On exploitation and asbestos (plus solutions)
BY SEAN MULKERRIN
Almost 90 years ago, Dr. Edward Merewether was the first to find that workers exposed to asbestos would eventually develop asbestosis, a “lung scarring” disease that is potentially fatal. Not long after Merewether’s study was published, the first reports of cancer in asbestos workers came out.
How bad is asbestos? In 1939, while gearing up to invade Poland, Germany officially recognized the carcinogenicity of asbestos. That’s right, the same guys who were dealing in the wholesale slaughter of an entire people looked at asbestos and said, “You know fellas, this is some bad stuff.”
On the home front, it’s been a story of corporate malfeasance and cover-ups. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, companies hired scientists to conduct experiments on animals with the caveat that businesses would monitor the findings. What came next was the truth, concealment of said truth, government investigation, fines, and finally a return to business as usual.
Corporations learned and grew from their postwar mistakes. Instead of silencing the truth, they created their own version of it. By 2001, the risks associated with asbestos were accepted science. Or at least it was until Ford Motor Company began losing lawsuits brought by former mechanics. To counter this, the auto giant spent $40 Million to conflate science with opinion. Creating just enough of a patina of credibility to wreak havoc on court proceedings and to, in effect, run out the clock on cancer-stricken plaintiffs.
To date, asbestos has not been completely banned in the United States. Worse for the country, President-elect Donald Trump understands the dangers of asbestos about as much as he does women. He has actually said the mafia began the campaign for asbestos removal since some organized crime figures have been tied to the industry. He also believes the lack of asbestos is what led the World Trade Center to fall.
In Massachusetts, in 2015, asbestos removal projects reached an all-time high. A roaring economy led to the largest private construction boom in the state’s history. With the outrageous prices of luxury condos, apartments, and office space and the paucity of new land, there has been a renewed focus on rehabbing Boston’s oldest buildings. And with it, the problems that come from disturbing materials that are decades old.
Amid this boom, it is the worker who is exploited and suffers, laboring as cancer in the air chokes them like an invisible hangman’s noose. As WBUR reports, many who work in asbestos removal are undocumented and fear deportation if they speak up about conditions. Vulnerable workers claim that “safety lapses are widespread, including inadequate respiratory protection, substandard hazardous-material suits, no curtains to contain dust, and failure by employers to provides shower facilities or places to change before leaving a site to prevent tracking dust home to families.”
Poor physical health is sadly just a consequence of the bigger, more insidious and often premeditated problem of worker exploitation. To begin, when hired, workers are often illegally misclassified as “independent contractors.” This makes it embarrassingly easy to pay workers late, not pay them overtime, or not pay them at all. Their independent contractor status means they’re not eligible for insurance or lost pay.
Take, for example, a Boston contractor that the Globe reported, “routinely failed to pay immigrant construction workers, even after they showed up at his home and court judgments were entered against him.” Since the Great Recession, this is the actual business model for residential construction in Mass. Workers can’t worry about their health because they are worrying about feeding, clothing, and sheltering their families.
This coming Tuesday, January 17, state lawmakers can protect workers from the national anti-worker sentiment by attending the Healthy Legislative Co-Sponsorship Day in the Great Hall of the State House, and by signing up to co-sponsor bills that will:
- Hold employers accountable even if they subcontract and outsource their work to distance themselves from their responsibilities to their employees.
- Protect the safety of public workers.
- Help the most impoverished by ensuring them the opportunity to earn a better living.
In doing so, legislators will make the Commonwealth a safer place for all workers.
Sean Mulkerrin is the Engagement Fellow at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.