Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cutting 'red tape' and the rise in workplace fatalities

Last week here in Perth, three young men went to work but did not come home.

Benjamin White, Joe McDermott and Gerry Bradley all died at their place of work. 

Joe McDermott and Gerry Bradley were crushed to death by a concrete panel that fell off the back of a truck at a building site run by Jaxon Constructions. Benjamin White was an Alcoa worker who fell off scaffolding at Alcoa’s Kwinana Refinery.

The causes of the deaths are not yet known.

Their deaths bought to five the number of workplace fatalities in the last two weeks in WA, including a mineworker killed when his truck rolled over at a mine site and a 28-year-old contact worker who died of yet unknown causes at the Northern Star Resources Paulsens Gold Mine in the Pilbara.

Since July, there have been 17 workplace fatalities in WA. In 2014, WA had the highest number of workplace fatalities in 7 years and 2015 may be even higher.

Workplace fatalities continue to rise in Australia. Three to four workers die each week in Australia.

In 2014, 185 Australians were killed at work. The most five dangerous industries are 1) transport, post and warehousing 2) farming, forestry and fishing 3) construction 4) mining and 5) manufacturing.

So why is the number of workplace fatalities escalating?

Australia wide, the number of deaths in the mining industry has soared due to cost cutting, pressure to ramp up production, the high number of inexperienced staff due to redundancies and anxiety about job security, all of which impact on workplace safety.

Another factor contributing to the rising workplace death toll is the business inspired “war on red tape” waged by the Abbott/Turnbull and the Barnett Governments, which scraps laws and regulations to allow corporate and business non-compliance and self-regulation.

Reducing the burden of regulation and so-called ‘red tape’ is one of the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s top 5 priorities. The deregulation agenda aims to remove regulation and promote self-regulation by business as the best way to protect worker safety.

These pro-business campaigns aim to reduce and remove any constraints on corporate and business profit taking. As Malcolm Turnbull said in May 2015:

"One of the important things we should do is make sure we remove as many obstacles to enterprise and entrepreneurship as we can. That is one of the reasons the Abbott Government has been so assiduous in culling regulation and red tape”.

Here in WA, the Barnett Government’s Red Tape Reduction Program similarly aims to make it easier for business and corporations to make profits.

However, red tape reduction, combined with funding and staff cuts to regulatory agencies, has the effect of reducing the level of investigation and prosecution of safety regulation violations. Occupational health and enforceable safety regulations and rules and workers compensation are redefined as ‘red tape’ and cut through deregulation.

In the case of workplace safety, cuts to health and safety and removal of regulation and enforceable safety rules and regulations, threatens lives and increases the risk of workplace harm and fatalities.

Tougher enforceable workplace laws and penalties are needed for employers whose negligence results in death. The average fine for a workplace fatality is around $100,000. Company directors need to be made criminally liable and face prosecution and penalties such as jail and serious fines if workers die because of their negligence.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Facing the world with eyes wide open: The poet Sam Hamill

Poets should speak out against what we see as the assault against our Constitution and the warmongering that's going on.
Sam Hamill

How much grief is a life?/ And what can be done unless/we stand among the missing, among the murdered,/the orphaned,/our own armed children, and bear witness/
Sam Hamill 

You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.” 
Sam Hamill
True Peace 
Sam Hamill 

Half broken on that smoky night, 
hunched over sake in a serviceman's dive 
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa, 
nearly fifty years ago, 
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks 
who stopped the traffic on a downtown 
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up 
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas 
and kerosene, and he struck a match 
and burst into flame. 
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three, 
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine. 
The master did not move, did not squirm, 
he did not scream 
in pain as his body was consumed. 
Neither child nor yet a man, 
I wondered to my Okinawan friend, 
what can it possibly mean 
to make such a sacrifice, to give one's life 
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction. 
How can any man endure such pain 
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, "Thich Quang Dúc 
had achieved true peace." 
And I knew that night true peace 
for me would never come. 
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world 
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief. 
Half a century later, I think 
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc, 
revered as a bodhisattva now--his lifetime 
building temples, teaching peace, 
and of his death and the statement that it made. 
Like Shelley's, his heart refused to burn, 
even when they burned his ashes once again 
in the crematorium--his generous heart 
turned magically to stone. 
What is true peace, I cannot know. 
A hundred wars have come and gone 
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones. 
Mine's the heart that burns 
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul. 
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I've learned?

