Sunday, March 14, 2010

I am not for sale, for I am sold

safe

I am reminded of the women
carefully painting light onto the hands of time
each lick of their tongues
across the fine fine hairs of the brushes
moving them closer to death
straightening the slender fibers
that lit up at all hours
each day each hour each minute
counted away from their lives
with never a second look
for they were told
it was safe

the truth above all: these women
mostly young, mostly on their own, mostly
yearning for better lives, any lives
that did not involve cooking for the miners
or washing the clothes, soot-laden, that emerged
from the dark of the pit
these women, had they known of the danger
might well have worked on
figuring a potential death later
was not as pressing as an actual death--from
hunger starvation, Shanghai'd into slavery, pressed
into service in any of a half-dozen debtors' prisons-
but they were only told
it was safe

safe
was the last thing of many things
that it could be
their own complicity, the
glow of the paint limning eyebrows, curves of noses,
stern sets of lips, the
delicate highlights on hair of a handful of shades--
green and glowing, pinpricks of radiance
glancing off eyes of tens of differing shades--
they had to have known
it was anything but
safe

(Song is Polly Scattergood's "I Am Strong"; also, you might want to give a listen to Scattergood's Breathe In, Breathe Out, shot in Second Life at AM Radio's "Towards the Sky" art installation.)

4 comments:

Sphynx Soleil said...

If that's referring to the circumstances I think it's referring to...the company management did know it wasn't safe, and they encouraged their workers to do that anyway.

Stumbled across it as an example of why corporations have some of the laws that they do - that was far enough back that workers didn't have many of the protections that they do now. Jaw cancers were pretty commonplace, and how employees were treated that complained was just abominable.

Emilly Orr said...

Yes.

Actually, that's a good idea, I should link that to the poem, as well.

How'ver, while yes, the company was massively negligent with the health and safety of its workers (being, in their judgement, easier to hire new girls than it was to take proper care of the workers they had), by the same extension, it is indicative of the American tendency to jump first, think after. These women could have avoided pain, suffering and death of a multitude of cancers, including bone cancer, crippling in many cases--had they chosen to work somewhere else.

Now, some of these women were just that dumb. There's dumb in every population. But some were intelligent, and, whether or not they seriously apprehended all potential risks, they had to know something wasn't exactly on the level: in a workforce comprised predominantly of men, that US Radium was seeking predominantly female workers (they complained less and their hands were smaller) should have tipped them.

But they saw the immediate boon of food on the table, a chance to claw out of poverty, and leapt at it. Could US Radium have done more to protect their workers? Absolutely; what they engaged in was the worst sort of corporate duplicity, matched only by DuPont in later years, when hiring men to clean tanks with a solvent that dissolved human bone. Possibly worse, even, since they made such a concerted effort to hide the work conditions, up to and including accusing their workforce of dangerous sexual practices and having syphilis--at that time an agonizing horror for a woman with any level of reputation to protect.

But many of the women who worked there are the spiritual antecedents of those today who send off financial assistance to those poor Nigerian princes, to ministers who want better cars and gold-plated faucets; those who dream of a better life and are willing to take extremely foolish chances to get one.

At least, in this day and age, our bad choices don't usually kill us and dissolve tissue and bone. I guess that's a plus?

Fogwoman Gray said...

Taking a look at those with the most dangerous jobs, all those women in the nail salons you see everywhere make the top of the list regularly. The chemicals they are exposed to all day every day are nasty.

Emilly Orr said...

That's another great example of the necessity of workplace safety, but by and large that one's dismissed because it's just a 'vanity' thing, they don't have to work there, right?

And that's the wrong outlook on it. Most of these places were started because the one thing some women know, and know well, is personal grooming. In some cases, it's either that or prostitution, and they can cobble together a business plan and get funding from families, by maximizing their own funds, microloans from banks for women in emergent businesses...

The downside of this upswing of cottage industry? Most of the buildings are small and closed in; most of the inspectors for salons don't understand how vital ventilation is. Some of the workers do, but year by year, who really knows what's going to end up happening? And will doctors catch that years of "low level" exposure to these chemicals caused their patients' current illness?

OPI did a great thing in 2007, removing toluene--a particularly vicious industrial solvent--from its products, but unfortunately, very few large manufacturers followed them.