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Hazards 119, July-September 2012
Trashed! Deadly depression as precarious work becomes the norm
In a recession-ravaged world, even if you’ve got a permanent job, you feel insecure. If you’ve got a temporary job, you are permanently insecure. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill examines the lasting health damage caused to an increasingly disposable workforce.

When Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics subcontractor, decided robots were the solution to its high volume production headaches, the latest much vaunted hope for future jobs followed its mines, mills and manufacturing predecessors on the giant slide towards redundancy. In July 2011, the Taiwan-based multinational announced its intention to increase its contingent of 10,000 robots to 300,000 in 2012 and 1 million within three years.

The deadly reality of insecure work

Precarious employment may leave more than your job at risk. It can make you sick and even kill you. A large body of research evidence has linked insecure work to:

• Higher injury rates
• Higher sickness rates and poorer health overall
 • A greater risk of suicide, depression and mental health problems
 • Higher rates of chronic health problems, including heart disease and strokes

The reasons are simple. Insecure workers are more likely to be exposed to risk and have less scope for raising or acting on their concerns.

Foxconn’s Terry Gou, whose company supplies firms including Apple, Sony and Hewlett Packard and currently has more than one million employees worldwide, endorsed the trend towards automation in brutally frank language. In January 2012 he told the official Chinese news agency Xinhua: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

Work is becoming increasingly workerless, and it’s a phenomenon that has spread way beyond manufacturing. A sprinkling of Amazon warehouse workers can hoover up the business online once occupying High Streets full of shop workers. But even these new generation jobs aren’t safe. Forklifts are increasingly driverless, and the smattering of human ‘pickers’ directed by computers to the shelves are finding high-speed robotic go-carts are nudging them aside.

Even the call centres and help desks dealing with our orders and queries may now employ voice-recognition software and synthethised speech, not real human voices. The talk used to be about whether to outsource the service to cheaper nations. Not so much anymore. There’s less real talk full stop.

The most reliable product of many modern workplaces is now insecurity, with those in permanent jobs fearing the axe in the name of automation or austerity, and a growing slice of the workforce already outsourced or semi-detached from employment, on zero hours contracts, temping or skirting around for scraps in the informal economy.

DECENT CAMPAIGN The global union IndustriALL is calling on its affiliates worldwide to ‘mobilise’ against precarious work on 7 October 2012. more

“The majority of the world’s workforce is informal and is in an extremely precarious position,” the 2008 report of a World Health Organisation (WHO) commission on social determinants of health 1 observed. It noted: “The global dominance of precarious work, with its associated insecurities, has contributed significantly to poor health and health inequities.”

It is a problem affecting workers in the developed as well as the developing world.

Lives on hold’,2 the May 2012 report of an independent study commissioned by Australian national union federation ACTU, concluded 40 per cent of Australians were now in some form of insecure work and one is five is employed casually. It called for governments to conduct research into the health effects of insecure work and to identify the associated social costs.

ACTU president Ged Kearney commented: “The fear, vulnerability and powerlessness experienced by workers engaged in insecure work mean they are less likely to raise health and safety concerns, they accept poor conditions and exploitation, and therefore face greater risks of injuries and illness.

“It makes no economic sense to continue to let these workers fall through the gap… Both the OECD and World Health Organisation have found that insecure work has negative impacts on workers’ safety in the short term, and the associated uncertainty and anxiety damages the health of workers in the longer term.”

The union leader added: “The continued growth of insecure work will over time contribute to a widening of health inequalities, which is unacceptable.”

The situation is similar in the UK. Government figures published in August 2012 revealed soaring levels of part-time working and underemployment. The Office for National Statistics figures show the number of part-time workers reached a record high of 8.07 million while those working part-time because they can't find a full-time job hit 1.42 million - the highest figure since records began in 1992.

CALL SECURITY The UK union for government staff, PCS, is campaigning for improved job quality and security for the call centre staff dealing with welfare and other queries from the public. more

The country’s stock of temporary workers is in the region of 1.4 million. That means about one in every 10 workers is now either a reluctant part-timer or a temp. Either way, they are less likely to have access to a union or meaningful legal protection.