There is no other poet like Sam Hamill.

His poem True Peace describes his reaction to the self immolation of Buddhist priest Thich Quang Duc in June 1963 in Saigon. Thich Quang Duc sat in the middle of a busy Saigon street and waited for a fellow priest to pour petrol over him. He then set himself on fire.

Thich Quang Duc was protesting religious persecution against Buddhists by the American sponsored dictator of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Just weeks before  Diem's armed forces shot dead 9 Buddhists.

The murder of the monks and the self immolation of Thich Quang Duc set off a wave of protest against the deeply unpopular Diem regime, which triggered a US inspired coup approved by President John F Kennedy to overthrow the Diem regime in November 1963. The coup and overthrow of the Diem regime paved the way for escalation of US involvement in the second Vietnam War.

Sam Hamill is a distinguished American poet and political activist. 

Hamill is an outspoken and campaigning poet who has produced nearly 20 volumes of poetry and edited even more. Hamill acknowledges the influence of the Beat poets and also Zen Buddhism on his poetry.

As a young man, Hamill served in the US army as the result of a court sentence.

He is an avowed pacifist who has taught in prisons and has worked actively with women and children affected by domestic violence.

He founded and ran Copper Canyon Press for 32 years, one of the US's most innovative poetry publishers and has also translated Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin and Estonian poetry.

In January 2003 he was invited to the Bush White House by the President's wife Laura Bush as  part of a poetry symposium. Hamill refused to attend in protest against Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went on to establish Poets against War, a global movement against war, to speak out about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hamill called for poets to submit poems for an anthology of poetry protesting against the wars. The anthology proved to be the largest single theme poetry anthology in history, comprising 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets. 12th February 2003 became a day of poetry against the war.

Hamill's actions inspired 135 poetry readings and events throughout the US and lead to the establishment of the website Poets Against the War.

His poetry has been translated widely with recent translations in France, Egypt, Italy and Argentina.  A Collected Volume of his work titled Habitations: Collected Poems, spanning nearly half a century of writing was published in 2014.

He presently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and Buenos Aires. Recent interviews and article featuring Sam Hamill are hereherehere and here

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday's poem: 'Those Winter Sundays' by Robert Hayden

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden (edited by Frederick Glaysher). Copyright ©1966 by Robert Hayden.
Robert Hayden (1913-1980) held the Post of Professor of English at a number of US Universities and his best known book of poetry "Ballad of Remembrance", won the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. 

In 1975, Hayden became the Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. In 1976 he was appointed as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He was the first African American holder of that post.

Hayden’s work addresses the plight of African Americans, often using his early experience in Detroit slums as a backdrop. Hayden also wrote political poetry, including a sequence on the Vietnam War. Hayden's poetry celebrates the African American oral tradition and its engagement of history.

Hayden grew up in a destitute African-American section of Detroit and at age two was adopted by neighbours. Most of his early years were spent witnessing fights and suffering beatings. Growing up in a violent household affected his mental development. Additionally, Hayden suffered from severe visual problems which prevented him from taking part in different activities.

These childhood traumas gradually resulted in debilitating bouts of depression. Hayden described his childhood days as “my dark nights of the soul”.
Hayden was often shunned by his peer group because of his poor eye sight and fragile stature. The constant negligence from his family and friends, forced him to read voraciously which developed his intellectual abilities to a higher level.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday's poem: Emma LaRoque The Uniform of the Dispossessed

The Uniform of the Dispossessed
Emma LaRocque

Sometimes I forget
so I buy soft things
Surround my hard-won world
with cafes
expresso cafe
and Brubeck.

Sometimes I forget
so I buy books and brandy
surround my hard-won world
with ceramic thoughts
with silk shirts
modular sofas of burgundy
that match
          that hide
          the sorrow of the past
          the sorrow of woman
          the sorrow of the native
          the sorrow of the earth
          the world that is with me
          in me
          of me.

Sometimes I forget
the combatant who has deserted

But I get recalled
the uniform of the dispossessed
and like a court- martialled soldier
I cannot evade.

Sometimes I want to run
But I can't-
   I can't
      I can't.

Emma LaRocque is a Plains Cree Indian born  in Big Boy, northeastern Alberta.  LaRocque worked as a teacher on the Janvier Reservation and a reporter and editor for the Alberta Native Communications Society.

