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Wages of fear – contracting out the danger

Pipe_installation_2BERNARD CORDEN
| Edited extracts

‘No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky’ - Bob Dylan

BRISBANE - Wages of Fear is a critically acclaimed classic suspense movie starring Yves Montand and based on a French novel, Le Salaire de la Peur, by George Arnaud, written almost seven decades ago.

The narrative remains eerily familiar across Australia and Papua New Guinea, especially if you have ever driven through the Kassam or Daulo passes on the Okuk Highway amidst a convoy of dilapidated trucks.

Southern Oil, a fictitious American transnational conglomerate, dominates an isolated pastoral town in South America amidst accusations of unethical practices, including 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 reduce or even escape from the prevailing solitude, despair and anomie.

A massive fire erupts in one of its oilfields and the only way to cap the well and extinguish the flames is through an explosion using 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.

Le salaire de la peurItinerants in the local community are persuaded by the lucrative pay to offer their services but the large pool is soon reduced to four casual truck drivers.

A driver and colleague are allocated to each truck, which leave from the Southern Oil headquarters yard 30 minutes apart to reduce potential catastrophic consequences.

The leading truck eventually reaches its destination after navigating numerous hazards, including his co-driver being fatally crushed trying to prevent the vehicle becoming bogged. The second vehicle explodes en route killing its two occupants.

So only one driver receives the handsome bounty, only to be killed when his truck veers off a steep stretch of road on the return journey.

During 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 conditions of employment included enticing remuneration packages, career development prospects and many other corporate benefits. Despite the incentives, refinery life was not all beer and skittles, 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.

Stained tiled floors were often manually cleaned using raw pyrolysis gasoline, which contained significant amounts of benzene. And 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 World War II, 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 across several notorious death camps.

The liaison generated significant discomfort and uneasiness amongst most Shell UK Oil directors in London. Following the war, Sir Douglas Bader, a cantankerous classic liberal and staunch conservative embarked on an extensive public relations crusade across Europe and North Africa on behalf of the rapacious brigand and was eventually appointed as managing director of Shell Aircraft.

The sinecure involved delivering leadership and motivational speeches to aspiring graduates from the Stanlow Oil Managers Association at Shell Centre above Waterloo underground station in London.

Much of the material was littered with indoctrinating militaristic propaganda from the notorious Tavistock Institute, which triggered the dynamic power of the collective unconscious. Keep going well, keep going Shell.

Soma was also a freely available drug for all citizens of the World State in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In small doses it made people feel pleasant and significant quantities often generated euphoria with rapturous hallucinations amidst a sense of timelessness.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
'Somebody calls you and you answer quite slowly.
'The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.’

The ruthless corporate brigand with its ravenous maw 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.

AsbestosSignificant occupational and public health consequences often result from exposure to industrial chemicals or other toxic substances and several recent notorious events across Australia include:

RAAF Amberley deseal reseal program
Asbestos and mesothelioma
Alcoa Wagerup
Port Kembla copper smelter
Magellan Metals and Esperance Port Authority
CFA Fiskville
Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination

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.

In the United States during the World War I many young women flocked to work in factories throughout New Jersey and Illinois painting the dials of watches, clocks, compasses and other military instruments.

The work involved using their lips to point the tips of paint brushes for the delicate painting required. The luminous paint contained radioactive radium. The women were told the paint was harmless 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 and her death was recorded as syphilis. Sickness continued with evidence of decaying teeth, friable bones and disintegrating spines.

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.

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 their statutory duty of care to contingent labour with ‘wages of fear’ paychecks buying silence.

This 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 many of the metropolitan and regional public hearings.

The issue remains unresolved although a Senate inquiry into job security is in progress

Since the year 2000, Queensland’s mining sector has experienced almost 50 fatalities and the mine dust lung diseases toll exceeds 200 cases.

Neither a safety reset nor an independent review adequately addressed this emergency 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 and will encounter a prolonged and extremely painful road to recovery.

