Death at Work: Capitalism is Bad for Your Health

The following article was inspired by the paper of the Italian affiliate of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, Battaglia Comunista (January 2008). It reported on the dangers faced by miners around the world, every day. Much of what follows is directly translated from the article. However, the very direct threat of working underground and relying on the capitalist bosses to ensure one’s safety is only a more visible manifestation of a general reality that faces all workers. The fact that our work is directly related to an early grave is not only a problem for miners, construction workers, blue-collar labourers et al.

Murderous mines

The job of the miner is still one of the most dangerous in the world; in December several serious incidents took place in China and the Ukraine that caused the death of hundreds of workers.

These are only two amongst the most dramatic cases of recent times, death in a mine is still an everyday fact all around the world. In South Africa, where the mining sector is still very important, there have been almost 200 victims over the last year and has led to the first mobilisation of miners to press for an adequate level of safety on the job. The latest slaughter of Chinese coalminers happened in the province of Yunnan and caused 18 deaths with 43 more “missing” to which can be added to 2163 dead workers in 1320 “incidents” in the first seven months of the Chinese year. The mortality rate of the Chinese coalminers is the highest in the world and is directly proportional to the growing energy needs of Chinese industry.

The government has issued various regulations to improve the levels of security, but these have so far been totally ineffective. They represent yet another confirmation that the interests of capital and those of the workers are ever more irreconcilable.

In the Ukraine, repeated gas explosions in the Zasyadko coal mine, one of the largest in the Donbass, led, last November, to 101 deaths and another five at the beginning of December. Those incidents are all the more serious if we consider that the plant in question ought to be one of the most modern, secure plants in the Ukraine. Prime Minister Yanukovich, always supported by the economic groups that manage the Zasyadko mine has rejected the proposal of complete closure of the plant because it would be too dangerous, on a financial level, for the national steel industry. In that situation the only way to keep workers at the mine is by offering salaries much higher than the average so the risk of losing one’s life or suffering serious injury is set against money, and that is made possible by the very high unemployment rate and poverty in the Ukraine.

In South Africa, last October, 3200 workers trapped in a gold mine in Elandsrand were saved after a tough struggle; however, the incident shed light on the negligence and lack of maintenance by the mine management. 180 victims that year, 200 the previous year due to slips, cave-ins, gas leaks, mini-earthquakes. Less than the 533 registered in 1995, but still too many for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which declared, in December, a strike for safety, the first in its history.

(Solidarity, the “white” union, did not join in).

This represents a first timid reaction to an unsustainable situation, however, if the workers do not beyond mere union logic, they will find it hard to improve their living and working conditions.. As far as capitalism is concerned, safety is just another cost to be kept to the minimum in order to face today’s crisis situation. The consequences, of this neglect, however deadly, are never taken into consideration.

Capitalist Exploitation is Bad for Your Health

If people are largely aware of the threat miners have to confront to earn a living, perhaps the problems of a very large section of the working class remains less recognised.

Recent research by the World Health Organisation (1) have carried out a study which shows night workers have almost double the risk of contracting cancer. The problem possibly arises because the genes controlling tumour growth are sensitive to light at night. The report states that in the West 20% of the economically active population are night workers.

And if a problem affecting 20% of the active population is not enough to raise alarm bells, let us look at the issue of work-related stress. That a stressful job has a direct biological effect on the organism and increases the risk of suffering heart disease may be well known, but the widespread nature of the problem is only now coming to light.

A new study (2) states that people under 50 with a highly pressurised job have almost 70% more risk of developing such illnesses than those free of stress. “New” capitalism with its disregard for job security, its threats of poverty and unemployment, its long hours for low pay culture is anything but relaxing for those whose health is undermined by stress.

And one could continue, looking at the toll on health capitalism creates beyond the workplace, its production of the junk that leads to obesity amongst its victims who are tethered to a pointless cycle of alienated production and consumption, the plethora of broken homes often caused by unemployment and poverty and the increasing problems of substance abuse which are all symptomatic of the ghost train ride which is modern life. It is hardly surprising that the option of a healthy lifestyle is ignored by so many for whom life is a burden that has little value. Perhaps most of us will be spared the horrors of being trapped in a mine, or crashing through a scaffold on a building site, but the death toll directly attributable to the work place, and the environment that capitalism produces, an alien junkyard unfit for human consumption, threatens everyone.


(1) Carried out by IARC. This confirms an earlier study in 2001 when a group of scientists in Seattle observed that women working at night had 60% more likelihood of developing breast cancer than those working during the day.

(2) .

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