She is Professor of Native studies at the University of Manitoba and is an academic, literary critic and poet.

She writes about Native Canadian issues, social criticism, human rights issues, women's rights, and family violence.  LaRoque is critical of the way academic expertise devalues information from experts within Native Canadian culture. She also resists what she calls the "ghettoization" of Native literature, whereby it is defined as "Native" when indeed it may address universal issues.

A clip of her at a poetry reading is here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Holding mining executives criminally responsible for the deaths and harms they cause

The BHP Billion mining disaster in Brazil raises fundamental questions about the criminal responsibility and liability of mining corporations for the deaths and harms they cause. 

This issue is at the heart of a historic trial currently taking place in a Federal Courthouse in Charleston Virginia in the USA.

Donald Blankenship, the former Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy is the first mining baron ever to face criminal charges in the United States over a coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners. 

Blankenship is currently on trial for violating numerous safety regulations and conspiring to hide violations which ultimately led to an underground mine explosion that killed 29 miners at the Massey Energy run Upper Branch coal mine in West Virginia in 2010. (A  blog piece I wrote about the Upper Branch disaster is here). 

The Upper Branch explosion was the worst US mining disaster in nearly fifty years.

If convicted, Blankenship faces up to 31 years in jail on three counts, including conspiracy to violate mine safety standards and hide hazards from Federal Inspectors, lying to securities regulators and misleading investors about safety practices in an effort to maintain Massey's stick and his fortune.

Four Massey Energy employees have already been convicted in connection with the explosion. One, a former Massey senior executive, currently serving a 42 month prison term, testified to the court that he approved safety shortcuts under pressure to produce more coal.

That Blankenship is facing trail is a surprise. He was one of the most powerful figures in West Virginia where his family owned company Massey Energy ran more than 150 mines with a revenue of $2.6 billion. Blankenship was considered untouchable having bought off politicians and judges and using his wealth and power to exercise influence and expand his coal empire. He pumped millions into West Virginia's political system to promote an anti-regulatory pro-business conservative agenda and buy favors from state lawmakers, politicians and officials.

Massey Energy had a long "criminal" record of safety and environmental violations at the mine the explosions occurred, as well at its other mining operations. In March 2010 the Upper Big Branch mine was cited for 53 safety violations, and in 2009 the number of citations against the mine doubled and penalties imposed tripled (to $897,325). The mine was the site of other fatalities. Corp Watch cites comments from subcontractors at the mine who said that the mine had been unsafe for years. The company pushed the mine for more coal production- and more profit- at any cost 

In 2008 a Massey subsidiary paid the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry after pleading guilty to safety violations that contributed to the deaths of 2 miners. The company was continually fined for violations of safety and environmental laws. 

The case of Massey Energy (and many other corporations) and the record of BHP Billiton, highlights the need to introduce what Richard Grossman and others call the corporate death penalty- the ability to revoke the charter to operate of corporations that continually and knowingly break the law. In essence this means losing the state's permission to exist as a corporation, thereby putting the corporation out of existence. 

If corporations want to claim the rights of ordinary citizens, to free speech for example, then it is time they and the executives who run those corporations also face criminal penalties for crimes committed against people and the environment.

A long article in Mother Jones about Blankenship and Massey Energy's downfall and the power he exercised in West Virginia is here. Reports on the trial by the New York Times are here and here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Songs of Renown: Patti Smith- Paths that Cross

Patti Smith wrote ‘Paths That Cross’ to comfort an ailing Robert Mapplethorpe on the death in 1987 of Sam Wagstaff, his partner, lover and mentor (This article is about Sam Wagstaff)

Robert Mapplethorpe  was of course Patti Smith's former lover, artistic muse and collaborator and passionate friend. Their story of love and friendship is told in Patti Smith's magnificent and beautifully written memoir of love and devotion Just Kids, written as an elegy for Robert Mapplethorpe.

