Trivializing the Not-So-Trivial: the News-Gazette and Mr. Khan

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In its editorial of April 23, the News-Gazette took members of the U of I Senate to task. These members had challenged the decision to award an honorary degree to Mr. Shahid Khan.  Mr. Khan, an engineering graduate of the University of Illinois, has made a fortune with his company, Flex-N-Gate. Khan has made very significant financial contributions to the university.

The News-Gazette editorial reads, in part, “Khan is the personification of the American success story, a living, breathing example of the fact that in this country all things are possible no matter how humble your beginning.”

It goes on “…he has created economic opportunities for thousands of people across the country and the world.  Flex-N-Gate, an automobile parts manufacturer, employs more than 12,000 people.  Ironically, it’s Khan’s job-creating activities that have him in hot water with some faculty members, specifically his local facility in Urbana.”

The editorial then goes on to refer to “an accidental release of sulfuric acid vapor that caused a worker evacuation and complaints from those who wish to unionize plant employees.  The apparent intent is to portray Khan as some kind of corporate pirate not worthy of the recognition signified by an honorary degree.”

There are serious problems with the Gazette’s analysis.  The accusations against Mr. Khan are not limited to the sulfuric acid vapor incident. Even if they were,  unintentional negative consequences can sometimes be traced to negligence and that might be why OSHA cited him. Beyond this, there are at least three other areas of complaint against Mr. Khan that cannot be written off as accidental (for more background, see the April 2012 edition of the Public i).

The first of these complaints center on the fact that workers in Flex-N-Gate here in Urbana have not been given sufficient protective gear for working with the dangerous chemicals, especially chromium, which is used in electroplating.

One of the fascinating aspects related to this issue is that Mr. Khan has imported a large group of workers from the Congo in Central Africa where such chemicals are mined. If his intent was to gain a docile workforce that would not stand up for their right not to be poisoned, he was badly mistaken.  I myself have heard some of these workers tell of their exposure to toxicity without being given the proper protective equipment.  OSHA inspectors apparently agree with the workers and have issued several violation citations and fines against the Urbana facility. Initially fines were set at $57,000, but they were negotiated down to what a billionaire could afford.

A second complaint was made about environmental degradation cause by one of Khan’s plants in Highland Park, Michigan.  According to a report by Tina Lam of the Detroit Free Press, the Chrome Craft plant was cited for discharges of hexavalent chromium into sewers, lack of a permit to store hazardous waste, improper storage of waste, and failure to train workers. There have been 39 city, state, and federal violations noted over a 20 year period.  The plant has since been closed, but people in Highland Park continue to worry over lingering toxic effects.

A third complaint is that Flex-N-Gate has engaged in unfair practices against workers who attempt to unionize.  The United Auto Workers reports that workers at a plant in Puebla, Mexico complained about imposed “representation” by the labor arm of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico). The workers wanted the right to choose their own union. Khan, and his managers were apparently very content with the existing arrangement with the PRI-affiliated union and responded by firing at least 10 workers who spoke out against it.

The News-Gazette trivializes some very serious issues in the last substantive paragraph of its editorial:  “Skirmishes with OSHA, workplace accidents and union activities occur on a daily basis in factories across the country.  It’s virtually impossible for a manufacturer of substantial size to avoid them.  They go hand in hand with being in business, and, under the laws governing these difficult issues, the disputes are worked out in accordance with the law.”

Indeed, all to often, this kind of behavior is business as usual.  The anti-regulatory forces in this country have seen to it that regulatory agencies are understaffed, are having their powers curtailed, and are only able to levy such minimal fines against companies who endanger workers or the public that they are seen as a joke by offenders while truly being an insult to the rest of us.   In most cases, criminal prosecution is out of the question for these huge manufacturing  “job creators,” just as it is for the “too-big-to-fail” financial houses.  From this perspective, it all “works out” very well for them.

The editorial ends: “To deny Khan an honorary degree on such nebulous grounds reflects more on the judgment of the UI senators than it does on Khan’s many accomplishments.” On the contrary, the senators raised serious and pointed issues concerning Mr. Khan’s treatment of workers and its relevance to the granting of the honorary degree to him. They are the ones who should should be honored for bringing these to the attention of their fellow senators.





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