David Weil on Frontline Discusses Labor Standards and Cell Tower Deaths

in Faculty, Markets, Public Policy & Law, News
June 7th, 2012

Exploring How Fissuring in the Industry Puts Workers in Danger

Watch Cell Tower Deaths on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Boston University School of Management’s David Weil recently appeared on Frontline, as part of a film titled Cell Tower Deaths, to discuss subcontractors and lapses in labor standards leading to a spate of fatalities in this industry.

Weil is an Everett W. Lord Distinguished Faculty Scholar and a professor in the Markets, Public Policy and Law Department, as well as a renowned expert on labor law and transparency issues. In this Frontline segment, Weil explains that part of the danger in the cell tower industry stems from fissuring: the separation of the actual workers, through subcontracting, from the major firms that dominate the labor market and are supposed to enforce its safety standards.

In a related online interview with Weil, “How Subcontracting Affects Worker Safety,” Frontline reports,

There’s been a change in the American labor market over the past few decades, as more workers—many of them young, inexperienced and willing to work for low wages—are now employed by a vast network of subcontractors that affects not just industries like tower climbers and construction, but also the health care, logistics, retail and service industries.

Frontline interviewed David Weil, an economics professor at Boston University who has studied the trend, as part of the film “Cell Tower Deaths” to understand who’s responsible for worker health and safety in this new model, and what changes we need to make sure that workers are protected. Here are some excerpts from that interview, conducted on March 14, 2012:

“In fissured employment situations, the definition of the employer has become very fuzzy….The lead company can argue that they are not the direct employer, and therefore not responsible for conditions that might play out in bad ways in terms of injuries and fatalities.”

How would you describe subcontracting to someone who doesn’t understand the nuances of the economy?

Subcontracting in general is where one company will take a piece of work and give it to some other business organization to carry out that work. So it’s an old, old way of doing business, and common in industries like construction. … Subcontracting used to be just something particular to a very small number of industries. But in the last 25 years, 30 years, it’s grown in scope … Virtually in most major industries in this country now there are pieces of subcontracting.

The more subcontracting, the more ‘fissuring’ of the work, the greater the risk for health and safety at the bottom of those chains.

How can you measure this change?

Subcontracting is being tracked well in certain industries where it’s been in place for many years.  … But overall, subcontracting is not well accounted for in our national statistics.

Why is this a problem?

We need to be able to track it better because it has very serious consequences on things at the workplace level like health and safety…. The reality is, in many industries, that lead employer has pushed off a lot of that [work that is typically governed by health and safety laws] to subordinate organizations. And those subordinate organizations are often operating in a much more competitive environment. … So the more competitive, the more volatile those lower levels of business, the harder it’s going to be to achieve the kinds of health and safety practices that many of our workplace laws aspire to have in place. …

What can that law, or the government department charged with enforcing it—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—do to regulate subcontracting?

[I]n subcontracted relationships, in fissured employment situations, the definition of the employer has become very fuzzy. … In the way we have traditionally thought about our OSHA laws, the lead company can argue that they are not the direct employer, and therefore not responsible for conditions that might play out in bad ways in terms of injuries and fatalities. And in the tradition of how we have enforced that law and thought about that law, they’re right. … They actually do play a very major role in setting the overall structure of how work is undertaken, and therefore arguably have a much greater role in making sure that work is carried out in a safe way. But that’s not the way our laws are written.

Read the full interview, or watch the film Cell Tower Deaths, a collaboration between Frontline and ProPublica.