In Just Kids Patti Smith writes about the song's creation:

 "On the fourteenth of January I received a distraught call from Robert. Sam, his sturdy love and patron, had died. They had weathered painful shifts in their relationships, and also the critical tongues and envy of others, but they could not stem the tide of the terrible fortune that befell them. Robert was devastated by the loss of Sam, the bulwark of his life.
Sam's death also cast a shadow on Robert's hopes for his own recovery. To comfort him I wrote the lyrics and Fred*  the music to "Paths that Cross", a sort of Sufi song in memory of Sam. Though Robert was grateful for the song, I knew one day I might seek out these same words for myself. Paths that will cross again".
*(Fred Sonic Smith was Patti Smith's husband)

 Paths That Cross
By Patti Smith

Speak to me
Speak to me heart
I feel a needing
to bridge the clouds
Softly go
A way I wish to know
A way I wish to know

Oh you'll ride
Surely dance
In a ring
Backwards and forwards
Those who seek
feel the glow
A glow we will all know
A glow we will all know

On that day
Filled with grace
And the heart's communion
Steps we take
Steps we trace
Into the light of reunion

Paths that cross
will cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

Speak to me
Speak to me shadow
I spin from the wheel
nothing at all
Save the need
the need to weave
A silk of souls
that whisper whisper
A silk of souls
that whispers to me

Speak to me heart
all things renew
hearts will mend
round the bend
Paths that cross
cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

Rise up hold the reins
We'll meet again I don't know when
Hold tight bye bye
Paths that cross
will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aharon Shabtai and 'the dirty military spots that stain our hearts'

Keats called it negative capability. I call it a capacity for sustenance — to sustain and be sustained, which is to say, to continue. And to continue means to always make and say something different.”
Aharon Shabtai

These creatures in helmets and khakis, / I say to myself, aren’t Jews,”
Aharon Shabtai

The Israeli poet
Aharon Shabtai  writes about the "dirty military spot that stains our hearts".

And when it’s all over,
my dear, dear reader,
on which benches will we have to sit,
those of us who shouted “Death to the Arabs!”
and those who claimed they “didn’t know”?

from Nostalgia by Aharon Shabtai

Shabtai is an outspoken critic of Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories who has written:

"In the name of the beautiful books I read/
in the name of the kisses I kissed/
May the army be defeated."

Aharon Shabtai writes about the cruelty of the "Israeli" war machine.

"In time of war
I side with the villages
with the mosques
in this war
I side with the Shiite family
with Sour (Tyre)
with the mother
with the grandfather
with the eight kids in the mini van
with the white silken headscarf".

Translated by: Adib S. Kawar

Aharon Shabtai

What nerve
These empty people have!
They've taken the word
"peace" by the hair
dragged it out
of its humble bed,
and turned it into their whore
beside the Central Bus Station.
After they had their way,
they turned the State
into a couch
upon which she screws around the clock.
In the morning she sucks off a sniper in uniform,
and at evening he returns
and proudly displays
the X he etched
into the butt of his rifle,
after he'd shot dead
a young woman, age 19,
who was hanging laundry
on her roof in Hebron.

“…we belong / to a single body – / Arabs and Jews. / Tel Aviv and Tulkarem, / Haifa and Ramallah – / what are they / if not a single pair of shoulders, / twin breasts?”

Aharon Shabtai is one of the Hebrew language’s leading poets, as well as a translator of Greek drama into Hebrew. Shabtai is an outspoken critic of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, and of human rights violations against Palestinians.

Shabtai was married to Tanya Reinhart an distinguished anti-Occupation activist, moral thinker and world renowned linguist, until her death in 2007 (see here).

Of her he wrote

     “Tanya was gorgeous”
       I tell Moishe

       and he raises his head
       over the bowl of bean soup

       and just as he did ten years ago
       he looks at me and says:

       “Not everyone thinks so.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Photographing and exploiting victims of economic depression to promote economic prosperity

"I wish she (Lange) hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."
Florence Thompson

How could it be that someone could take a photograph of someone else, which photograph produces millions of dollars in income, and the subject not receive a single penny? Isn't there some way that Florence's descendants can be compensated? Don't they have rights? Can they sue the photographer?
Craig Manson
Few people have heard of Florence Thompson, even though she is the subject of six of the most famous and iconic photographs of all time.  

The photos have come to define an entire era in history, specifically the effect of the 1930's Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era on ordinary working people in the USA.

Florence Thompson- then Florence Owens- (and two of her children) are the subject  of Dorothea Lang's most famous photographs, taken in a Californian pea pickers camp on a cold winters day in 1936. 

Florence Thompson was a widowed migrant worker and mother of seven when the photos (referred to as Migrant Mother) were taken by Lange during the Great Depression. 

