Wages of fear – Le salaire de la peur
Society cares for the individual only so far as he is profitable
Wages of fear is a critically acclaimed classic suspense movie starring Yves Montand. It is based on a French novel by George Arnuad entitled Le salaire de la peur, which was written almost seven decades ago and the narrative remains eerily familiar. Southern Oil (SO), a fictitious American transnational conglomerate dominates an isolated pastoral town in South America amidst accusations of unethical practices, which include the exploitation of vulnerable workers. The company operates several large oilfields across the vast surrounding desert and provides many locals or itinerants with a scarce opportunity to attenuate or even escape from the prevailing solitude, despair and anomie.
A massive fire erupts in one of its oilfields and the only solution is to cap the well and extinguish the flames is via an explosion with trinitroglycerine. The volatile liquid requires transportation in jerry cans using two dilapidated trucks from the company headquarters to the remote site almost 500 kilometres away along badly neglected goat tracks through unstable mountainous terrain. Many itinerants amongst the local community are inveigled by the lucrative remuneration and offer their services although the large pool of cavalier teamsters is quickly attenuated to four casual truck drivers.
A driver and colleague are allocated to each truck, which leave from the corporate headquarters logistics yard thirty minutes apart to reduce potential catastrophic consequences. The leading truck eventually reaches its destination although the driver must navigate numerous slippery oil-filled potholes across the site and his assistant is fatally crushed in a frantic attempt to prevent the vehicle becoming bogged. The following vehicle explodes en route killing its two occupants. The remaining truck driver picks up the bounty but dies when his truck veers off a precarious stretch of road on the return journey.
In the 1970s, my formative years amidst the innocence and arrogance of youth were spent at the Shell UK Oil Stanlow petrochemical complex on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire. The company was easily the largest regional employer and it dominated the local borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston. Its workforce consisted of almost 20,000 people, which included permanent employees and many contractors. The alluring terms and conditions of employment were supplemented by enticing remuneration packages, career development prospects and many other inveigling corporate benefits. Despite the incentives, refinery life was not all beer and skittles, which was corroborated by the obituary column in the refinery’s quarterly bulletin. Indeed only a few operations and manufacturing stalwarts reached retirement age and even less spent rewarding, healthy and productive years beyond that significant milestone. Eye protection was mandatory throughout its laboratories although stained tiled floors in the bitumen plant control room and its laboratory were often manually cleaned using raw pyrolysis gasoline. Moreover, it was practically impossible to perform analysis on many aliphatic or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons without significant exposure to toxic and carcinogenic organic vapours.
Before the second world war, the Royal Dutch Shell group under the helm of its imperious founder collaborated with the Nazi party and provided finance for the Third Reich. It also formed a controversial partnership with the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben, which manufactured Zyklon B gas that was used at several notorious death camps. The liaison generated significant discomfort and uneasiness amongst several Shell UK Oil directors in London. Following the war, Sir Douglas Bader, a cantankerous and staunch conservative embarked on an extensive public relations crusade across Europe and North Africa on behalf of the organisation and was eventually appointed as managing director with Shell Aircraft.
The ruthless corporation remains driven by unscrupulous gluttony and continues trading with brutal, despotic and corrupt regimes around the globe. Somewhat paradoxically, it promotes a goal zero ambition, which is reinforced by rigid compliance with its mandatory life saving rules. It recently sold the Stanlow refinery for approximately US$ 1.3 billion to Essar Energy, which proposes a $250 million expansion via a significant increase in diesel and aviation fuel production with a workforce of approximately 300 permanent employees. It will enable the refinery to compete with its counterparts in Asia and the Middle East.
Significant occupational and public health consequences often result from exposure to industrial chemicals or other toxic substances and several recent notorious events across Australia include:
In China, manufacturing facilities across the Pearl River delta produce most of the world’s consumer electronics. Many vulnerable employees are often exposed to organic cleaning solvents, which include neurotoxins such as n-hexane and carcinogenic benzene.
