International Workers' Memorial Day 2016
Isn't it easy to become preoccupied with our own concerns when work pressures are high, long hours seems the norm and we don't know which way is up! So on Workers’ Memorial Day, when we commemorate workers tragically killed at work, we can also reflect on the bigger picture, including the UK’s health and safety system to protect us from being exploited, injured or made ill at work.
In workplaces around the country, perhaps yours too, events will mark the day with reflection and remembrance. Life is never the same again once you've experienced workplace death. However, the legacy of our gift of life is surely our ongoing commitment to fight for the living? To ensure no-one else’s life is prematurely ended through poor health and safety risk control.
The 2016 WMD theme goes back to basics: strong law, strong enforcement and strong unions. It seems astonishing when you consider it's almost 200 years since the early Factories Acts that the message resorts to such these primitive principles. That is, until that you realise their jeopardy: that the very pillars that have long supported our internationally-acclaimed health and safety system are insidiously being dismantled.
6 years of deregulation and austere funding of the Health and Safety Executive, and massive cuts to local authority regulation have diminished both the health and safety ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’; as if every employer now meets their health and safety duties (don’t trouble to look for that non-existent evidence.....as if!).
The role of our health and safety reps is now even more important. Their observant eyes and ears, which inform worker voice in health and safety and help halve the number of accidents and ill health, need to be active and alert. Yet time permitted for reps to fulfil their tasks is also under threat, as the Government prompts employers to reduce or knock it (through the Trade Union Bill); which would be fine if there weren't 1.2 million working people with a work-related illness and 27.3 million working days lost annually from work-related illness and injury. There is still work to be done.
Let's add a global lens given that it is in fact International Workers’ Memorial Day. This week marks 3 years since the devastating Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1136 garment workers. The world woke up to the cost of clothing consumerism: its low cost reflecting a paucity of Bangladeshi health and safety law or enforcement. Workers had forewarned of the dangers yet had no choice but to work in killer conditions. It took their tragedy to achieve progress, with stronger laws, stronger enforcement and a stronger union position: agreements with the high street ‘brands’ supporting joint auditing and responding to worker concerns.
Obviously welcome progress and demanding constant vigilance. Indeed this IWMD, why not reflect on our purchasing power and consumer choice: our ability to influence supply chains? We can do so personally and at work: some Prospect Branches have had a significant impact on employer supply chain ethics.
So what of the influence on our health and safety lot in life, within this global market? The European Union, which has long been our health and safety ally, appears to be capitulating to deregulatory pressure prompting critics to cite slow decision-making. Meanwhile internationally plans for ISO 45001 are steaming ahead. While we welcome global good practice and the clear intent to combat workplace harm, the ‘standards body’ approach is frustrating for unions. A recent TUC health and safety blog explains how standards marginalise unions, removing us from the statutory framework of social dialogue. It means health and safety is ‘done to us’ rather than embracing our experience and views.
So now, more than ever, we must strengthen our voice and reassert our health and safety know-how. The TUC’s new Health and Safety Organising Guide for Reps offers fresh guidance - Prospect reps please use it.
This International Workers’ Memorial Day, when we remember workers who have tragically lost their lives, let’s reconnect with grass-roots organising so we can be effective in our struggle to protect the living and promote their long lives.
Reference: "Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break." Shakespeare, Macbeth