An analysis of official figures published on 4 September 2012 by the UK union federation TUC calculated one million more workers are under-employed now than on the eve of the recession in early 2008. ‘Under-employment crisis: A TUC analysis of under-employment across the UK’ reports the number of under-employed workers - those doing part-time jobs because they can't find full-time ones or wanting more hours in their current jobs - has increased by 42 per cent over the last four years to reach 3.3 million.

According to the union body, its analysis shows that under-employment is an even greater problem than has previously been realised, because it is not just those in part-time jobs who want to work full-time who are under-employed. Many more workers across the economy want more hours in their existing jobs.

For these workers, insecurity is more than a headache. It can mean injury, ill-health and an early grave.


Job insecurity kills

In July 2012, former France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard and his deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes were forced to post bail pending the outcome of an official judicial investigation into a spate of suicides at the firm. The deaths in 2008 and 2009 coincided with the unfolding global financial crisis and restructuring of the company.
Unions at the firm had complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and cut costs.

ANYBODY THERE? Firms used to at least say their workforce was their greatest asset. Not so much anymore. We live in a working world some employers would be happy to see virtually jobless. Making robots won’t fill the jobs void. A 2011 report from the International Federation of Robotics estimated the industry provided just 150,000 manufacturing and assembly jobs worldwide.

While in extreme cases stress can even lead to suicide, the director of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Safework programme, Seiji Machida, said “we here in the ILO think that the crisis has become a factor of concern for the health and safety of workers around the world.” He said workers have to deal with the fear and stress of losing their jobs.

There had been a general rise in mental ill-health due to stress at the workplace in Europe and elsewhere, ILO reports. The reasons for this trend include information overload, intensification of work and time pressure, high demands on mobility and flexibility, being constantly “on call” due to mobile phone technology, and “last but not least the worry of losing one’s job.”

Restructuring and redundancies are the stock business responses to recession. As the bottom line suffers, workers become a cost item to be controlled, not an asset to be valued.

It is an old problem, but it is also a growing problem. A 2009 report from the Global Union Research Network (GURN), ‘Moving from precarious employment to decent work’ 3 noted “we are experiencing the wholesale destruction and the creation of new and evolving relationships with employers. The task is to ensure workers and their organisations have some influence and control over the conditions under which they must work.”

TEMPORARY LAW Temporary staffing agencies in the US state of Massachusetts will no longer be allowed to send temporary workers to jobs without informing them of the name of their employer, the wages they will be paid, or the basic safety training they need to protect themselves from jobs that are often hazardous. more

Businesses though may be less concerned at the creation of a new relationship which leaves workers with less control and fewer rights. A UK study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management 4  concluded businesses really don’t care how constant change affects their staff. Gary Rees from the University of Portsmouth Business School said he and co-author Sally Rumbles were “alarmed” by the findings.

“Employees are an organisation’s most valuable asset and collectively have the power to help businesses survive and thrive in bad times as well as in good. Managers seem to think they have a licence to change, but our research has shown high-level executives admit only about a third of changes they’ve made are successful and have helped sustain their company through turbulent times.”

He added: “Employers and senior managers need to stop foisting continual change upon their staff in a bid to stay viable as a business. The secret is not to ignore the fact change can threaten the staff who, in turn, can become exhausted, cynical or depressed, which destabilises the organisation.”

Sally Rumbles said: “The worst thing is those who are more likely to burnout in the workplace are the most engaged and hardworking staff. If a business loses those people then it risks destabilising the business. Instead of seeing people as the most important asset and what gives a business its competitive advantage, too many senior managers think what is good for business is good for the workers.” 

She added: “Continual change can feel like bereavement and employees need time to recover and adjust after change, not be thrust again and again into new periods of uncertainty and new initiatives and restructuring. Businesses need to plan change, execute it and then tell staff the turmoil is over.”

