International Workers Memorial Day 2016: Remembering the Dead and Fighting for the Living
As a tribute to all workers, wherever they may be, still enduring appalling conditions and, in too may cases, even putting their lives at risk just to earn a wage, we reprint here a speech given by the Bhopal Medical Appeal to the Waltham Forest branch of Unison on IWMD 2015.
On December 2/3, 1984, an enormous release of toxic gas, from a Union Carbide Chemical plant in Bhopal, killed thousands of people. Something like 8-10,000 died within the first couple of days and around 25,000 to date. It’s still widely considered to be the worst industrial disaster in history.
The disaster in Bhopal can easily be seen as a product of the worst of globalization. It was a direct consequence of cost-driven double standards in safety- along with the routine violation of worker’s rights, and a disregard for the lives of people from poor, marginalized communities.
30 years after the gas leak, toxic waste dumped while the plant was in operation continues to contaminate the area and the local groundwater aquifer, used as a primary water supply by thousands, is heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals.
This is Bhopal’s second disaster and even the US Courts recognise this as a separate matter from the gas tragedy.
Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, insists that ‘polluter pays’ laws, ratified by both India and the US, do not apply and it has no responsibilities in Bhopal.
In fact, in the thirty years since the gas tragedy, Union Carbide has never had to defend itself in open court, and has never had to face those who lost their health, their livelihoods, and their loved ones. It is wanted on criminal charges of culpable homicide but has never answered the charges and is a ‘proclaimed absconder’ from the Indian courts. Dow has been summonsed on numerous occasions to explain why it does not produce Union Carbide. Dow has never shown up in court.
The root of both disasters is negligence driven by cost-cutting measures and, arguably, ones that would only have taken place in the Third World. At the time of the disaster Unions Carbide’s Bhopal factory had become so neglected that staff numbers had been cut to the barest of minimums; un-trained staff were running the production units, and at least six safety systems on the MIC unit alone were not functioning correctly. Some were broken, some were never specified correctly in the first place, and others were simply switched off to save electricity. These safety issues had all been raised, in an internal Union Carbide safety audit, two years before the disaster.
Union Carbide workers led the fight to keep safety measures in place before the disaster. Worker’s unions petitioned factory management, local communities, local and national officials and even Carbide management in the US about the dangers at the Bhopal plant:
The result was suppression of the union, the sacking of three leaders and the continued de-skilling and downsizing of staffing levels under a savage cost-cutting program orchestrated by the US parent.
Following the death of Mohammad Ashraf in December 1981, 28 workers were exposed to a phosgene leak in January 1982; three electrical workers were severely burned in April 1982, and four workers were exposed to Methyl Isocyanate in October the same year.
During the “safety week” proposed by management to address worker grievances about the Bhopal facility, repeated incidents of such toxic leakage took place and workers took the opportunity to complain directly to the American management officials present. The workers demanded hazardous duty pay scales commensurate with the fact that they were required to handle hazardous substances. These requests were denied. Risking their jobs, workers of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal had warned the neighbourhood population about the likelihood of a catastrophe.
So, on the night of the disaster, none of the plant’s safety systems functioned- which is a spectacular failure. But Carbide quickly trotted out a story blaming a disgruntled worker for sabotage (Dow and Carbide still make the claim today, and still refuse to name the worker).
Since the disaster, Unions have been at the forefront of the Bhopal campaign.
In a rehabilitation scheme, gas-affected women were given stationery work by the state government, but paid so poorly they refused it as an insult. In 1987 they formed their own union and chanted their demands from dawn to dusk in front of the Chief Minister’s office.
Unsatisfied, on June 1st, 1989, more than 100 women, many with children in their arms, marched 750 kilometres to New Delhi to petition the Prime Minister. Many sold everything to join the march, and a few suffered miscarriages. Even after returning, it took months of struggle before some of their demands were met.
The women survivors in this union are one of the five survivors groups in Bhopal with whom we work. These five groups, along with the BMA, are all affiliated to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. The President of the union, Rashida Bee, and its Secretary, Champa Devi Shukla, were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004 for their leadership of the campaign. Rashida Bee says that: “When Governments and Corporations do not live up to their obligations, it is only solidarity among workers, trade unions and people’s groups that can carry us forward,”
The Bhopal campaign continues to work with unions, particularly from the UK, and welcomes their support. In December, at the 30th anniversary of the disaster, a delegation of Unions from Scotland made the trip out to Bhopal and last week at the STUC congress a motion was carried to support us and the Bhopal cause generally.
Bhopal is a stark reminder that occupational health issues can quickly become public health catastrophes, particularly in the petrochemical industry. Thirty years later, many of Union Carbide’s former workers in Bhopal are still fighting the company for adequate compensation and justice.
Bhopal has taught the chemical industry that accidents aren’t worth the cost of prevention. We all remain at risk because the chemical industry has never felt the sting of accountability. Three decades later, we’re all living in Bhopal.