Media around the world spoke this weekend of the tornadoes in the U.S. and their impact on a candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon distribution center and hundreds of razed homes. The White House called for investigating whether the disaster is related to climate change. But the cause of the human disaster is much simpler: precarious workforces and bonded laborers who can’t walk off the job even in the middle of a natural disaster as well as wooden houses unable to withstand storms and freezing temperatures.
Table of Contents
- Tornado and working conditions
- Tornadoes and housing conditions
- Tornadoes: Climate disaster, anti-human exploitation, or both?
Tornado and working conditions
When the National Weather Service issued an emergency tornado warning in Mayfield at 11:30 p.m., more than 100 people were working at the candle factory. According to local press reports we know that most were temps, paid minimum wage plus a nighttime bonus of $1 an hour.
Between 10 and 20 of them, however, were prison workers who had been at the factory for a week thanks to an agreement with two county jails.
They are no exception. It’s difficult to estimate the total because there hasn’t been a complete national census of prisons since 2005. In that year, it was estimated that there were nearly 1.5 million inmates working, including 600,000 employed by the industrial sector, or more than 4% of all manufacturing jobs in the U.S. at the time.
Big companies, from McDonalds to Victoria Secret, turn to such programs in which the inmate is paid less than 10% of minimum wage. It is an old story in the USA whose ultimate origin is in the balances achieved by the Southern slave bourgeoisie, represented by the Democrats, after the Civil War. Then, prison labor was presented, even in the Constitution, as an even more profitable substitute than slavery for the owners.
Before the war, we owned Negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him: if he was sick, he got a doctor. He could even put gold implants in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own them. One dies, you get a new one.
With the pandemic, entire “strategic” sectors – from slaughterhouses to mask factories – have responded to the growing demand with such programs, rapidly expanding workforces at rock-bottom costs and under conditions that the Washington Post described as “the recipe for catastrophe.”
The Mayfield factory was not the only workplace to collapse during the tornadoes, killing workers who should not have been there. Just 250 km away, in Illinois, six workers at an Amazon logistics center died in similar circumstances. We can easily imagine why they were there. Amazon is synonymous with precarity, declining real wages and ever-increasing pressure on workers.
Tornadoes and housing conditions
The bulk of the deaths from this wave of tornadoes is occurring, county by county, in homes. In most homes the basic walls and structures of homes are not made of brick or stone but of wood. And where there is brick, as in the picture above, it just as siding. All in all, houses with brick siding, even if only decorative, endured much longer. Something which on the other hand had been more than proven in previous tornadoes.
The precariousness of workers’ housing is not only manifested during tornadoes and floods. Last February a cold snap, coupled with power outages, froze to death a dozen people in Texas. The fact is that with these walls, insulation is generally insufficient. There is a reason why the energy consumption of an average American home is six times higher than that of its European equivalent.
And houses are not “cheap” when compared to normal workers’ wages. In the U.S. today 19 million households struggle every month to pay their rent or mortgage, and over 8.5 million families spend more than 50% of their income on housing.
Tornadoes: Climate disaster, anti-human exploitation, or both?
Yes, climate change exists and its origin is none other than capitalism. And most likely this wave of tornadoes, like the floods of last summer, can only be understood within that overall disastrous framework. At least, with the science available today we can say that climate change is a determining element in the proliferation of episodes of extreme weather events.
But the cause of the deaths and human disaster left behind by tornadoes, floods and other extreme events must be sought much closer: in the precariousness and brutality of labor conditions and in the poor quality and fragility of workers’ housing, the result of the same type of needs of capital.
Similarly, if between Germany and Belgium there have over more than 180 deaths and more than 100.000 people are still without electricity is not because of the mere fact that floods have occurred, but because politicians, builders and speculators encouraged for years to build houses, streets and buildings in flood zones that today are damaged or washed away.Extreme weather events: Is climate change to blame for deaths in Germany and Belgium or fires in the US?, 7/18/2021
What we are experiencing is the feedback of two expressions of the same antagonism between (capital) growth and (human) development.
The destructive and anti-human way in which capitalism has for decades transformed the natural environment to maximize profits now makes extreme weather events more frequent. But these kill thousands every year because the same principle – meeting the needs of capital over and above the most basic universal human needs – leads it to impoverish and increasingly precarize labor as the only way to sustain an accumulation that is becoming more destructive by the day.