International Workers Memorial Day
“Remembering the dead, fighting for the living”.
(First published in The Newcastle Journal and The Newcastle Evening Chronicle 27 April 2020.)
That’s the message from International Workers’ Memorial Day which falls tomorrow. It’s never been more relevant.
Did you know that every year more people are killed at work than in war? Most don’t die of ‘tragic accidents’ or mystery ailments. In Europe alone, work-related accidents and illnesses kill 200,000 people every year. They die because an employer decided their safety was less important than the bottom line.
In the North East, we have a history of coal mining and heavy industry. We’re no strangers to work-related death and diseases. Thousands of miners in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields lost their lives, or suffered chronic illness. Not just men, but children too. Next week commemorates the Spinney Disaster at Heaton Colliery. On 3rd May 1815 75 men and boys lost their lives.
Coal mining, along with much of our heavy industry, has now gone. Yet workers are still losing their lives or being left with injury and illness because of negligence. Mental ill health from work-related stress is the modern industrial disease. TUC research shows that over 11 million working days are lost each year from it. It affects 400,00 workers. It can leave lifelong psychological and physical disability.
With austerity, staff are under-paid and over-worked. Our public services are so badly underfunded that some workers are doing the jobs of two or three people. We could see what would happen. We warned what the cuts would cause. These risks to workers’ health were entirely foreseeable. So were the risks of ignoring reports to prepare properly for a pandemic.
Compassion is not a weakness. Looking only at the “bottom line” is not good economics. The economy is not separate from society. The workforce is not separate from society. We are society. Work should enrich us, not endanger us.
In the year of coronavirus, this day of commemoration is more essential than ever. The pandemic affects every worker regardless of job or location. Millions are losing pay. Others are out of work. Many have improvised working from home. Keyworkers are risking exposure to the virus to keep society going. Tens of thousands have fallen ill. And three months since the outbreak, vast numbers of workers still don’t have the PPE they need.
Covid-19 has now killed over a hundred health and social care workers in the UK. We’ve seen the moving accounts on TV. Grieving relatives and colleagues devastated by their loss. How much of this grieving could have been prevented if we’d only invested to protect frontline staff?
The failure to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been laid bare over recent weeks. The TUC has made a call for a judge-led public enquiry in to the “grotesque failure” of the government’s PPE planning. This is not about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s about ensuring that workers are not put at risk again.
We also need to know why the virus is taking such a heavy toll on BAME workers. Around two thirds of the NHS staff who have died from Covid-19 are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. As is every one of the 15 doctors who’ve died so far. Kier Starmer has tasked Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the party’s new race relations advisor, to launch a review in to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities.
Remembrance is an act of solidarity. So that we renew our efforts to organise collectively. To prevent more deaths and work-related injury and disease – whatever the cause. After this crisis has passed, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with these workers. There must be no service cuts or job losses. No excuses for more austerity.
So on Tuesday, I’ll be observing a minute’s silence at 11am It’s a moment to pay tribute to the ill and the fallen. A moment of solidarity with those still exposed. It’s also the time to commit to protecting those who continue to do vital work.
We remember the dead and we fight for the living.