The story of how the photos came to be taken is here.

In 1936, the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) had hired Lange and other photographers to document life during the Great Depression. The agency believed that pictures had the power to incite the middle class and move the Roosevelt government to take action for the better.

The photos were used  to portray the fear and struggles of working class families trapped in terrible poverty whilst engaged in the basic tasks of everyday life under the degraded economic and social circumstances wrought by  the Great Depression.

As Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites note, citing Wendy Kozol, the use of impoverished women with children to represent poverty was an established convention of visual culture at the time.

Hariman and John Lois Lucaites also describe how the image and its iconic status came to be exploited commercially and politically in the USA to promote capitalist economic prosperity. 

However, they argue that the image still acts as a resource for advocacy on behalf of the dispossessed and the economically marginalized in contemporary society.

Lange didn’t ask Florence Owens's name when she took the pictures. In the 1970s she identified herself in a letter to a local newspaper editor signed Florence Thompson.

As Craig Manson points out in this article, Lange received no royalties from the photographs as she was working for a US Government agency for whom she took the photos. 

As Craig Manson points out whilst individuals and enterprises have profited handsomely making tens of millions of dollars out of the photo, neither Florence Thompson (who died in 1988) nor her family  have ever seen a cent. 

Manson goes on to explore whether Florence Owens (Thompson) had any rights with respect to the photographs:
How could it be that someone could take a photograph of someone else, which photograph produces millions of dollars in income, and the subject not receive a single penny? Isn't there some way that Florence's descendants can be compensated? Don't they have rights? Can they sue the photographer? 
A print of the photo sold for $244,500 in 1988, Lange's personal print sold for $141,500 in 2002 and the original print sold for $296,000 in 2005.

The photos have featured on US postage stamps, in Bill Clinton's political campaigns, in advertisements to sell all sorts of commodities, on magazine covers  and in charity fund raising.
The US Library of Congress sells prints for $28 each and for $85 patrons can purchase a framed print containing a quotation from Dorothea Lang herself.

So what is Manson's conclusion?:
Because the photographs were original works of the United States Government, and because federal courts have ruled that the Copyright Act trumps state publicity laws, it is unlikely that her descendants will ever have a claim to any of the millions of dollars made from the picture of their mother and some of her children.
 An 1983 interview with Florence (Owen) Thompson can be found here.

This interview is with Katherine McIntosh, one of Florence Thompson's children who appears in the photo (she was 4 at the time). Katherine McIntosh recounts how the photo bought both shame and determination to the family.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Writing poetry under tyranny: Nina Cassian (1924-2014)

Nina Cassian

A clean vowel
is my morning,
Latin pronunciation
in the murder of confused time.
With rational syllables
I'm trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power.
The enemy is illiterate.
Translated by Brenda Walker and Andre Deletant

Nina Cassian (pen name for the poet born as Renée Annie Katz) was a Romanian born poet, translator and journalist.

She grew up primarily in Bucharest, where her family relocated when she was eleven. 
Her first poetry collection, published in Romania in 1947, was attacked by the Romanian authorities and her work characterised as an 'enemy of the state'.

For a time Cassian tailored her writing to be less controversial, but  secretly wrote satires of the government during the oppressive Ceausescu regime.  

In 1985, Cassian was invited to teach at New York University. She fled Romania during the visit to the USA after a friend was arrested, tortured and killed in Romania. She asked for and was awarded asylum.

Cassian died in New York in 2014.

Articles about Nina Cassian are here, here and here

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wendell Berry on the daily reality of capitalist destruction

The present economy by means of its purchase of governmental power, works invariably against the natural world; against working people, small farmers and locally owned small businesses, and against the life integrity, beauty and dignity of communities, both rural and urban. It is destroying our country"Wendell Berry

In his book of poetry Leavings Wendell Berry composed a sequence of Sabbath poems written as reflections arising from his regular "sabbath walks" in the forests surrounding his Kentucky farm.

These are profound meditations on the state of the world and natural environment, and the destruction caused by human folly and capitalist greed.


1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of  the free
market free and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2.For the sake of goodness,
how much evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favourite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared 
 to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines
and works of art you would most willingly destroy

4.In the name of patriotism
and the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
 List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns
you could do readily without.

5.State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes
the energy sources, the kinds of security
for which you would kill a child
Name please the children who
you would be willing to kill.