Buoyed up by vigorous cost-cutting, the world’s largest waste and water company, Veolia, earlier this year boasted that its first-half net profit had soared to over £250 million from the previous years less jubilant £95 million profit margin: how nice for Veolia’s small handful of wealthy shareholders!
These swollen profits come at a cost, however, which the workers are almost invariably called upon to pay. One way of cutting costs is by actively ignoring health and safety regulations.
Indeed, corporations are well known for their well-funded lobbying efforts to undermine workplace safety standards. Hence, Robert Hunt, who is the Chief Corporate Officer for Veolia in the UK, is proudly “leading” the Government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ which, he says, “is focused on ensuring environmental regulations affecting business are fit for purpose.”
According to the Tories, “over 2,400 regulations [have been] scrapped through the Red Tape Challenge” (all in the name of boosting corporate profit margins).
Steve Murphy, General Secretary of the construction union UCATT, explains how over “the last five years the Conservatives have used such gimmicks as the Red-Tape Challenge to attack safety laws.”
These attacks have “led to the weakening” of Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, he says, and “the scrapping of the hard hat regulations and the tower crane regulations as well as rules which exclude most self-employed workers (but officially not those in construction) from the protection of the Health and Safety at Work Act.”
So in the rare event that corporations are successfully prosecuted for breaching health and safety regulations, all too often the fines doled out to them are fairly inconsequential.
For example, in 2010 Veolia was fined £130,000 after one of their employees was killed near Aylesbury. In this instance, the tragically underfunded Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which successfully prosecuted Veolia, determined that this death “could have been avoided if only a few simple measures had been in place.”
Not long after this ruling, Veolia was fined £225,000 after allowing the death of another British worker, in this case because Veolia had “failed to ensure” their employees “work activity was safe and properly planned.”
Then in 2012 Veolia picked up a £5,000 fine “for supervisory failings that led to dangerous working practices” resulting in a worker employed at their incineration depot in Deptford sustaining 17 per cent burns to his body. While at the start of this year Veolia was fined £16,600 after a worker suffered life changing injuries when he needlessly fell from great height.
But perhaps Veolia’s bosses will finally get their act together after incurring their latest fine of £450,000, owing to yet another accident, this time, occurring at their Castle Donington recycling depot (December 22, Leicester Mercury).
The HSE prosecutor pointed out that “Veolia even failed to implement the few inadequate controls they had listed.” The prosecutor was hopeful that this sizeable fine would send “a clear message to large organisations that exposing workers to foreseeable risks over a sustained period of time will not be tolerated.”
One, of course, can always be hopeful, but hope alone will not overcome the self-serving imperatives of capitalist profiteering. Nevertheless, corporate exploitation can and must be overcome, which is very much reliant upon the active participation of all workers in fighting for a democratic and socialist alternative to overcome the stifling politics of profit.