Meanwhile, a recent overhaul of legislative requirements in Australia via the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme enables industry to classify certain chemicals without any public disclosure or statutory notification. It was sanctioned by the federal minister for disease amidst a neoliberal maelstrom and inevitably favours corporate interests over public safety. Moreover, the following International Labour Organization conventions remain unratified by the federal government:
It generated a somewhat predictable response from our ecclesiastical peak safety body with its lower than vermin and lily-livered cohorts of indoctrinated sycophants. Despite its vision for safe and healthy people in productive workplaces and communities, a sinister commodification of safety prevails, which is underpinned by a conspiracy of silence. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to disregard such a prolonged and egregious performance without remaining rather twitter and bisted, especially when the organisation repeatedly fails to speak the truth to power and sanctions asinine and sinister shibboleths such as zero harm………Hello darkness my old friend.
In the United States during the first world war many young females flocked to work in factories throughout New Jersey and Illinois painting the dials of watches, clocks, compasses and other military instruments. There was plenty of competition for jobs and the naïve young women were inveigled via a prestigious and patriotic wartime crusade with offers of a lucrative salary. The work involved lip pointing to hone the tips of paint brushes and delicate painting with Undark, an intriguing luminous amalgam containing radioactive radium. The Radium Girls were told the paint was harmless and actually beneficial for their health although its deleterious health effects were well established. After several years of exposure many of the girls became violently ill and symptoms included loose teeth, halitosis, excruciating pain and rotten jawbones. The first victim died in 1922 aged just 24 years and her death was recorded as syphilis, much to the dismay of her family and close friends. Sickness continued with evidence of decaying teeth, friable bones and disintegrating spines although the owners denied it was happening. Subsequent autopsies by company appointed doctors concealed the cause amidst an escalating death toll. Radiation levels were falsified or suppressed, although two victims were buried in lead-lined coffins at the Ottawa Oakwood Memorial Park in Illinois
More recently in April 2010, the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia claimed the lives of 29 miners following an underground coal dust explosion. The state governor ordered an independent investigation and the subsequent report revealed the prevalence of black lung amongst many of the victims. The US Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to use its legislative power to ensure compliance with federal laws. Furthermore, the role of the state regulatory authority was repeatedly undermined and demoralised by the influence of Massey Energy, which evolved following clandestine corporate negotiations between the Royal Dutch Shell Group and Fluor Corporation. The brutal organisation operated many underground and surface mines throughout Appalachia and employed approximately 6000 people. A mercenary corporate culture prevailed and favoured production over protection, which was identified as a significant contributory factor towards the Upper Big Branch disaster. This arithmetic of avarice was embedded during the tenure of its ruthless chief executive and corporate sociopath, Don Blankenship, a former director at the Fluor Corporation, which was recently rewarded with a major upstream coal seam gas contract in Queensland.
In the United Kingdom before the outbreak of the first world war, the Cape Asbestos Company opened several factories around London, which included a manufacturing plant in Barking to produce an extensive range of asbestos containing products such as gas masks. Some decades later concerns were raised about asbestos dust exposure but operations continued until the factory closed during the late 1960s. Employees often worked in casual clothing without respiratory protective equipment and were merely informed to drink a glass of milk to mitigate any respiratory complications. Dust from extraction fans frequently shrouded the Northbury junior and infant school adjacent to the factory and contaminated the playground and neighbouring properties. Many of the innocent adolescents were unaware of its toxicity and often engaged in snowball fights with the residual material.
The manufacturing plant was eventually demolished in the late 1960s and the land was purchased by the local council. Several council houses and tenements were built on the contaminated site. The factory employed over 10,000 people and it is difficult to estimate the precise number of employees who suffered asbestos related deaths. However, the incidence rate for mesothelioma fatalities in Barking is amongst the highest in the United Kingdom and asbestos related deaths are a pandemic throughout the region. It was described by a local member of parliament as one of the greatest tragedies the community has ever experienced. Meanwhile, Cape PLC continues operating and…………Aims to provide a workplace where everyone can work safely and healthily and operate in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. It was recently rewarded with several large contracts on oil and gas projects across Australia and has virtual offices in most states.
A Turner and Newall factory near Leeds in the United Kingdom manufactured asbestos products over many years. Emissions from its ventilation system contaminated over 1000 properties in the nearby Armley Lodge district of the city. At least 300 former employees are believed to have died from asbestos related diseases and the adjacent housing estate has the highest incidence rate of mesothelioma in the United Kingdom. The factory closed in 1959 and the repercussions have been described as a social disaster.
