for Friday, 7 May 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

Two people participating in a disability pride event. They are holding up large versions of 'hello, my name is...' stickers like those people wear to events. One's says 'hello my name is: human' and the other's says 'hello my name is: neighbor.'

Photo from the Disability Action Hall’s Eighth ‘Speak Out’ event, held in 2006. By Flickr user Grant Neufeld, Creative Commons License.

Tasha Fierce at Red Vinyl Shoes: My Kind of Crazy

I used to talk about mental health issues a lot back in the day, but haven’t lately because I got tired of feeling like a downer all the damn time. It is really important to bring mental health issues to light because the more we talk about them the less stigmatizing the diagnosis becomes, but constantly being the ambassador from crazyland is tiring mentally. You don’t always have to be the one to suffer fools.

Marianne at The Rotund: Fat and Crazy; Not Entirely Coherent, Awkward Musing On My Fat And My Crazy And How They Party Together

So, for me, one of the very hardest, most awfulest to try to overcome parts of FA was the idea that I had to listen to my body and trust that I was interpreting its messages correctly. For an example: I have a proliferation of allergies, both food and environmental. Before I pursued actual useful medical treatment (as opposed to being told the allergies would go away if I lost weight), I had no goddamn idea if I was having an allergy attack or if I had a cold. In fact, it was so impossible to tell that everything read as allergies.

Richard Bales at Workplace Prof Blog: DOL Releases Online Disability Law Advisor

The interactive, online Disability Nondiscrimination Law Advisor helps employers determine which federal disability nondiscrimination laws apply to their business or organization and their responsibilities under them.  To do this, it asks users to answer a few relevant questions and then generates a customized list of federal disability nondiscrimination laws that likely apply, along with information about employers’ responsibilities under each of them.

Diana Sweet at The Raw Story: US school for disabled forces students to wear packs that deliver massive electric shocks (warning, graphic descriptions of abuse of people with disabilities) (via Planet of the Blind)

Noting that it believes United States law fails to provide needed protections to children and adults with disabilities, MDRI calls for the immediate end to the use of electric shock and long-term restraints as a form of behavior modification or treatment and  a ban on the infliction of severe pain for so-called therapeutic purposes.

Beck Vass at the New Zealand Herald: ‘Nightmare’ at petrol station for amputee

When double-amputee Brian Portland went to buy petrol at a BP station in South Auckland, he was told he had to pump it himself.

Then, Mr Portland was told he couldn’t use his wheelchair on the forecourt because it breached health and safety regulations.

Wheelchair Dancer: Sins is Hiring

We present multidisciplinary performances (video, poetry, spoken word, music, drama, and dance) by people with disabilities for broad audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere; organize multidisciplinary performance workshops for community members with and without disabilities; and offer political education workshops for community based and educational organizations that share our commitment to social justice principles as a means of integrating analysis and action around disability, race, gender, and sexuality.