There is no mystery there. In bad times businesses made bad choices, and we’ve been warned about this for years. In 2000, Hazards warned that modern workplaces could make workers “mad, sad and bad” and pointed to research showing downsizing and excessive overtime were being accompanied by widespread occupational health problems, depression, occupational injuries and violence 5.

AGENTS OF DEATH Agency workers, unfamiliar with the job and often lacking the necessary training and supervision, can be especially vulnerable at work. The results can be deadly, as recent UK examples show. more

A 2001 review of ‘the global expansion of precarious employment, work disorganisation, and consequences for occupational health’, published in the International Journal of Health Services, 6 found: “Of the 93 published journal articles and monographs/book chapters reviewed, 76 studies found precarious employment was associated with a deterioration in occupational health and safety (OHS) in terms of injury rates, disease risk, hazard exposures, or worker (and manager) knowledge of OHS and regulatory responsibilities. Of the more than 25 studies each on outsourcing and organizational restructuring/downsizing, well over 90 per cent find a negative association with OHS. The evidence is fairly persuasive for temporary workers, with 14 of 24 studies finding a negative association with OHS.”

In 2003 Hazards warned suicides, heart disease and strokes were becoming “the thoroughly modern way to die at work” 7. And in 2006, Hazards repeated the warning, citing extensive research linking 'precarious' employment to higher rates of occupational accidents and ill-health and greater exposure to workplace risks 8.

The long-running Whitehall II investigation of the health of British civil servants has established job insecurity not only leads to increased and sometimes deadly ill-health, the effects are worse the more insecure work gets. A 2002 analysis published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 9 concluded: “Loss of job security has adverse effects on self-reported health and minor psychiatric morbidity, which are not completely reversed by removal of the threat and which tend to increase with chronic exposure to the stressor.”

The message is the same wherever you look. A study covering 16 European countries published in the journal Social Science and Medicine 10 in 2010 concluding “the public health impact of job insecurity is likely to be substantial.”


Job insecurity will hurt you

Australian research published in July 2012 echoed the findings of earlier studies, concluding casual workers are 50 per cent more likely to be injured at work. The study by national safety regulator Safe Work Australia 11 found casual workers without leave entitlements reported 54 injuries per million hours worked compared with a rate of 35 for those with leave entitlements. It noted: “On a per hour worked basis, male and female casual workers experienced the highest injury rates.”

Employers may opt to out-source more hazardous tasks to temporary workers.12   There is certainly evidence precarious workers can be exposed to greater risks. Canadian researchers, who developed the concept of “employment strain” to attempt to capture the characteristics of precarious employment, identified increased risks that included ergonomic problems, heavier workload, greater exposure to toxic substances and identified higher levels of back and muscular pain, fatigue and lower levels of job satisfaction. 13

WALMART FAÇADE  Unions worldwide are concerned that Walmart is not operating a safe supply chain. more

A 2012 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report noted: “Precarious work arrangements are also associated with poor health conditions. Workers on temporary or agency contracts are often exposed to hazardous work environments, stressful psychosocial working conditions, increased workload and disproportional travel time between multiple jobs at multiple sites. Research in the field has also found that precarious workers are less likely to receive adequate training for the tasks they are required to perform and that their occupational safety and health is poorly monitored by inspection systems.” 14

The report added: “As job insecurity increases and social benefits decrease, workers face increasing pressure to accept job offers that put their health and safety at risk. Subcontracting is also often used by primary employers as a means of shifting risk by outsourcing more dangerous jobs to subcontracted and agency workers, forcing precarious workers to bear the brunt of more dangerous or risky tasks. Finally, in many countries (bogus) self-employed workers do not benefit from workers compensation or health insurance, leaving them at risk of long term unemployment if injured or ill.”

