Considering how we treat low wage workers

When Chernobyl went up, the cloud caused the destruction of all milk, food and consumable product across Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy. Where it went from there, no one is absolutely sure, but the Sahara is a good bet. Untold tons of food were wasted, destroyed and treated as radioactive waste (buried deep underground). People were contaminated, died or delivered horribly deformed children by the hundreds. Meanwhile, sick workers assigned to clean up Chernobyl have been “reassigned” across the old Soviet Union and are “untraceable,” according to the U.N. divisions that keep track of nuclear disasters in Vienna.

The Japanese Fukushima nuclear catastrophe created a need for workers, manual laborers, to go in and secure the plant before it erupted. “Disposable” workers, people hired off the streets, the homeless, were then given scant training and assigned to radioactive areas’ cleaning tasks. Five cases of those employees with leukemia were officially reported in Japan in 2012, but then authorities visited only one more hospital where they found 50 patients all recently contaminated, all of whom were homeless people who had taken temporary employment at the power plant. They were only employed for a short while and thrown back onto the streets. When they got leukemia, as they were no longer employees, they didn’t show up on official radiation exposure lists. It’s a neat trick: Hire temporary workers, desperate for any job, give them a nuclear reactor job in close proximity to what are terminal levels of radiation, fire them after a few weeks and let them die a slow agonizing death. Will they complain? Sure, but to whom? They have no voice, they have no constituency and they are, after all the discards of society.

Before you shake your head at the Japanese, think again. Ever seen the jobs we let the homeless hire onto in Los Angeles, working down sewers or picking strawberries or carrying cement bags, faces covered in lung clogging dust? Ever seen the sugar cane fields in Florida and the workers we boat in from Haiti and treat in ways we wouldn’t dream of treating as our citizens, simply because “they need the work and the U.S. dollar?” Ever seen who handles your garbage dumps or where we send all that trash? 

Ever stop to think how or why GE thought it could dump dioxins in the Hudson River? Was it because they thought there were enough powerful people in the impoverished region to object? No, it was because you don’t bite the hand that hires you locally — you can’t complain and keep your job.

Disposable humans are a sad part of the economy, whether we want to admit it or not.

Part of the discussion of a minimum wage that will arrive in 2021 has to include the need to improve working conditions and safety. Yes, it will come at a price. However, unless we are willing to allow the practice of disposing under-represented humans as part of the benefit for our style of living, the current employment standards can only be seen as both immoral and amoral.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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