The Invisible Slaughter: Study on Work-Related Deaths in France

Review of Matthieu Lépine's book, L’Hécatombe invisible : Enquête sur les morts au travail, by a CWO sympathiser.

It is often said by people disconnected from reality in the UK that ‘we are not in a Dickens novel’. The saying in France is that ‘we are not in Zola’s times anymore’. Macron, back when he was Minister of the Economy in 2016, said that being an entrepreneur is riskier than being an employee, since you could lose everything. He also infamously said that he disliked the notion of hard work because it gave the impression work was hard. Macroniste MP Aurore Bergé, a Thatcher fangirl, exclaimed in 2019 that people do not die at work anymore. There had been 4 work-related deaths just in the few days preceding the declaration. In 2022, after a worker died in the National Assembly basement, Bergé, now head of the macroniste group in the lower chamber, accused her opponents of instrumentalising their death. Recently an ex-socialist turned head of the macroniste group in the Senate covered himself in ridicule on TV by declaring work was not hard anymore because everybody uses exoskeletons.

Each year, about 1 million workers in France are victims of work-related accidents. The media’s silence on the question is deafening. France counts the most work deaths in Europe, with 3.25 deaths for every 100,000 workers. In 2019, there were 804 deaths, double that of Germany and the EU average. France is the only EU country where the number of deaths is increasing, currently at 1,200 work-related deaths (including from work-related diseases) per year (pp. 21, 209). Precarious work, negligent job training, use of temp workers, subcontracting, the gig economy, companies dodging judicial responsibility and the degradation of working conditions are to blame.

Matthieu Lépine, a history and geography teacher in the eastern suburbs of Paris has been studying work-related deaths in France for the last 4 years in his free time. His endeavours can be followed via the Twitter account @DuAccident. He took inspiration from accounts documenting police violence. He often tags whomever the current Minister of Work is. He wishes to remind people that these are not mere accidents but the result of political action or inaction. After all, the Ministry was created under Clemenceau in 1906 (though the ministry had been an idea since 1848 and had briefly existed during the Commune) in response to the anger resulting from the Courrières mine disaster, Europe’s worst mining accident. Since 2019, many journalists, unionists, work inspectors, lawyers, victims of work accidents, families of the dead have contacted him and this has all culminated in a book, L’Hécatombe invisible : Enquête sur les morts au travail (“The Invisible Slaughter: a Study on Work-Related Deaths”).

In his methodology, he decided to count policemen, soldiers and prison guards despite knowing “they represent the organs of repression of popular and workers’ movements” (p.14). He explains that this is because he includes everyone who might die at work, not just the working class, even though they are the majority of victims. He also explains that he is unable to count deaths occurring during travel to and from work or deaths resulting from work-related diseases. He says that while at first, he took suicides into account, he was ultimately unable to due to a lack of information in a number of cases. Nonetheless, he takes the time to underline that suicides can often be the direct result of working conditions. He evokes the France Télécom (now Orange S.A.) suicides. He also evokes headteacher Christine Renon, who in 2019 killed herself in her office and left a suicide note behind damning her employer. Lépine wonders how many suicides employers can brush off because there was no note accusing working conditions. This is somewhat similar to headteacher Ruth Perry’s recent suicide in the UK. It is the duty of communists to show that the conditions in the UK are the same as in France and in the rest of the world. These deaths are not freak accidents but products of the capitalist system.

Lépine found that young workers are particularly vulnerable. Work accidents are 2.5 times more likely to occur amongst workers under the age of 25 (p.35). The main reason for this is lack of adequate job training. In 2019, workers under the age of 20 accounted for 26,898 of the work accidents. Workers in ‘apprenticeship’ contracts accounted for 10,301. More than 1 per hour (pp.26-7). Serious work accidents have increased by a third amongst agricultural apprentices (p.35). Apprenticeship contracts, providing quasi-free labour-power, have been the pride of several successive governments, doubling in number during Macron’s first presidential mandate. Lépine notes that other political parties, like Le Pen’s, agree with this policy and have even promoted the lowering of the minimum age needed to work. Again, this is not a specifically French phenomenon. The capitalist system worldwide hungers for more young living labour, as recently exemplified in New Jersey and Arkansas.

