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International Workers’ Memorial Day

This week workers and Trade Unionists around the world held events, demonstrations and vigils to mark International Workers’ Memorial Day on Monday 28 April.

The day intended to serve as a rallying cry to remember the dead, but also to fight for the living. Every year, two million men and women die worldwide as a result of work-related injuries and diseases.

Unsafe working practices and a total disregard for health and safety were self evident last year when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,130 workers and injuring more than 2,500 people. A year on, victims of the collapse continue to wait for compensation with just seven of the 28 retailers linked to the factory paying into the compensation fund.

The eyes of the world are also on Qatar and their appalling record on workers rights. A report by the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that over 4,000 workers will die during the construction of Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure. Workers are kept in sub human and slave like conditions. Under the kafala system workers are tied to a single employer meaning they can’t change jobs without permission, passports are routinely confiscated and to leave Qatar sponsoring employers must grant an exit visa. A Human Rights Watch report found that workers suffered forced labour, low pay, insanitary and overcrowded living conditions and other violations of their human rights

However, it would be easy to think health and safety problems do not affect the UK. It is often stated that Britain has the safest workplace, however the UK ranks 20th in the health and safety risk index of 34 developed nations.  While figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that the number of workplace fatalities for 2012/13 was 148, one of the lowest ever, they fail to take into account the wider picture. If you include those who die from occupational cancers, lung disorders and cardiovascular disease caused by work and people killed on the road while working, at least 20,000 people die prematurely every year because of occupational injury or disease.

Worryingly, the number of people injured in the workplace has been increasing since the election with 175,000 workers suffering an injury at work that meant they had to take at least seven days off work.

Health and safety should be everyone’s concern, however, the Government have increasingly characterised it as a burden on business. Since the election the Government has cut funding to the HSE by over 40 per cent, reduced the number of HSE and local authority inspections, blocked new regulations and removed existing protection, cut the level of support and guidance available to employers, made it harder for workers to claim compensation for injury and illness, and have undermined the independence of the HSE.

None of these actions have made the workplace safer, and the Government continue their assault on the most effective tool which ensures good health and safety – Trade Union.

A report published by the predecessor of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that safety reps at 2004 prices saved society between £181m and £578m each year as a result of lost time reduction from occupational injuries and work-related illnesses of between 286,000 and 616,000 days. Also, employers who had trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rate of those employers who managed safety without unions or joint arrangements.

The Government will never admit it but Trade Unions create healthier and safer workplaces. Unlike the Government, good employers work with unions to improve health and safety, they do not see it as a burden.

Image credit: AFL-CIO

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