WOOD FOR TREES The New Zealand forestry industry is a ‘one trick pony’ when it comes to prevention, concentrating on testing for drugs its often subcontracted workforce. National union centre CTU said despite ‘massive’ drug testing programmes, the forestry industry had failed to arrest sky-high fatality and injury rates. more

Precarious may also find themselves working longer hours. UK campaigners against blacklisting of construction health and safety whistleblowers warned in 2009 that agency workers who refused to sign an opt-out from the Working Time Regulations’ 48-hour ceiling on the working week could find themselves let go and would have difficulty finding future placements.

But a lack of control of working hours and an increased injury risk in ‘precarious’ employment is just the start of the problem. The related health consequences can break your body and blow your mind.

The 2010 Social Science and Medicine 10 paper that examined precarious work in Europe summarised the evidence of health effects. It noted: “Beside their effects on organisational functioning, insecure jobs are also known to detrimentally affect employees' health. Low job security has been repeatedly found to be related to somatic 15 and minor psychiatric morbidity, to poor self-rated health 15, as well as to incident coronary heart disease 16 and its risk factors, including high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity. Other, less direct measures of the health status, such as sickness absence 17 and health services use have also been found to be associated with job insecurity.”

The effects can be both immediate and long-term. A Cambridge University study of UK workers concluded not only was there a marked health impact from the ‘shock’ realisation your job was possibly at risk, but the effects lingered and caused lasting harm.

The February 2011 paper in Sociological Research Online 18 “found that the unexpected announcement of job insecurity can cause a sudden and marked spike in psychological symptoms. Looking at longer-term effect for prolonged periods of job insecurity, wellbeing (ie. symptoms of anxiety and depression) continues to deteriorate for at least a year, with no sign of levelling off or recovery.”

PERMANENT PROBLEM Precarious work is hazardous by design with problems related to payment methods, job organisation and a lack of regulatory oversight, studies have found. more

The impact on mental health of a badly paid, poorly supported, or short-term job can be as harmful or worse than no job at all. A study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine 19 in 2011 looked at the “psychosocial” quality of jobs, grading them on demands and complexity, level of control, and perceived job security. Those in the poorest quality jobs experienced the sharpest decline in mental health over time. There was a direct straight-line association between the number of unfavourable working conditions experienced and mental health, with each additional adverse condition lowering the mental health score. Moving from worklessness to a poor quality job was significantly more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed.

Co-author Professor Lyndall Strazdins of Australian National University, cited in the British Medical Journal, commented: “Some jobs are corrosive to health… and insecurity is part of that.”

In a 1 August 2012 commentary in the British Medical Journal 20, ‘Job insecurity contributes to poor health’, Australian academic Ray Moynihan concluded: “To some, the harmful effects of insecure and poor quality work will be seen as the unavoidable side effect of an increasingly globalised and sometimes brutal marketplace. To others, the growing body of evidence about these connections will boost arguments that employers’ need for flexibility and employees’ need for security must somehow become more integrated.”

A 2011 paper on the health consequences of precarious employment, published in the journal Work 21 and authored by researchers from Canada’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH) argued: “Proactive regulatory initiatives and all-encompassing benefits programmes are urgently required to address emerging work forms and arrangements that present risks to health.”

The authors of the 2010 Social Science and Medicine10 study of the impact of job insecurity on health, gave their own prescription for action. “Given that job insecurity is likely to increase as the labour market becomes more globalised, governments and labour unions need to pay attention to job insecurity and its public health consequences.”

While employers and governments mull over the evidence, unions and labour rights organisations are taking matters into their own hands. For them secure work is a matter of common decency, and there are pressing health reasons why they are unwilling to contemplate an indecent and inevitably deadly wait.



1. Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health, WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health – final report, 2008 [pdf].
2. Lives on hold: Unlocking the potential of Australia’s workforce. Report of the independent inquiry into insecure work in Australia, May 2012 [pdf]. ACTU news release and secure jobs, better future website.
3. John Evans and Euan Gibb, Moving from precarious employment to decent work, discussion paper number 13, Global Union Research Network (GURN), 2009 [pdf]. GURN portal on precarious work.
4. Gary Rees and Sally Rumbles. Continuous organizational change and burnout, International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management, Volume 11, Issue 3, pages 179-194, 2012 [abstract]. University of Portsmouth news release.
5. Not what we bargained for. Hazards 69, 2000 [pdf].
6. Michael Quinlan, Claire Mayhew and Philip Bohle. The global expansion of precarious employment, work disorganisation, and consequences for occupational health, International Journal of Health Services, volume 31, number 2, 2001 [abstract].
7. Drop dead. Hazards 83, 2003.
8. HSE is broke, Hazards 96, 2006.
9. Ferrie JE, Shipley MJ, Stansfeld SA, Marmot MG. Effects of chronic job insecurity and change in job security on self reported health, minor psychiatric morbidity, physiological measures, and health related behaviours in British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, volume 56, pages 450-454, 2002 [pdf].
10. László KD, Pikhart H, Kopp MS, Bobak M, Pajak A, Malyutina S and others. Job insecurity and health: a study of 16 European countries, Social Science and Medicine, volume 70, pages 867-74, 2010.
11. Australian work-related injury experience by sex and age, 2009-2010, Safe Work Australia, 30 July 2012 [pdf]. Safe Work Australia news release. ACTU news release.
12. At Work, Issue 69, IWH, Summer 2012 and related research presentation, The management of OHS and return-to-work issues in temporary work agencies [pdf].
13. Wayne Lewchuk, Alice de Wolff, Andy King, Michael Polanyi. From job strain to employment strain: Health effects of precarious employment, Just Labour, volume 3, pages 23-35, 2003 [pdf] and Wayne Lewchuk, Alice di Wolff, Andrew King and Michael Polanyi. The hidden costs of precarious employment: Health and the employment relationship. In Leah F Vosko, ed., Precarious Employment: Understanding Labour Market Insecurity in Canada, pages 141-162, 2006. Canada: McGill-Queens University Press.
14. From precarious work to decent work: outcome document to the workers' symposium on policies and regulations to combat precarious employment, International Labour Office, Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), ILO, 2012 [pdf].
15. Ferrie JE, Shipley MJ, Newman K, Stansfeld SA, Marmot M. Self-reported job insecurity and health in the Whitehall II study: potential explanations of the relationship. Social Science and Medicine, volume 60, pages 1593–1602, 2005. [PubMed]
16. Lee S, Colditz GA, Berkman LF, Kawachi I. Prospective study of job insecurity and coronary heart disease in US women, Annals of Epidemiology, volume 14, pages 24–30, 2004. [PubMed]
17. Kivimaki M, Vahtera J, Thomson L, Griffiths A, Cox T, Pentti J. Psychosocial factors predicting employee sickness absence during economic decline, Journal of Applied Psychology, volume 82, pages 858–872, 1997. [PubMed]
18. Brendan Burchell. A Temporal Comparison of the Effects of Unemployment and Job Insecurity on Wellbeing, Sociological Research Online, volume 16, issue 1, published 28 Feb 2011.
19. P Butterworth, LS Leach, L Strazdins, SC Olesen, B Rodgers, DH Broom. The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2011; DOI: 10.1136/oem.2010.059030 Science Daily news release, 15 March 2011
20. Ray Moynihan. Job insecurity contributes to poor health, British Medical Journal, volume 345, e5183, 1 August 2012.
21. H Scott-Marshall and E Tompa. The health consequences of precarious employment experiences, Work, volume 38, number 4, pages 369-382, 2011. Related IWH article.



Temporary job, lasting risks

An April 2012 paper examined the reasons temporary workers faced additional risks. Researcher Ellen MacEachen and colleagues from the Canadian Institute for Work and Health 12 found “that low-wage temp agency workers are less well protected because of the complex working relationship in which they find themselves.”

The study found temp agency efforts to prevent injuries are largely ineffective, because the agencies don’t know or control the workplace, low-waged workers are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their job placement or the chance of been taken on permanently, and because agencies and their workers have little power to demand improvements.

Michael Quinlan and colleagues summarised ‘risk factors associated with precarious employment in their 2001 paper in the International Journal of Health Services 6.

