Another step towards justice in the waste industry has been won. On Tuesday, Cal/OSHA cited American Reclamation, Inc., a solid waste facility in Los Angeles, for multiple health and safety violations along with its subsidiary, South Coast Fibers, Inc., and its staffing agency, Steno Employment Services, Inc. In total, the agency cited 36 violations with penalties amounting to almost $40,000. These citations were spurred by a formal complaint filed in November 2011 by eight American Reclamation employees. “We are not garbage!” has been the catchphrase among the workers who are courageously standing up for safe, dignified jobs. In this largely invisible workforce, the exploitation and mistreatment of workers is much more likely to go unnoticed.
The Cal/OSHA citations send a message to the entire waste industry that the curtain is being pulled on this industry which is no longer invisible, and that there will be consequences for those who cut corners that would compromise worker safety. As members of a committed coalition of labor, community and environmental advocates, we are serious about reforming a system in which a lack of regard for worker safety is the norm, not the exception. If the moral and ethical arguments don’t motivate employers to protect workers, then maybe the threat of penalties, legal action and negative press will.
It’s also a significant move on Cal/OSHA’s part to have cited all three companies that played a part in putting the workers at risk. “Dual-employer” situations, in which an employer hires workers and provides that workforce to another employer (including temporary staffing agencies, contractors, and other employee leasing companies), are all too common in our labor economy. For businesses, an important benefit of this arrangement is that blame can be more easily evaded when labor laws are violated. It seems that Cal/OSHA is consciously stepping up its enforcement unit in dual-employer cases, as the American Reclamation citation has come shortly after a groundbreaking citation in Chino, CA in January, which held liable both the owner of three warehouses and the staffing agency supplying the workforce for the warehouses.
As advocates, allies and activists, we must continue to hold our government agencies accountable, ensuring that they truly are protecting workers. In the midst of budget cuts, staffing shortages, and other structural shortfalls, it is crucial that we call Cal/OSHA’s attention to egregious violators of worker safety laws and that we support workers throughout the process. In Cal/OSHA’s press release Wednesday, Chief Ellen Widess said,
We appreciate the work of advocacy groups that educate workers on their rights and assist in bringing these kinds of workplace safety hazards to our attention so that we can do our job protecting workers.
She means us—those of us who are standing by these workers who are fighting back.
A message to employers who continue to neglect worker safety: you have the ability to prevent the vast majority of worker injuries, illnesses and deaths. Eliminate or reduce hazards before an accident has a chance to occur, and comply with the state laws that protect workers. But if you truly do respect and value your workers, I shouldn’t have to tell you that.