Monday, November 8, 2010

The political economy of health and safety

Late last week, the government provided some additional information about its renewed emphasis on workplace health and safety. In an interview, Minister Thomas Lukaszuk noted that the government is pursuing companies which have outstanding OHS fines--fines levied for injuring or killing workers.

Lukaszuk is spinning these efforts as a good news story. Yet some questions are in order. The most obvious is why are these fines--which total at least $1.7 million--unpaid in the first place? If you get a $100 traffic ticket, the province will pursue you to the ends of the earth and eventually revoke your right to drive by not renewing your license.

Yet millions owed by companies whose workers were maimed or killed continue to operate with impunity. It is only because of a confluence of events--a bad auditor general report and a Calgary Herald investigation of workplace fatalities--that the government is seeking payment.

This says some important things about the political economy of employment that are often obscured by the day-to-day hustle and bustle. On the one hand, governments must facilitate the capital accumulation process. That is to say, they must act in ways that allow employers to produce goods and services in a profitable manner and thereby encourage private investment. Failing to do so may result in an economic downturn, for which the government may well be held responsible. This may have significant social consequences for society and electoral consequences for the government.

On the other hand, governments must maintain their own legitimacy with the electorate as well as the legitimacy of the capitalist social formation. The operation of capitalist systems often negatively affects workers, who comprise the majority of the electorate. We see this in the form of low pay, poor working conditions, and the specter of workplace injury and death. These effects can cause a loss of confidence in a particular government or in the capitalist social formation.

So long as concerns about workplace injury can be contained--by ignoring them or explaining injuries away (e.g., as the fault of careless workers)--the state can safely ignore occupational health and safety. It is only when there is a legitimation crisis--when the state's credibility is imperiled by its lack of action for the public good--does the government bother to enforce its own laws.

It will be interesting to see whether the government's renewed interest in workplace health and safety continues once the furor of this summer dies down. It will also be interesting to see if the government truly has the stomach to meaningfully address the issue of occupational disease--an issue that quickly bumps up against environmental disease and whose remedy may impose significant costs upon employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

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