Labour hire is big business, very competitive and demands expansive marketing. What better, then, than to  secure former Australian rugby league captain Darren Lockyer, the gravel-voiced Wandoan celebrity, as the face of One Key Resources, a provider of blue-collar workers to the coal mining, oil and gas industries.

Lockyer, who also became a director and shareholder in the business, prominently featured on many indoctrinating billboards in airport departure lounges and baggage terminals across regional and rural Queensland.

Then emerged something shaped like a pear when subsidiary, One Key Workforce, went into liquidation in 2018 potentially owing more than $50 million to about 2,000 casual employees.

Since then, Adero Law has commenced a class action against the One Key group alleging underpayments of up to $38 million.

But Lockyer had more irons in the resources cauldron, also featuring as a prolific ambassador with Origin Energy across its controversial $35 billion coal seam gas project under a slick marketing theme, Every Day is Game Day, that focussed on operational excellence and health and safety.

BillboardThe embattled dignitary was also appointed head of business affairs with Mayur Resources and not so long ago embarked on a somewhat prickly marketing campaign throughout Papua New Guinea, a nation frequently exploited by transnational predators and beleaguered by systemic corruption and corporate malfeasance.

The Lockyer crusade involved extensive lobbying and discussions with the country’s mining minister and a review of the organisational strategy.

In Queensland, an incumbent Labor government has conspired with transnational conglomerates to protect and secure their interests. This sinister relationship enables most corporate predators to boost profits and provide the state with sufficient royalties.

Meanwhile, extensive environmental damage and significant public health issues such as occupational respiratory diseases are typically whitewashed at the expense of taxpayers and the losses incurred socialised.

Oft times bereaved dependents are left chasing smoke.

It will be most intriguing to see what the Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry recommends for resolving such issues.

Should we expect more than wages of fear or paychecks for silence, especially amongst an industrial sector dominated by mercenary rednecks. Probably not.

In an era of casino capitalism losses are 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 non-partisan 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% over the past four decades.

The wages of fear - le salaire de la peur – well, they’re for other people. Those easily impressed by trinkets and sporting heroes.


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Chris Overland

Bernard is right.

Neo-liberal capitalism has very adept at out sourcing hard, dirty or dangerous work to the developing world where the political elites are largely unconcerned about the welfare of their workforce, preferring to focus on the acquisition of wealth for themselves.

If a few tailings dams burst and kill a few people, well that is the price of progress. Plenty more where they came from. Ditto for large scale pollution, appalling working conditions for workers, crap wages and so forth.

This is what people in the developed world understand to be a long abandoned 19th century capitalist outlook, except it has not been abandoned, merely moved offshore.

The same forces identified by Marx in the 1840's as an inherent part of the laissez faire liberal capitalism of the time are still actually at work. This is shocking but not unexpected given that neo-liberal capitalism actually works the same way.

In essence, it relies upon the ruthless exploitation of cheap labour to generate massive profits for the capitalist or owner class.

If any reader imagines that there is not an owner class in this world, then they clearly do not understand the evidence that is before their very eyes.

How do people imagine that the wealth of Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Bill Gates or many other multi-Billionaires can be generated without necessarily exploiting the intellects and labour of many other people? No matter how talented and clever these people may be as individuals, they have only become so immensely wealthy through the systematic exploitation of others.

As Marx would have said, they have taken most of the value of the labour of their workers for themselves.

Quite how you could possibly miss the blindingly obvious is beyond me, yet many people contrive to do so.

While I am not an advocate for socialism, let alone communism, I strongly believe that a better, fairer and more sustainable version of capitalism is not only possible but essential if we are to create the best possible living conditions for everyone and, indeed, to survive as a species.

Neo-liberalism cannot deliver this outcome. Eventually, my hope is that the left of politics will stop obsessing about identity politics and refocus its attention on the things that matter: fairer and more just wages and working conditions (especially in the developing world), a sensible rebalancing of the relationship between capital and labour generally and a serious attack upon the manifest causes of the dangerous climate change which threatens us all.

I doubt that I will live to see this happen but happen it must if we are to survive and thrive as a species.

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