IAIN WRIGHT: Remember the dead, fight for the living

Wreaths left in memory of those who lost their lives in the workplace
Wreaths left in memory of those who lost their lives in the workplace

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day. This commemoration is held every year on this date, all over the world, to mark the day, remember the dead and fight for the living at work.

Every year around the world more people are killed at work than are killed in wars. In the main, these deaths are avoidable: people lose their lives at work not generally because of freak accidents, although they of course do occur, but because an employer decided it was okay to cut corners, often for the pursuit of greater profits, and so safety of workers wasn’t that much of a priority.

In 2016 the theme for Workers’ Memorial Day is “Strong Laws – Strong enforcement – Strong Unions”. This has been chosen because around the world, including in Britain, there are growing attacks on health and safety protection for workers. Getting rid of legislation which protects workers from injury or death cannot be acceptable in any form.

However, frankly, you can have all the laws you like, but if they are not enforced properly they don’t mean a thing. That is why proper inspections and enforcement should take place against those employers who break the law and flout health and safety legislation. In the UK the number of inspections has fallen dramatically in the past five years because of budget cuts, leading to a rise in industrial accidents. In many other countries, enforcement of health and safety is virtually non-existent.

In the face of these pressures, strong trade unions remain such a vital part of modern life. The battle for concessions on matters like pay, terms and conditions is often long and hard-won, and this would be made much more difficult if trade unions were not allowed to carry out their function. In addition, trade unions are champions not just of the workers but of the industries and sectors in which they operate – a great example of this is the Community trade union fighting for the steel industry.

And yet the ability of trade unions to undertake their work in the UK is under more pressure than ever. I find it distasteful that in the week of Workers’ Memorial Day the Government is bringing back to the House of Commons the Trade Union Bill, which seeks to restrict the right of health and safety representatives to take time off to keep the workplace safer and reduces the right of workers to strike when things go wrong. I don’t endorse the frequent use of strikes – it should always be used as a very last resort when negotiations fail – but the withdrawal of your labour in protest at working conditions is a fundamental human right which should be respected in the UK, the birthplace of trade unions. Unionised workforces are safer, and yet the Government is hell-bent on stopping them carrying out their duties.

I don’t think anybody could possibly agree that it is fair that somebody who goes out to work to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay risks injury, work related disease, or even death. That cannot be acceptable on any possible level.

That is why Workers’ Memorial Day is very important; to recognise and ensure that people remember the dead and fight for the living.