In Australia, the production versus protection polemic recently emerged during the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into the resurgence of black lung throughout its coal mining sector. Most transnational corporate predators attempt to absolve statutory duty of care via contingent labour hire with wages of fear or paychecks for silence. The practice is widespread throughout the resources sector and the precarious arrangements amidst a McJob gig economy are exacerbated with offers of lucrative performance bonuses to fulfil extraordinary production targets. It was raised in several submissions and witness testimonies and generated extensive discussion during numerous metropolitan and regional public hearings and remains unresolved.
Since the turn of the millennium Queensland’s mining sector has experienced almost fifty fatalities and the mine dust lung diseases toll continues escalating towards 200 confirmed cases. A safety reset and independent review failed to adequately address the elephant in the room and in May 2020, five miners suffered serious injuries following an underground gas explosion at the Anglo Coal Grosvenor Mine near Moranbah. All of the victims were engaged under contingent labour hire arrangements via One Key Resources and will encounter a prolonged and extremely painful road to recovery.
The resources service provider appointed Darren Lockyer as an intermittent director amidst an intricate organisational structure that amassed significant profits of almost $8 million throughout 2016. During 2018, the specialist service provider ceased operating and accrued potential liabilities of almost $50 million involving several thousand casual employees. The former rugby league player also featured as a prolific ambassador with Origin Energy across its controversial $35 billion APLNG coal seam gas project. The role consisted of a travelling roadshow under a slick marketing theme of Every Day is Game Day that focussed on operational excellence and workplace health and safety.
The embattled dignitary was also appointed head of business affairs with Mayur Resources and recently embarked on a somewhat prickly marketing campaign throughout Papua New Guinea. This impoverished nation is frequently exploited by many transnational predators and beleaguered by systemic corruption and entrenched corporate malfeasance. The crusade involved extensive lobbying and discussions with the country’s mining minister and a review of the organisational strategy.
In the moonlight state, an incumbent labour government has conspired with many transnational conglomerates to protect and secure their interests. This sinister relationship, which is redolent of regulatory or policy capture enables most corporate predators to boost profits and provide the state with sufficient royalties. Meanwhile, extensive environmental damage or significant public health issues such as occupational respiratory diseases are typically whitewashed via a superficial public or parliamentary inquiry at the expense of taxpayers and the loss is subsequently socialised.
It will be most intriguing which app and additional layers of bureaucracy the Coal Mining Board of Inquiry recommends for resolving wages of fear or paychecks for silence, especially amongst an industrial sector dominated by mercenary rednecks. This is exacerbated by a state labour government with its Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy or Queensland Thanatos Inc. that advocates corporate welfare and socialism for the rich.
Moreover, a cult of scientism prevails and remains besotted by artificial intelligence and big data, which merely counts how many sheep are left and measures its progress via each funeral. In an era of casino capitalism any loss is promptly socialised, profit is privatised and the accumulation of enormous wealth with trophy homes and luxury yachts is considered the ultimate test of human achievement.
Most Pecksniffian crusaders within Australia’s peak safety body are obsessed with evidence based research and should review some recent statistics from the Economic Policy Institute based in Washington DC. This think tank has explored the arithmetic of avarice and estimates that executive salaries amongst major corporations across the United States have increased by a staggering 1,167 per cent over the past four decades. In 2020 during a four-week period between March and April, the wealth of its billionaire class increased by some US$ 300 billion. Meanwhile, a record 26 million people lost their jobs and struggled to receive unemployment welfare. The recent bailouts for major corporations across the US amount to approximately US$ 500 billion. Its organisations are not required to preserve jobs or slash the remuneration of executive officers.
The following summary is a recent update on the plutocracy index in the land of the fee and home of the brave:
2010 net worth US$ 12 billion
2019 net worth US$ 112 billion
2010 net worth US$ 4 billion
2019 net worth US$ 76 billion
2010 net worth US$ 28 billion
2019 net worth US$ 61 billion
The federal minimum wage across the United State in 2010 was US$ 7.25 and in 2020 it remains the same. Amidst the rampant globalisation in a maelstrom of free market fundamentalism maybe Australia’s peak safety body should review and amend its current vision to reflect and align with Gordon Gekko’s maxim…….Greed is good.
Soon, if we are not prudent millions of people will be watching each other starve to death through expensive television sets