Today is International Workers Memorial Day. When we go home to our loved ones tonight, we should remember the twenty Scottish workers last year, three a week across the UK, who didn’t make it home to their families because they died at work.
And it isn’t only deaths. 1.2 million workers suffered from work related illness last year – from long-standing causes such as exposure to chemicals, to the mental health pressures modern work techniques are placing on many workers. As UNISON’s annual violence at work survey shows, more than 30,000 public service workers in Scotland reported violent incidents last year. Yet we still have some employers who think violence is part of the job.
IWMD is also an opportunity for us to focus on health and safety as trade unions. It should be a core part of what we all do and shouldn’t be left to a few specialists. That’s why we make a special effort today to undertake safety inspections that make our workplaces safer. Something the UK Government seeks to undermine in the Trade Union Bill.
Health and safety is also under direct threat from government policy. The HSE budget is being cut in half by 2020, making enforcement the exception rather than the rule. The same applies to council environmental health departments, whose statutory safety functions have been significantly reduced. The UK Government has also pursued a de-regulation agenda that dismisses health and safety as ‘red tape’. As in so many policy areas, this government’s priority is always to put profit first and the workers are simply expendable.
Wider public service cuts and job losses put extra pressures on the remaining staff, with the temptation to cut corners an ever present risk. Not to mention the physical and mental health toll it takes out of the workforce.
This year there is an inevitable focus on Europe. A new TUC report finds that EU legislation has helped stop illnesses and injuries at work, and saved lives. Much of the health & safety law in the UK is now underpinned by the EU, with almost two-thirds (63%) of new British health & safety regulations introduced between 1997-2009 originating in Europe (41 out of 65 laws). The biggest cheerleaders for Brexit see protections for workers, like health and safety, as just red tape to be binned.
So especially today, let’s remember the dead, but also fight for the living.