Lépine has found that temporary, subcontracted, illegal and detached workers are amongst the most vulnerable. The frequency of accidents amongst temp workers is double that of other workers, and generally more serious (p.67). They are victims of both the employer and the temp agency’s neglect for training and the risk to their health and lives. They have increased from 232,000 in 1990 to 851,000 in 2021 (p.61). Subcontracting has increased along with temp work. Lépine gives the example of the ‘nomads of the nuclear industry’, workers who bounce from nuclear power plant to nuclear power plant doing the most dangerous tasks (this is so the EDF’s own employees do not surpass the radiation exposure limit, a clear example of exteriorisation of risks). He relays cases of illegal workers abandoned or threatened by their employers upon an accident. They are often unaware that they could benefit from financial aid in case of work accidents. The use of detached workers, workers from companies in other EU countries, has exploded. Their official number has increased from 7,495 in 2000 to 261,300 in 2019. The construction sector is particularly gluttonous. Due to the “mille-feuille” of subcontractors, “collective consciousness, class consciousness, withers” (p.62). Indeed, accidents do not only have the interests of the capitalist class as their cause, although the book shows this clearly, but also the working class’ own weakness and disunity. If the working class, instead of being an atomised class in itself, banded together as a class for itself, these stories would likely have turned out differently. Despite saying this, in the book Lépine appears to only advocate for stricter and enforced labour laws as the solution. That being said, his book is nonetheless a powerful vehicle for class consciousness in France, similar to Marx’s intentions for his Workers’ Enquiry.

In recent years, labour laws have come under attack and this has only increased the risk of work accidents. There is the infamous Loi Travail of 2016 of course, but also the replacement of the Hygiene, Security and Working Conditions Committees by more impotent ones in 2017. Work inspection has also come under attack. Their budget has been cut and the number of inspectors has decreased in recent years. Threats and physical attacks on work inspectors by the petite bourgeoisie have further deteriorated their working conditions. During the Covid lockdowns, inspector Anthony Smith, who fought so that homecare workers could obtain adequate protection, was punished by the then Minister of Work Muriel Pénicaud, former controversial head of HR for Danone and richest member of the government, in what became a national affair.

Occupational medicine is also in a precarious condition. The number of these doctors has diminished. It is an ageing profession. The number of consultations is dropping. Workers in small companies use their services the least. The Loi Travail also saw the abolition of the compulsory medical visit upon being hired and of the compulsory visit every 2 years. Since these doctors are in a relation of subordination to their employers, they are under pressure. For example, Dr. Dominique Huez established a link between an employee's working conditions and their depression, which helped the employee win a case against their employer. The vindictive company then had the doctor sanctioned by the Order of Medicine, a notoriously conservative organisation.

Lépine confirms that certain industries are particularly risky. In construction, there is on average an accident every 2 minutes. In 2019, 215 construction workers officially died (independent, illegal and detached workers not included). 1 per work day. Lépine alerts that the Parisian region, with construction projects linked to Grand Paris and the Olympics, is particularly dangerous. Most deaths (45%) are caused by falls and the main cause is insufficient or absent security measures (p.82). This is more often the case in small companies. Enterprises with less than 20 workers represent 99% of the enterprises in the sector, 60% of the profits, 59% of the workers and 78% of the apprentices (p.88). In addition, small companies contribute collectively towards funds helping victims of work-related accidents and diseases. A small company with 0 accidents per year pays as much as one with 8, which means that small companies with better working conditions are forking the bill for the others. It is then economically sound, from the narrow point of view of the individual enterprise, to be an unsafe workplace. For big companies, the contribution is individual. Each accident sees them pay more. This means companies try to hide accidents. The grande bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie alike, are, quite literally, mortal enemies of the proletariat.

After the construction sector, the agricultural and industrial sectors are the deadliest. Agricultural machinery is the first cause of mortality among farm workers. Arthur Fréhaut, a 14-year-old intern, was eaten by such a machine in 2017, despite the fact that such young interns are only ever supposed to observe, not work. His inconsolable and unjustly guilt-racked mother recalls how she recommended he do as he was told. Servile ideologies pollute the heads of the working class. In 2020, a 15-year-old apprentice died while driving a tractor, an engine he neither had the training nor legal right to drive. In July 2019, a 16-year-old intern lost part of his leg in a tractor accident. Lépine counted 19 deaths (excluding suicides) in agriculture in that month alone. Over half were caused by machines. In 2021, a fourth of accidents involving tractors or otherwise mobile machines concerned workers under the age of 25. 1 out of 10 times, the worker had been hired for less than a month and in 40% of cases less than a year (pp.102-3). In metallurgy and the car industry machine-related accidents account for 20% of total accidents (p.105). The book tells the stories of multiple victims of these powerful demons of industry, hungry for lives and limbs, alternatively cleaving, crushing and choking the tormented. Dead labour preys on the living. The book condemns machines and security measures that are not up to standard but does not stop there. Flavien Bérard, a 27-year-old cancer survivor, was killed by a loose piece from a machine in 2022. The piece had already fallen twice beforehand. He had been working for a week. His new colleagues were cold and refused to explain how things worked, stating that they were not his boss and it was not their job. The workers offered one of their own as a sacrifice.