Economic and Reward Factors
  • Competition/under-bidding of tenders
  • Taskwork/payment by results
  • Long hours
  • Under-qualification and Iack of resources (ie like small business)
  • Off-loading high risk activitie


  • Ambiguity in rules, work practices and procedures
  • Inter-group/inter-worker communication
  • More complicated lines of management control
  • Splintering of OHS management system
  • Inability of outsourced workers to organise/protect themselves

Increased Likelihood of Regulatory Failure
  • OHS laws focus on employees in large enterprises
  • OHS agencies fail to develop adequate support materials
  • OHS agencies fail to pursue appropriate compliance strategies
  • Problematic coverage by labour minimum standards laws
  • Problematic coverage by workers' compensation




For unions, it’s a matter of decency

The global union IndustriALL is calling on its affiliates worldwide to ‘mobilise’ against precarious work on 7 October 2012. According to IndustriALL: “Secure jobs are becoming more and more rare, while agency work, contract work and temporary work are taking over.” It adds companies “rely on precarious work to reduce their labour costs and pass all the risks of employment onto workers.”

IndustriALL says on 7 October, the World Day for Decent Work, its affiliated unions – which represent 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors – will be encouraged to “join the global fight against precarious work. Unions are pushing against this tide by organising precarious workers, fighting laws that expand precarious work and mobilising in support of secure employment with good pay and working conditions. This is a battle that must be won.”

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Unions call for security in call centres 

The UK union for government staff, PCS, is campaigning for improved job quality and security for the call centre staff dealing with welfare and other queries from the public. A government bent on cuts and ideologically and financially wed to the notion of privatisation of public services, leaves these civil service jobs under constant threat.

A long-term investigation of the health of British civil servants established job insecurity not only leads to increased and sometimes deadly ill-health, the effects are worse the more insecure work gets. This and other PCS campaign posters targeting an “oppressive target culture” and “excessive monitoring” were banned by management in the government offices employing the PCS members. PCS said management “claim that the posters are either offensive or are an incitement to industrial action. Neither of these allegations are accepted by PCS.”

UNI, the global federation covering unions in the communications, technology and services sectors, is coordinating a Call Centres Month of Action in October 2012.

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Groundbreaking US law to protect temps

Temporary staffing agencies in the US state of Massachusetts will no longer be allowed to send temporary workers to jobs without informing them of the name of their employer, the wages they will be paid, or the basic safety training they need to protect themselves from jobs that are often hazardous.

The law, signed on 6 August 2012 by Governor Deval Patrick and which will come into effect in January 2013, also prohibits agencies from charging certain fees that could drive a worker’s pay below the minimum wage, including the cost of registering with the staffing agency or for performing a criminal record check. In addition, staffing agencies are required to reimburse any worker sent to a job only to find no work is available.

Safety campaigners welcomed the law, and said it shines a light on those temp agencies operating in the underground economy, where worker injuries are often unreported.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of grassroots safety organisation MassCOSH and coordinator of the Reform Employment Agency Law Coalition (REAL), commented: “With the governor’s signature, this law will bring essential sunlight to the shadows where these abuses have taken place, and help ensure fairness for workers and employers who follow the state’s labour laws.”

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Agents of death

Agency workers, unfamiliar with the job and often lacking the necessary training and supervision, can be especially vulnerable at work. The results can be deadly, as recent UK examples show.

Building contractor Do It Al was fined £10,000 in April 2012 after a worker was killed by a falling piece of masonry dislodged by his own son during a poorly planned demolition job. Agency workers Jamie Ford, 24, and his father, Stephen Ford, 50, were demolishing a barn, when the older man was killed.
Tim Elton, 28, an agency worker working for Grimsby and Immingham Stevedores, was killed on 27 January 2012 when he was buried under shifting coal in the hold of a ship on Immingham Dock.
Multinational contractor AMEC and energy giant RWE npower were fined a total of £450,000 in June 2011 after agency worker Christopher Booker fell 12m through an unprotected opening in a working platform at Aberthaw Power Station.
Retail display firm Arken PoP was fined £80,000 in December 2010 after agency worker Vitalijus Orlovas, 29, was crushed to death by a stack of glass he was unloading on his first day at work.

