The fate of today’s workers:

 to die working

Rubbish jobs and disposable workers


The word for ‘work’ in Spanish, trabajar, as in many other Romance languages (trabalhar, in Portuguese, travailler, in French, travagliare, in Italian) comes from the Latin tripalium, a term used in the Middle Ages to designate a three-stake instrument of torture on which slaves were tied down and beaten. The origin of the word speaks to us of pain, suffering and sacrifice. Today, the term undoubtedly pays tribute to its etymology.


According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO),

work kills more people than warfare. Two million workers

die annually as a result of occupational injuries and

illnesses, compared to the 650 thousand people

who die every year in wars worldwide. That’s

more than 5,000 workers dying each day from

work-related accidents or conditions.


In Spain, the brutal destruction of employment

-with more than 4 million people currently

unemployed and the country at its highest

unemployment level ever- is closely connected

with the brutal destruction of health and living

conditions for thousands of people. The country

is among the leading nations in the European Union

in terms of occupational accidents and injuries: each

day, three workers die from work-related causes, 23

people are victims of serious accidents at work, and

2,499 suffer minor accidents in the workplace.

Every year more than 1,000 people are killed

in accidents suffered in the course of their work.


What’s behind this silent terrorism that kills so many people while on the job or at their place of work? The answer is really not that complicated. It’s explained by a high number of temporary contracts, widespread precarious employment, and the expansion of subcontracting and outsourcing schemes, as well as by bad practices and corporate indifference and irresponsibility, and the lack of measures in place to prevent occupational risks, all of which are major characteristics of the Spanish work market, which has the highest rate of precarious jobs in the European Union.


That also explains why 3 out of 4 workers present physical ailments connected with bone and muscle diseases, and why 20 percent of all workers show symptoms of stress.


For the Labor Institute of Work, Environment and Health (ISTAS), “the state of employment today, marked by widespread temp schemes and high flexibility and mobility, is at the basis of a growing deterioration of working conditions, which is having a negative impact on the health of workers hired under such schemes.”


These employment circumstances are decisive in determining prevailing working conditions, and Spain’s example clearly shows how exposure to occupational risks is not the same for temp workers as it is for workers with permanent contracts. Several studies reveal that in recent years more than 50 percent of all occupational accidents affect temporary workers. Statistics show that the number of work accidents suffered by temporary workers has grown by 20 percentage points over the last decade as compared to the increase in permanent workers.


According to Joaquín Nieto, occupational health specialist at CCOO, one of Spain’s leading labor federations, “Contingent or outsourced workers are often hired to perform the toughest or most dangerous tasks in order to avoid having to comply with risk protection regulations. Companies thus have a cheap and docile workforce that is willing to accept a maximum of flexibility and adapt to any demands made by management, as they fear that if they don’t they will lose their jobs.”


For these workers  -who are primarily young and migrant workers-, their precarious working conditions make it much more complicated and difficult to fight to protect their health and safety rights. “Precarious working conditions place workers at a disadvantage with respect to their employers, and extortion becomes the norm. Temp workers are frequently pressured into working more hours than agreed, or are paid lower wages, or agree to be placed in a category below that which they are entitled to based on their professional skills. They sacrifice everything to ensure that their contracts will be renewed.”

The capitalist mode of production -with its complex and multiple developments and expressions- has always done nothing but incessantly, insatiably and deliberately sucked the blood from one part of society -the working class- to pump it into another part of society -capitalists.

(Class and Health, Giulio Maccacaro)


So absurd and insane is the extent of occupational accidents in Spain that an Association of Work Victims (Asociación de Víctimas de Trabajo, or AVT) was formed in late 2008. This organization calls for more effective enforcement of the Occupational Risks Prevention Act, stressing that “it should be a mandatory requirement for all employers. The Labor Inspection Bureau visits around 12,000 companies a year to verify if they are complying with this law, and to assess the situation of workers. This is somewhat inefficient, as the National Safety and Health at Work Institute does not have enough technical inspectors, having lost more than 30 percent of its technical staff since 1996. AVT asks what the point is, then, of passing a law that can’t be enforced?”


A study conducted by CCOO calls for the development of a countrywide safety-and-health-at-work strategy, which would involve visiting the nearly 300,000 companies that have no union representation, the so-called ‘white companies.’ It’s like no man’s land there, because as there are no unions there are no labor representatives to control if prevention measures are in place.


Work-related deaths and accidents have an annual cost of approximately 12 billion euros -that is, 1.72 percent of GDP. The cost of lost workdays amounts to 6.5 billion euros and that of Occupational Risk Coverage for Mutual Funds and Social Security to more than 5 billion in social contributions. This daily massacre “should be enough to sound a warning bell, like with traffic accidents, but far from raising an alarm, these figures are being silenced,” AVT denounces.


Occupational accidents are the visible part of a much larger occupational health and working conditions problem. A report by ISTAS estimates that accidents represent around 10 percent of work-related mortality. As for work-related illnesses -stubbornly hidden by official records-, they are responsible for at least 16,000 deaths a year, “although for some years only as little as five deaths have been declared (that’s right, only 5!), according to the general director of Occupational Health of the Government of Cantabria, Iñigo Fernández.


But there’s another problem: the deliberate under-reporting of work-related illnesses. “In Spain, only 17,000 occupational illnesses are officially acknowledged, when there are actually 90,000 work-connected pathologies. And the worst thing about not acknowledging these illnesses is that appropriate prevention policies cannot be applied.” So, while occupational illnesses are supposedly almost never fatal, there are, however, “more than 17,000 pensions paid to widows of occupational illnesses. Moreover, it’s inconceivable that in one of the noisiest countries in Europe, with over 249,000 people reporting that they suffer from acute hearing loss, only 551 occupational hearing conditions are recognized, when there is an estimated 5,400 of these, which are caused by work-related reasons,” Fernández says.


ISTAS reports that “these accidents are not brought on by a biblical curse, and neither are they a mandatory price that workers must pay. Accidents happen because companies fail to implement preventive measures that are well-known and feasible.”


They are also the result of a corporate culture that sees precarious work as an opportunity for people living in precarious conditions, that is, all workers.









Gerardo Iglesias


August 5, 2009







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