Support is growing to turn this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) into a day of action over the coronavirus. IWMD provides a focus for campaigning over workplace health and safety – setting the millions killed by work each year against the Tory narratives of ‘red tape’ and ‘burdens on business’. Ian Allinson argues that wherever you are, you can help make #IWMD20 on Tuesday 28 April a powerful cry of grief and rage. The government hasn’t called a day of national mourning – we must make our own.
IWMD is always a moving event, combining remembrance centred on the families of those killed by work and campaigning for improved workplace health and safety. Covid-19 has turned many of the themes of previous years (see reports from 2015 and 2018) from concerns of trade unionists and safety campaigners into mainstream topics of discussion.
Day of action
Spanish health workers have called for 28 April to be an international day of action over the coronavirus. The call has been backed by health worker groups in the UK too. We can use IWMD to pile the pressure on governments to put lives before profits. We should be demanding:
- an effective lockdown for as long as is needed;
- a shutdown of non-essential work;
- safe working and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for those still working;
- implementation of testing, tracing and isolation;
- payment for every worker in or out of work;
- the requisition and conversion of private businesses to produce necessary equipment;
- decent pay rather than just applause for workers.
This isn’t just about pressuring governments though. In many cases, workers are forcing change without waiting for government. There used to be a widespread tradition of construction workers walking out when anyone died – an all too frequent occurrence. Will non-essential employers really discipline groups of workers who walk out to have a day of national mourning on IWMD? Why the hell hasn’t the government called one?
There are many smaller actions you can take to build up for IWMD now: from putting a twibbon on your social media accounts to posting selfies with posters and the hashtag #IWMD20. There are lots of ideas and resources on the Hazards Campaign website and the TUC website. The TUC and the Hazards Campaign are having an online event at 2pm, for which you will be able to register here. Many events around the world are being listed at 28april.org.
Organising to save lives
The Hazards Campaign estimates that in Britain in a typical year, around 140 people die from work per day – one person every ten minutes. Globally, the picture is even worse. The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 2.78 million people worldwide die from work every year – one every eleven seconds. A large proportion of the deaths in Britain and globally is from toxic exposure.
Britain has seen decades of cuts to safety enforcement alongside ‘deregulation’ such as making employers responsible for their own fire risk assessments instead of needing a certificate from the fire brigade. There has always been a conflict between health and safety and the pursuit of profit – a conflict highlighted by avoidable workplace disasters. These are not ‘accidents’ – they are corporate killings.
Even before the cuts, collective organisation was the most effective safety enforcement, dramatically improving safety and saving lives. This isn’t just about the vital role of union safety reps, it’s also about establishing a culture where workers feel confident to raise concerns, where they can work at a reasonable pace and can withstand pressure to break the law by working unsafely. This isn’t to say that having a union is enough – in some workplaces the union buys in to a ‘partnership’ approach that sees the employer’s profits as the paramount objective. Even the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), which has overall responsibility for health and safety enforcement in the UK, takes safety concerns raised by union safety reps more seriously than those raised by individual workers.
Covid-19 is teaching millions of workers about the safety rights we have won – what they are, how to use them, and their limitations. Before this, how many people knew what PPE was, let alone where it was in the hierarchy of controls? How many knew that risk assessments are required before work is done, about their employer’s duty to update risk assessments whenever things change, or that workers or their representatives must be involved for the risk assessment to be suitable and sufficient? Millions have been learning about their right to take action – including leaving work – if they believe this is necessary to avoid serious and imminent danger to themselves or others.
Unions are reporting a surge in membership and are putting out a wealth of advice. Many have set up helplines or online meetings to support members and reps. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is putting put on webinars and training to help activists cope with the pandemic. Yet the official response is lagging behind the scale of the crisis. Too many have gone along with employers’ efforts to keep business running. Unions are nervous about opening their doors to new members who may need costly support. Official structures are overwhelmed with the volume of workers facing serious problems. The anti-union laws make them cautious about workers taking collective action over safety. The growth of spaces for peer-to-peer support has been a very important development, allowing people to quickly access advice, highlighting examples of collective action and encouraging more. The Workforce Coronavirus Support Group has been the most successful of these, and it is spawning local and sectoral offshoots.
Putting health and safety first
There is enormous pressure on key workers not to upset the narrative where they are lauded as selfless heroes but expected to work without proper safety. This narrative will cost lives. Using chants like ‘Test, test, test! PPE! Keep key workers virus free!’ on Thursdays rather than just clapping can help give workers the confidence to refuse to work without proper safety. There have already been examples of health workers bravely saying: ‘no PPE, no care’. This is an incredibly difficult stance to take because they want to give care. But working without proper safety means spreading infection and will cost lives. Where health workers have taken a stand, PPE has often been provided very quickly.
This crisis won’t be going away quickly, but it also matters that we build networks and organisations that last beyond it and can shape the aftermath. Will we see austerity to pay for the bailouts or better funding for a publicly owned health and social care system? Will we see benefits cut back again or will the experience help us strengthen Britain’s inadequate safety net? Will we see an end to migrant detention or a tightening of border controls? Will airlines and public transport return to private business as usual, or will aviation workers get sustainable jobs and public transport be taken into public ownership and expanded? Will unemployment mean an expansion of precarious work or will we stamp it out?
The answers to these questions will be shaped by the organising and campaigning happening now. International Workers’ Memorial Day is another chance to attack the myth of national unity and demand that health and safety comes first.