Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Workers Memorial Day - Remember the dead, but fight for the living

"Remember the dead, but fight for the living" is the rallying cry for International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) today. It commemorates those workers across the world who died as a consequence of their work. There are events planned in Scotland and across the world today.

Over 20,000 people die every year because of their work; most of these because of exposure to dangerous substances. So this year the theme is, ‘removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace’. Hazardous substances are found in almost every workplace in the UK and many workers have no protection against the possible effects, despite the fact that tens of thousands of workers have their health destroyed by asthma, dermatitis, lung disorders and cancers due to exposures.

Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don't die of mystery ailments, or in tragic "accidents". They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn't that important a priority.

Most employers understand the importance of safety. However, it is bad employers who have been encouraged by the UK government’s approach. It was David Cameron who made it his new year's resolution in 2012 to "kill off the health and safety culture for good". Safety regulations were "pointless time-wasting" and "an albatross around the neck of British businesses".

This attitude explains why this UK government has slashed funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by over 40% and banned unannounced inspections from entire industries. That has been compounded in Scotland by big cuts to local authority budgets that have seen safety inspections by environmental health officers reduced.

While we have our own problems, we should not forget that this is International Workers Memorial Day. In particular, we should remember the awful incident in April 2013 where almost 1200 workers, most of them young women, lost their lives when the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Savar district, Bangladesh.

All clothing companies that source from Bangladesh should make an adequate contribution to the Rana Plaza Fund, administered by the ILO. It is shameful that two years after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, some companies still have not donated adequately to the compensation fund. Workers and their families urgently need this money to pay medical fees and rebuild their lives after this horrific event. Companies have a moral obligation to put the livelihoods of those who make their clothes in Bangladesh first.

Work-related illness and stress can be caused by toxic hazards or workplace accidents, but also by ever-increasing hours and impossible workloads. Mental health in the workplace is a growing concern, highlighted today by the See Me survey that shows nearly half of Scottish workers say people don’t tell their employers about mental health problems for fear of losing their job. Even more thought it would impact on promotion opportunities.

So, today we will remember those who have lost their lives at work and the families who had every reason to expect their loved ones to come home from work safely. But we must also end the undermining of our carefully developed safety culture and stop expecting workers to be at the beck and call of their employers 24-7 - stretching the physical and mental health of too many workers to breaking point.

UNISON Staff in Glasgow gather for a minute's silence to commemorate IWMD15

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