Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Climates of Fear: Precarious Work and the Erosion of Care1

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Climates of Fear: Precarious Work and the Erosion of Care1

Article excerpt

One marker of an uncivil society is the state's failure to enforce capital's duty of care to labour. This is evident today in Australia in the abuse of fundamental principles of mutual obligation and compassion in occupational health and safety. In particular, these principles were flouted in the Howard Government's 2004 amendment of Commonwealth OHS legislation that protected employers from industrial manslaughter charges. These elements are aided by a corrosive fear of job-loss that has discouraged workers from taking charge of their own workplace safety. Using historical evidence on workplace safety up to and including the second world war, and with reference to current workplace abuse, this paper shows how state-supported corporate neglect in that period foreshadowed the politics of OHS management in the Howard era. Historical argument allows reflection on the impact of workplace fear on workers and on the social capital of community. The argument challenges the Rudd Labor Government to prioritise workplace safety in rebuilding a civil society.

The Howard Government legislated against a civil society in Australia through its approach to occupational health and safety. One outcome of that approach was the entrenchment of risk management of safe practice, including in Australia's workplaces. The nature of recent changes to labour and OHS law facilitates the argument that principles of employer liability for industrial injury and death became culturally and politically muted during the late twentieth century, despite significant changes to health and safety frameworks since the UK Robens Report of 1972 (see Waters 2003). This ongoing failure to protect at risk workers is demonstrated by the persistence of respiratory - related occupational disputes, issues persisting despite wellgrounded understanding of dangers from identified processes and materials used in industry. The Howard years thus illustrate one characteristic of a diminished civil society - governmental failure to observe duty of care for the people. This paper explores current responses to workplace safety, raising the moral dimensions of its management. Unlike the Howard Administration, I assert that fairness and justice in this process demands legal sanctions against industrial manslaughter, and the recognition that capital has the responsibility, resting on ultimate power, to ensure the safe workplace. The almost complete absence of these sanctions in Australian law indicates a society that has allowed its conscience to be dulled by the ethos of risk management, perceived economic corporate imperative, and fear of speaking out. Historical evidence, including union records and legislation affecting workplace health and safety up to and including World War II, makes it clear that corporate and political responses to industrial accidents and risk today mirror those in early anti-labour periods. Analyses of past battles to preserve employee health suggest the ongoing damage to individuals and community when workers daily confront avoidable hazards at work. In concluding, I use historical insight to suggest the shift needed to reinstate duty of care in this not-so-civil society.

Philosopher Mary Midgley, in Wickedness, her long 1984 essay on evil, observes that 'A great deal of evil is caused by quiet, respectable, unaggressive motives like sloth, fear, avarice and greed' and that 'Unless we are willing to grasp imaginatively how [evil] works in the human heart, and in our own hearts, we cannot understand it' (Midgley 2001, 4). Further, when wickedness is embedded in a society its impact is both immediate and ongoing. Taking heart from Midgley, I contend that evil, or wickedness, is behind the eroded social conscience of an uncivil society. It feeds on aggression and threat, and is enacted through the abuse of rights, including of human rights historically and now put at risk through lack of care for workplace safety. Evil is also a quality which the society allows to exist: again, Midgley suggests alternative or passive nature : 'a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living' (Midgley 2001, 4). …

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