Multinational Monitor

VOL 27 No. 4


No Choices: Australia's Unions Confront Labor Law "Reform"
by Graham Matthews

Mexican Miners Rise Up: The Explosive Dispute Over Privatization
by David Bacon

Giving Workers the Business: World Bank Support for Labor Deregulation
by Peter Bakvis


Disposable Workers: Layoffs and Their Consequences
An Interview with Louis Uchitelle

Undermining Democracy: Worker Repression in the United States
An Interview with David Bonior

A Kind of Modern Slavery: Labor Flexibility Comes to Indonesia
An Interview with Saepul Tavip


Behind the Lines

The Labor Flexibility Con

The Front
Pfizer vs. The Philippines -- Conflict at the Academies

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Notes

The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- Misadventures in Corporate Media -- Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation

Names In the News


Names In the News

Popcorn Workers Lung

The Department of Labor must act to stop “popcorn workers lung,” asserts a July petition filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Popcorn workers lung, or bronchiolitis obliterans, is a severe, disabling and often fatal lung disease experienced by factory workers who produce or handle diacetyl, the artificial butter flavoring in popcorn.

In 2002 and 2003, scientists with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) studying diacetyl unsuccessfully urged the agency to take broader action to protect workers. There are currently no OSHA standards requiring exposures to be controlled.

“Three workers have died and hundreds of others are seriously injured,” says Jackie Nowell, UFCW Safety & Health Director. “It’s time for action. We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself.”

More than 8,000 workers are employed in the flavorings production industry and may be exposed to the dangers of diacetyl and other similar chemicals. Tens of thousands of food processing workers are involved in the production of popcorn, pastries, frozen foods, candies and even dog food that use these chemicals.

The unions’ petition was accompanied by a letter from 42 leading occupational safety scientists, who all agree that there is more than enough evidence for OSHA to regulate. “Study after study has shown that breathing artificial butter flavor destroys workers’ lungs,” says Dr. David Michaels of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “We know how to prevent this terrible disease, but OSHA refuses to act.”

The unions’ petition asks that OSHA require all employees who are exposed to a certain airborne level of the chemical be provided with air purifying respirators. The safety of these workers would be monitored through medical surveillance and regular consultations.

FDA: Subordinating Science

One fifth of FDA scientists who responded to a survey said that they “have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document.”

The survey, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and released in July, found that 61 percent of the respondents knew of cases where “Department of Health and Human Services or FDA political appointees have inappropriately injected themselves into FDA determinations or actions.”

Only 47 percent think the “FDA routinely provides complete and accurate information to the public.”

The survey, which was co-sponsored by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, was sent to 5,918 FDA scientists, 997 of whom replied.

Forty percent of respondents fear retaliation for voicing safety concerns in public. This fear, scientists say, combines with other pressures to compromise the agency’s ability to protect public health and safety. More than a third of the respondents do not feel they can express safety concerns even inside the agency.

“Science must be the driving force for decisions made at the FDA. These disturbing survey results make it clear that inappropriate interference is putting people in harm’s way,” says Dr. Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Tenet’s Troubles

Tenet Healthcare Corporation, the second largest U.S. hospital chain, will pay almost a billion dollars to settle fraud claims.  

Under a June agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Tenet will pay a total of $900 million over a four-year period, plus interest, to resolve various types of civil allegations involving Tenet’s billings to Medicare and other federal healthcare programs.

“The Medicare program currently faces great challenges, and can ill afford attempts by hospitals to manipulate and cheat the system,” says U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang. “This settlement demonstrates our strong commitment to recovering taxpayer funds from healthcare companies that break the rules.”

Of the $900 million settlement amount, the agreement requires Tenet to pay:

  • more than $788 million to resolve claims arising from Tenet’s receipt of excessive “outlier” payments (payments that are intended to be limited to situations involving extraordinarily costly episodes of care) resulting from the hospitals’ inflating their charges and billing for services and supplies not provided to patients;
  • more than $47 million to resolve claims that Tenet paid kickbacks to physicians to get Medicare patients referred to its facilities; and
  • more than $46 million to resolve claims that Tenet engaged in “upcoding,” which refers to situations where improper diagnosis codes were assigned to patient records in order to increase reimbursement to Tenet hospitals. 

Several of the issues resolved as part of the agreement arose from lawsuits filed by whistleblowers.

— Russell Mokhiber

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