Over the next few days, Congress will decide whether workers have legal rights to defend themselves when they defend the public against defective toys, appliances, bedding and the rest of 15,000 retail products overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The result will determine whether new safety standards in gaudy reform legislation sparked by last fall’s killer toys scandal will be worth the paper they’re written on. The safety reforms will be a political fraud unless workers have the legally-protected right to help enforce them.
During this current dark age of government secrecy, hundreds of human points of light keep proving the amazing power of freedom of speech. We call them whistleblowers – employees who use truth to challenge abuses of power that betray the public’s wellbeing. Once vilified as traitors, their revelations and societal impact have slowly but surely raised public perception to match their true value.
Unfortunately their legal rights are a chaotic house of mirrors, at best hit or miss within the same company depending on the subject matter, with far more misses than hits. To illustrate, a Mattel employee has rights blowing the whistle on cooked books, but not killer Barbies.
In January, the Senate voted to change that for retail employees as an enforcement cornerstone of S.2045, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reform legislation. It would protect corporate employees from retaliation for reporting abuses of safety standards by a retailer, manufacturer or distributor of a product in commerce. The Senate’s premise was simple: Americans deserve to know that toys they buy for their children are safe. If a worker knows that lead content is too high in toys being imported, he should have the legal right to speak out. Without these protections, whistleblowers who wish to report serious safety concerns about products will be heavily deterred from doing so.
Industry lobbyists insist that rights are unnecessary, because no corporation has harassed workers for challenging illegal cover ups of unsafe products. Tell that to the whistleblowers fired whistleblowers have been fired or harassed out of their jobs for challenging the following misconduct with life and death consequences:
· brittle plastic that could maim/kill infants in stationary play centers if it snaps;
· light fixtures flunking federal safety standards and sold without prior testing;
· continued sales of faulty home furnace ignition devices that already had caused a fire;
· sales of faulty wiring that turned smoke detectors into fire hazards;
· refusal to recall child safety products despite tests where subgroups of consumers relying on them consistently would have died.
These examples are just the tip of a lethal iceberg that will remain if Congress takes credit for reform without whistleblower protection. To illustrate, last week an anonymous whistleblower contacted the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project to urge that the final CPSC legislation contain whistleblower protection. The employee’s experience is a microcosm of why that provision is, in the whistleblower’s words, “indispensable” for companies to take the new standards seriously for any products self-regulated through internal testing. Otherwise, the conflicts of interest are too severe and the certain costs too great to delay production at the stage when testing normally occurs. Others have pointed out the conflict is crudest and most dangerous when company tests reveal the necessity of a recall. This scenario is the rule, rather than the exception, for the 15,000 products on CPSC’s beat.
A survey of swing voters after the last election found whistleblower rights their second highest priority, only after the related goal of ending illegal government spending. Voters realize that whistleblowers exercising the freedom to warn are the public’s eyes and ears.
But under shrilly relentless industry pressure, Congress isn’t going to pass any reforms stronger than the voters demand that threaten dirty profits. An op-ed news action alert also on the Government Accountability Project’s website, www.whistleblower.org, offers guidance how NGO’s and individuals can help. Since 2006 Congress has passed nearly identical whistleblower rights for ground transportation and defense contractor employees. Surely those who challenge illegality-defective products that could daily threaten America’s families in routine uses deserve the same rights.