More case historiesBack to main story


Walmart’s low prices and high pain

Walmart might be the world’s largest retailer, but that is little consolation to the bruised and broken workers toiling in the California warehouses supplying its stores. These “lumpers”, required to work inside dark, hot, metal shipping containers with little ventilation or water under pressure to meet high quotas, filed a complaint with the state agency responsible for workplace conditions in June 2012.

Workers must buy their own safety equipment from a company store. Injuries are common, as managers pressure workers to lift hundreds of boxes an hour. The complaint submitted to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) also detailed the thick black dust that covers the floor of trailers and containers, which the document says leads to workers suffering nosebleeds, coughing-up blood and vomiting.

The union-backed campaign group, Warehouse Workers United (WWU), lodged the official complaint with the authorities about conditions at NFI Crossdock, which is operated by NFI, a subsidiary of National Distribution Centers of Delaware. One recent study by the WWU and the University of California interviewed 101 workers and found that 83 of them said they had suffered a job-related illness.

Walmart says the labour conditions are the responsibility of its contractors. The contractors themselves often subcontract to staffing agencies, who supply most of the labour for the manual jobs. “Walmart uses these companies as a buffer to negate any responsibility for what happens in their workplaces,” said Juan de Lara, a professor at the University of Southern California. “Meanwhile, budget cuts to state regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect workers leave employees more vulnerable to occupational hazards and wage theft.”

Questions about labour standards in the Walmart supply chain extend outside the US. In April 2012, 2,000 migrant workers in a factory in Thailand that processes shrimp for a major supplier to global retail giant Walmart revolted against their abusive and degrading conditions.

The workers, from Cambodia and Burma, protested the seizure of their passports by factory owners in Thailand. Police were called. Shots were fired. It wasn't just the passport seizure that incited the workers' anger - it was management slashing wages again. Their wages already failed to cover the most basic needs, and this latest action put workers deeper into the factory's debt. Many of them are still legally and financially trapped at the factory, victims of human trafficking.

Global foodworker unions’ federation IUF said this example shows the company’s system for monitoring its supply chain doesn't work. “Walmart's internal auditors schedule visits to factories - a deeply flawed practice that allows owners to coach workers and hide the most egregious abuses,” IUF said.

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Deadly forestry jobs subcontracted

The New Zealand forestry industry is a ‘one trick pony’ when it comes to prevention, concentrating on testing for drugs its often subcontracted workforce. National union centre CTU said despite ‘massive’ drug testing programmes, the forestry industry had failed to arrest sky-high fatality and injury rates.

CTU president Helen Kelly said the industry pushed drug tests “as a one trick pony and need to take into account all the other things that must be addressed to ensure the number of deaths reduce. These include ensuring hours worked are reasonable, all staff are trained and represented by trained health and safety representatives, proper breaks are provided, safety standards are kept up to date, wages are sufficient to retain senior experienced staff, dangerous work areas are especially carefully managed, and contractors are carefully regulated to ensure they meet standards.”

The union leader, whose criticisms prompted a personal attack by the Forestry Industry Contractors Association (FICA), said: “The response when challenged about a death is often to blame the nature of the industry but the fact other countries are doing so much better means this excuse is weak. Employers that recognised they have a problem would not assert high safety standards when the record so blatantly speaks for itself. This denial is part of the problem.”

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Insecure work is not just unfair, it's downright unhealthy. Hazards challenges the dangerous shift to increasingly precarious work.



Deadly reality of insecure work
A matter of decency
Call for security in call centres 
Job insecurity kills
Anybody there?
New US law to protect temps
Agents of death
Job insecurity will hurt you
Walmart’s low prices, high pain
Deadly forestry jobs
Temporary job, lasting risks
Precarious work risk factors

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