Monday, 7 June 2010

An insult to the victims of Bhopal and why health and safety is not the enemy

In 1984, the people of Bhopal, India, suffered an utterly horrendous environmental disaster. 3,500 people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident at a Union Carbide plant, and as many as 25,000 since. Not to mention birth defects and other devastating consequences. Today, over 25 years later, they are still awaiting justice.


An Indian court has found eight former plant employees - one already dead - guilty of death by negligence. The charges had been downgraded from "culpable homicide not amounting to murder" in 1996, and the final sentence was two years in prison alongside a fine of 100,000 rupees (£1,400) each. Survivors' groups have called the prosecution "sloppy," and the verdict "an insult."

They have a right to be angry. Especially after the $470m (£323m) compensation paid by Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide, went to the Indian government rather than the survivors. Not a penny has been spent on cleaning up the area.

Dow, however, refuses to take responsibility and considers the matter closed. "The Bhopal plant was detail designed, owned, operated and managed on a day-to-day basis by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and its employees," a spokesperson has said, and so "all the appropriate people … have appeared to face charges."

Needless to say, this is not quite true. Union Carbide's then chairman, Warren Anderson, fled India in the wake of the disaster and has refused to return. It was his company's decision to lay off staff that led to a single employee monitoring the control room on the night that methyl isocyanate became mixed with water, triggering the chemical reaction that traveled to the nearby slums and killed so many people whilst they slept. This aside from cutting corners in the building of the plant, non-compliance with any basic health and safety standards, and refusal to acknowledge continued warnings from the workers' union or health and safety reps.

That they have gotten away with this for so long should come as no surprise. After all, the prime concern of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in these matters is that health and safety regulations aren't used "as disguised protectionism;"
The Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT) tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles.

However, the agreement also recognizes countries’ rights to adopt the standards they consider appropriate — for example, for human, animal or plant life or health, for the protection of the environment or to meet other consumer interests. Moreover, members are not prevented from taking measures necessary to ensure their standards are met. But that is counterbalanced with disciplines. A myriad of regulations can be a nightmare for manufacturers and exporters. Life can be simpler if governments apply international standards, and the agreement encourages them to do so In any case, whatever regulations they use should not discriminate.

The agreement also sets out a code of good practice for both governments and non-governmental or industry bodies to prepare, adopt and apply voluntary standards. Over 200 standards-setting bodies apply the code.
In practice, this means that the WTO's dispute panels can declare any domestic law a "barrier to free trade" and demand it be abolished. Though this was not the case in Bhopal, this is the "free market" ideological dogmatism that justifies the kind of gross negligence that caused that disaster.

As well as fighting for justice for those who died, then, the Bhopal campaigners are in the corner of all the people in the developing world who suffer and die because of globalised "free" trade.

But those in the developed world should take heed too. Over a century of struggle has pushed us away from the horrendous conditions of the industrial revolution, the same child labour, fire-trap workplaces, and non-existent health and safety measures that people elsewhere suffer today. In the fight by the business classes and their allies to roll back this progress, health and safety is on the front line.

The media propaganda campaign against "health and safety gone mad" and/or "health and safety killjoys" is built upon myths and half-truths. (As is the campaign against "political correctness.") The point is to turn ordinary people against the very concept that keeps them from dying or suffering serious injuries in the workplace so that it can be rolled back. Hence the media silence when workers are killed because of lapses in health and safety, or over the still unconscionably high industrial death toll in countries like Britain.

Where this is going should be obvious, given existing Tory plans to curb the power of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and "change whatever we need to change."

The Nottingham Post tells us what is already in the pipeline;
They have made no secret that they want to abolish law relating to the social chapter which gives rights to employees such as working hours. Industries like nursing and bakery workers all have access to sensible and less-stressful shift patterns. The Tories objected to this. Let's not forget they still do.

They plan to amend the law where the Health and Safety Executive can carry out inspections in industries where an investigation is already under way.

The HSE would not be allowed to carry out its independent audit.

I am sure that a lot of cases for injury compensation have been won due to the involvement of the HSE and let's not forget their legal powers have made the workplace a safer place to be. Departments like these will be targets for the Tories.
We are far away from the working conditions of the 19th Century and of the developing world. But we want to keep it that way.

Health and safety is one the most importing areas of (still ongoing) progress, and Bhopal should serve as a timeless reminder of why we should ignore the deregulatory message of the "free" market propagandists.