Arguments for socialism: Jobs at a price

[Green Left Weekly, #283, July 30, 1997]

Although the tourist postcards ingeniously manage to leave it out of the picture or consign it to a hazy background, BHP's huge Port Kembla steelworks is the most obvious feature of Wollongong. The towering main smokestack with its ever-present whitish plume can be seen at great distances from the city.

As the area's biggest employer, the steelworks has dominated life in the Illawarra for a large part of this century. So many people in the region have worked in the plant, but since the early 1980s the work force has been ruthlessly "downsized". Although BHP claims it is committed to steel making at Port Kembla, thousands more jobs are likely to be cut before the end of the decade.

The relationship between the BHP steelworks and the community is simple: the company provides work — albeit hard and dirty, and for a steadily declining number of people — and the community lives with the social and environmental consequences. Hitherto, these have seemed bearable, if more or less unpleasant.

But the chance uncovering almost two years ago of a leukaemia cluster in the Wollongong suburb of Warrawong, bordering the steelworks, raises once more the question of the real cost of the jobs that the millionaire owners of BHP so generously provide the working class of the Illawarra.

While a recent public health report confirmed the existence of the cluster, it was unable to ascribe it to a definite cause, in large measure because government environmental monitoring of the plant has been scandalously deficient and because official health statistics are so conveniently general.

Under capitalism the real social costs of industrial activity are downplayed or regarded as minor but unavoidable overheads, if they are not deliberately hidden or concealed — by the corporations involved and by governments which are ultimately beholden to them.

Too often, environmental legislation is simply a cosmetic covering designed to veil the inherently dirty operations of most capitalist industry.

The Southern Copper smelter in Port Kembla, for example, is soon to reopen despite strong opposition from local communities fearful of pollution from the plant. Earlier this year NSW Premier Bob Carr lashed out at critics of the project, saying that if they had their way, there would be no industry at all. Then he went on to stress that the plant would operate under the most stringent environmental guidelines. Of course!

As a sop to public feeling, a primary school next to the smelter is to be relocated but presumably these same children will still be going home to the same affected area.

What is to be done? It is not possible to regulate capitalist industry — not in any fundamental sense. No government will do it. In any case, today the whole trend is running unstoppably in the other direction. "Deregulation" is slashing or eliminating government controls on business from food inspection to environmental monitoring, replacing them with the sick joke of "self-regulation".

Under capitalism the burden of proof will always be on the opponents of industry's operations. Critics of BHP in Wollongong are told to put up or shut up. There is no definitive proof, we are told (also the cry of the tobacco industry for decades). And then again, so many workers are afraid to push the matter too far for fear of losing their jobs if the company is forced to clean up its operations.

If a genuine workers' government came to power, BHP, along with the rest of capitalist industry, would be nationalised and placed under democratic control by the workers and society. The Port Kembla plant's operations would be overhauled from start to finish and a goal of zero pollution established, monitored and enforced by the workers and the community.

The work week would be reduced with no loss of pay, and no worker would be forced to bear the cost of any restructuring required to make the plant's operations safe and environmentally benign.

Comprehensive, detailed and accurate statistics on the health of the population of the region would be collected and maintained. Cancer clusters and other tragedies and heartache produced by the past would be brought into the light of day.

A guiding principle of the new socialist society would be that those industries necessary to provide products essential to society should be safe, clean and a source of well-being for workers and the community, not of sickness and death. Once the antisocial profit motive is eliminated, this perspective becomes a completely realistic one.