Joie Chowdhury, NESRI: On Workers Memorial Day – Pledging Action for the Human Rights of Workers

There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week a massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas killed 15, injured more than 200 and ravaged an entire community. This devastating industrial disaster was likely preventable with the enforcement of basic workplace safety standards. It stands as a grim reminder of the human toll of senseless, profit-driven deregulation. It stands as a symbol of how little, as a society, we value the lives of our workers and communities.

Today, April 28th, is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remember and commemorate workers injured, made ill or killed on the job. The plant in Texas is sadly just one example of a dangerous workplace. It is estimated that each year 7.6 million- 11.4 million workers are injured or made ill on the job while more than 54,690 workers die from occupational injuries and illnesses. Imagine if so many were under threat from an external source or “enemy combatants”- what would the national reaction be?

It is unconscionable that so little is done to protect our workers from work-related injuries and illnesses that are preventable with appropriate regulation, training and mechanisms to hold corporations accountable. To take just one example, the NY Times recently reported how toxic chemical exposure at the workplace, for instance, exposure to the chemical n-propyl bromide, used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants, can cause debilitating diseases that kill workers, destroy their health and affect entire communities. We have known of this and of other occupational dangers for the longest time. Yet while workers die, our political system stands by and does little to nothing. Regulatory infrastructure in this country has always been incredibly inadequate at best and now we have an increasingly hysterical deregulation lobby that has been successful in gutting the most basic workplace safety safeguards. Industry arguments that life-saving regulations “kill jobs” in fact are verifiably killing people.

Consider also that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the regulatory agency that enforces workplace health and safety standards, is extremely underfunded, it’s resources so meager that, on an average, it can inspect each workplace only once every 129 years. The plant at West, Texas was last inspected only in 1985 and the appalling health and safety conditions discovered post explosion no doubt contributed to the catastrophic damage. Additionally penalties for violations of workplace safety standards are preposterously low- you would likely pay more in fines for accidentally killing a moose out-of-season than a corporation would for violating standards that directly causes a worker to die. Then there is the relentless war on unions which leaves the working class with very little support. All of this is driven by policy decisions that elevate industry interests over workers’ needs.

Disturbingly the entire health and safety crisis is often framed as a trade- off. Unsafe conditions (even if they are preventable) are simply seen as unfortunate but a risk you must take if you want to work. The onus does not seem to be on corporations/employers to ensure worker health and safety. That is unacceptable. No one should have to make a choice between their life and their livelihood. Workers have a human right to safe and healthy working conditions. When workers’ health and safety are at stake, our very right to life is violated.

The political culture today has embraced profoundly misplaced priorities and exhibits an utter lack of respect for human life- workers’ health, safety and lives are clearly dispensable when profits are at stake. This is a raw demonstration of the extent to which corporate power has highjacked policy decision making. The prevalent soulless anti-people worldview affects not just workers but all of us. Thus to realize, indeed to reclaim our most basic rights, we must urgently organize to build worker power, reenergize the labor movement and advance a vision that puts people before profits. This is not a fight about laws or regulations. It is of course to some extent, but on a more meta level this is a struggle for our values and the ideals that define us as people of the United States.

This Workers’ Memorial Day let us take the time to mourn those we’ve lost. And let us all, workers, communities, unions, labor groups, faith organizations, human rights organizations and the broader public, come together and pledge in the words of Mother Jones to “fight like hell for the living.”

Joie Chowdhury is the Human Right to Work with Dignity Co-Director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). To learn more about the work of NESRI, visit