The Price of Life: From Slavery to Corporate Life Insurance

Source: Michael Ralph, Dissent, Spring 2017

….Mining was not simply hazardous to capitalists whose profits could literally go up in smoke, but for enslaved workers who risked a slow, quiet death from inhaling poisonous gases. These perils did little to disrupt the industry. Instead, eager industrialists used insurance to protect their investments in their workers. Slaves were not sent into the pits unless they were insured, and slaves were not insured unless they received medical exams. These exams enabled a calculus concerning the worker’s health, the loss of his potential skill set, and the cost of insuring him….

…Might we have discovered black lung disease much sooner if the medical exams of enslaved coal miners had been introduced as evidence for ailing twentieth-century laborers? In the twenty-first century, it is easier for politicians and concerned citizens to access information on the value of enslaved coal miners from the antebellum era than on miners today, whose salaries and medical records are protected by privacy laws. This makes it difficult to determine the extent of the dangers coal miners now face. Meanwhile, they pay exorbitant life insurance premiums, provoking questions about who stands to profit.

During the past decade, there has been increased scrutiny of “corporate-owned life insurance” (COLI) policies used by Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, Citibank, McDonnell Douglas, Hershey’s, Nestlé, Walmart, and American Express. There are two kinds of COLI policies. “Janitors” or “dead peasants” insurance policies cover rank-and-file employees. “Key man” or “key person” policies are reserved for employees who generate outsized profits for a firm, like top executives. In either case, surviving family members have sometimes been pained to discover that a former employer generated millions of dollars from the death of a loved one…..