The Deadly Intersection of Labor Exploitation and Climate Change

By Sonali Kolhatkar
originally published by Resilience.org
August 11, 2023
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As temperatures soar in the United States this summer, some among us are lucky enough to be able to remain in air-conditioned interior spaces, ordering food, groceries, clothing, and other products to be delivered to us. The rest, toiling in the extreme heat to pull products off hot warehouse shelves and drop them off curbside in scorching delivery trucks, are risking health and even life. July 2023 marked the planet’s hottest month on record.

In San Bernardino, California, where retail giant Amazon has a massive warehouse and fulfillment center, daily temperatures reached triple digits for the majority of days in July and have been dangerously hot all summer. Workers with the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United (IEAWU) protested the dangerous conditions and complained to CAL-OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. One worker, Daniel Rivera, told Fox11, “Amazon’s main focus is production. Safety is not the priority until it’s too late.”

What we are witnessing with such increasingly common instances is capitalism-induced climate change intersecting with capitalism-induced labor exploitation. It’s a deadly combination and one that is being discussed in ways that obscure its causes and solutions.

Take the corporate media, whose coverage has focused on the pro-business buzzword of “productivity.” CBS worried in an August 1, 2023 story, “How Hot Weather Affects Worker Productivity—and What That Means for the Economy.” The New York Times similarly lamented in a July 31, 2023 headline, that “Heat Is Costing the U.S. Economy Billions in Lost Productivity.” The cost to the economy (a euphemism for stock values and profit margins) is the bottom line—not the safety and health of human beings. Therefore, it matters a great deal that, as per the Times, “more than 2.5 billion hours of labor in the U.S. agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service sectors were lost to heat exposure.”

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The Times story quoted R. Jisung Park, an environmental and labor economist, who was concerned that workers’ “performance declines dramatically when exposed to heat,” and therefore “hotter temperatures appear to muck up the gears of the economy.”

How inconvenient the corporate-induced climate crisis has been to the performance standards of corporate-driven worker exploitation!

We oughtn’t to be surprised that in an economy designed to see workers as units of production for a profit-driven top-down system of exploitation, corporate media coverage would spout such callous narratives based on internalized capitalist values.

President Joe Biden’s administration, on the surface at least, appears to be centering worker safety and well-being. In late July the president asked the Department of Labor to “issue the first-ever Hazard Alert for heat,” and to increase enforcement of heat-related worker protections. “The Hazard Alert will reaffirm that workers have heat-related protections under federal law,” announced the White House. The Biden administration pointed out proudly that it “has continued to deliver on the most ambitious climate agenda in American history,” and that, in contrast, “many Republicans in Congress continue to deny the very existence of climate change.”

Yet, in its first two years, the Biden administration actually approved more oil and gas drilling permits than in the first two years of the previous Republican administration of Donald Trump. A 21-year-old climate activist, Elise Joshi, confronted White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in late July 2023, saying, “A million young people wrote to the administration pleading [for it] not to approve a disastrous oil-drilling project in Alaska and we were ignored.” The video of Joshi’s brave action has gone viral.

If Biden truly cares about the health and safety of working people in a warming climate, and about the future of young people like Joshi, he has the power to do much more than merely enforce safety standards—which is a band-aid solution and won’t do anything to stop global warming.

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The Center for Biological Diversity has devoted an entire website, BidensClimatePowers.org, explaining what the president could do immediately, without needing congressional approval. The recommendations include refusing permits for fossil fuel projects, as Joshi pleaded for him to do.

Neither the corporate media nor our politicians who are beholden to corporate lobbyists honestly address the intersection of worker exploitation and climate change. They neither pinpoint the common cause—corporate greed—nor do they identify the common solution—ending corporate greed.

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a practice run for what is currently transpiring with the climate catastrophe enveloping the planet.

Even those who had the luxury of working from home during the lockdowns were measured by their productivity. At first corporate America celebrated because people worked harder from home than from their workplace, freed from time-consuming commutes and the distractions of in-person camaraderie. Now, as many workers are realizing they don’t want to be cogs in someone else’s wheel, Fortune.com blared the headline, “American Worker Productivity Is Declining at the Fastest Rate in 75 Years—and It Could See CEOs Go to War Against WFH [Work From Home].”

Meanwhile, those whose labor our society relies on were labeled “essential” and sent off to work, braving a killer virus, often without adequate safety measures in place. Even working in a grocery store during the lockdowns cost people their lives. A third of all workers in the U.S. were deemed essential. Unsurprisingly, they were disproportionately low-income and people of color. We can expect the same to transpire in a warming climate as people like Daniel Rivera, the Amazon warehouse worker in San Bernardino, toil in the burning heat in order to keep the wheels of productivity turning.

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Just as corporations care little for worker lives, the climate crisis is the predictable outcome of an economy designed to maximize shareholder profit, not ensure a viable planet for future generations. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson connected the dots in his novel New York 2140. “We’ve been paying a fraction of what things really cost to make, but meanwhile the planet, and the workers who make the stuff, take the unpaid costs right in the teeth,” said Robinson. We cannot rely on fiction writers painting dystopian futures to be the only ones identifying the common root causes of climate change and labor abuse.

The current design of our economic system privileges the well-being of only 1 percent of all humans. Whether it’s a deadly virus or the deadly climate, unless we clearly identify the systemic problems and redesign our economic system to center the well-being of all human beings, the future will not be livable, rendering discussions of “productivity” moot in the deadliest possible way.

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