The transport, timber and fishing industries are the next deadliest. Lépine counted the deaths of 201 truck drivers in the last 4 years (p.111). Road accidents are obviously the main cause, but Lépine is alarmed to find that cardiac diseases have been on the rise. The maintenance of their vehicle is often the occasion for a heart attack. Truck drivers disproportionately suffer from obesity, asthma, diabetes and tobacco addiction. Sitting for long periods of time, excruciating hours and working at night does not help. Most victims are not even in their 50s. The forest and the sea are perilous places. At sea, it is not only storms but overloaded boats that cause lost souls. The volunteers of the SNSM, a French organisation dedicated to saving people from the sea, are also at risk. The timber industry has a death toll between 10 and 20 every year. The average life expectancy is 62.5 years (p.24). Insufficient rainfall, diseases and pests weaken trees and make them and their branches more likely to fall. In Brittany, green algae kills. The workers’ struggle and the struggle to preserve the environment go hand in hand.

Of the 1,399 work deaths Lépine has counted over just the last 4 years (which is not an exhaustive account), 95% of them are men. Indeed, in the aforementioned sectors about 8 out of 10 workers are men. However, the number of women victims of work accidents increased by 41.6% and work-related diseases by 158.7% between 2001 and 2019 (pp.115-6). These concern different sectors like homecare, healthcare, cleaning or retail. Lépine does not forget that unemployment also kills, at a rate of about 10,000 to 14,000 deaths per year (p.132).

Lépine denounces the long judicial procedures. Companies can afford to play the waiting game, their victims and their families cannot. He also denounces the ease with which companies get off the hook. He shows the difficulties of returning to work. Bosses often pressure the newly handicapped to quit. The financial toll of their handicap is often greater than the meagre compensation they get even if they go to trial. It is generally less than if they were handicapped from a car accident, by 4 to 5 times (p.138). It is worse for gig workers, who have no legal recourse. Lépine notes that the dead were often ‘self-employed’ wage-labourers. The legal status means that their deaths escape the French legal definition of a work accident. This legal status is frequent not only with companies like Uber Eats but also amongst construction workers, agricultural workers, janitors or in the transport, fishing, logistics or timber industries. In 2019, Mourad Bouhichecha fell from his bike into a coma. Deliveroo promised to cover his medical bills. All his limbs were paralysed and he died of a lung infection less than a year later. His family confirms they never received a dime from the British company.

The book is a howl against media silence. Despite over 2,000 work accidents per day (p.162), the media treat them as miscellaneous news. The French media reported on work deaths in Qatar but ignored cases in France. This hides that both countries are linked by the same capitalist mode of production. The journalists’ extremely short pieces with little information allow firms to brush cases off easily with no damage to their reputation. They are seen as freak cases and not systematic or as the risks of the job and are thus ignored. Lépine makes a parallel with car accidents which were considered a fatality until the 1970s when awareness campaigns and security measures started to be put in place. Lépine notes that soldiers and policemen get government homages while workers get nothing. Especially jarring when police deaths have decreased threefold since the 1980s (p.173).

The book includes a small guide on what to do if you are victim of a work accident and a few statistics tables. The book ends with smiling pictures of just some of the victims accounted for in the study. One of them, Teddy Lenglos, a 20-year-old construction worker, posted on social media a few days before his death in 2020 that it was inconceivable to him that he was on Earth just to work, pay bills and die. The independent study, with its personal style retelling the stories of multiple victims throughout the book, is an easy read for anyone with a grasp on French. Lépine’s efforts should be reproduced everywhere, because the miserable condition of wage-labour exists everywhere.

10 April 2023
Sunday, April 23, 2023