In an article in The American Prospect, Nancy Cleeland tells a story that will sound all too familiar to worker-safety advocates: Vincent Smith II, a 29-year-old who’d moved from rural Pennsylvania to Camden, New Jersey and found work in a chocolate factory, slipped and fell into a vat of liquid chocolate, where he was struck by a mechanical mixer and killed.

There’s also another piece of the story that is beginning to sound familiar, too: When he was killed, Smith was a temporary employee working on a batch of chocolate for the Hershey Company. But, Cleeland explains, his relationship with that company was diluted by different layers of contracts:

The relationship between Vincent Smith and the Hershey Company was at once clear and tenuous. He was, after all, doing the company’s work. On the other hand, he was hired by the Heads Up Staffing Service to report to warehouse owner Lyons & Sons, which provided him to Cocoa Services, Incorporated, the processor doing business with Hershey.

Each step in the chain served to separate Smith from Hershey, erasing responsibility, and making it easier to squeeze costs in a way that did not visibly reflect badly on the Hershey Company. Smith was a day-to-day worker making barely more than minimum wage, with no health insurance, sick time, or promise of future work. His union counterparts at Hershey factories were far more expensive.

Cleeland goes on to report that this is an increasingly common practice, and one that affects safety as well as employees’ wages and benefits. Jackie Nowell of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) tells Cleeland that replacing union workers with temporary staff can reduce the attention given to safety issues:

Worries about safety have driven many organizing campaigns and contract negotiations in food processing. Unions representing workers in the industry invest in health and safety research and advocacy and include safety language in contracts. “There’s a great history of it,” Nowell says. “I’ve got old contracts from the ’40s that talk about safety committees. It was important that there be a system that workers could go through. They learned to look for hazards and felt comfortable reporting them.”
 
But without job security or the support of a union, temp workers are seldom forthcoming with their concerns, she adds. And when accidents do happen, the victim’s interests sometimes languish as blame is passed around. “There has to be a better definition of who’s the employer,” Nowell says. “There has to be a closing of the loop.”

[…]

Once lost, those union jobs are probably gone for good, because temps and contract workers are almost impossible to organize. Under a 2004 ruling by the Bush-era National Labor Relations Board, such workers can join a worksite union only if the employment agency and the worksite employer agree to allow it. The ruling reversed a 2000 Clinton-era decision that gave that power to the workers.

Cleeland states that workers like Vincent Smith will continue to be vulnerable until we get “a government response that allows contingent workers to organize, strongly enforces health and safety standards in contract factors, and holds the ultimate employers liable for the behavior of their subcontractors.”

This reminds me of efforts in Wyoming to pass legislation that would make it easier for injured oil workers employed by contractors to sue the oil companies that hire the contractors. (The contractors pay into workers’ compensation funds and are immune from lawsuits.) The workers argue that the oil and gas companies exert significant control over the workplaces, and that workplace safety would improve if the companies knew they could be sued over worker injuries or deaths.

The trend toward replacing permanent employees with contract and temporary workers is unlikely to reverse itself. We should at least make sure that these employees get the safe workplaces that they’re entitled to under the law.