Remember fallen workers, protect those who follow

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WMDlogoMarking International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April, Kay Parris, freelance journalist and former editor of Reform, asks whether deregulation is jeopardising workers’ safety:

"Most of us work primarily to survive. Additional aspirations may be involved but, at the basic level, we expect our labours to enable our lives rather than hasten our deaths.

"For far too many working men and women though, the reverse turns out to be true. International Workers’ Memorial Day is about remembering those who have tragically died in the course of their work and also about confronting systems that fail to prevent over two million deaths and many millions more non-fatal casualties each year as a result of workplace-triggered accidents or diseases.

"Our government is currently engaged in a war on red tape, which explicitly targets health and safety regulations “an albatross around the neck of British business” as the prime minister has described them. Everyone wants to see measures that encourage economic growth, and it is easy to lambast health and safety “gone mad”, but some experts worry that deregulation could prove to be an unhelpful business tonic.

"As tedious as form-filling and inspections can be, research suggests that stringent procedures do help to keep workers safe, as well as motivated. Our health and safety culture has been shaped by the independent Health and Safety Executive watchdog, which in January received unequivocal endorsement from an independent government-commissioned review. However, this review appears to have received a rather more tepid Downing Street welcome than a business leaders’ report a few months earlier calling for a relaxation of health and safety provisions.

"A raft of apparently “needless” inspections have already been stopped and a million self-employed workers are to be exempted from health and safety regulations altogether, raising concerns among trade unions and safety professionals. Among those expressing alarm, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (the international chartered body for health and safety practitioners) has warned against a “lowering of standards that could lead to more accidents and deaths”.

"It is widely accepted that better regulation should have prevented the deaths, a decade ago this year, of 23 untrained and inexperienced Chinese migrants who drowned while collecting cockles in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. Indeed the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA) was established in the wake of the Morecambe Bay disaster to limit the freedoms gangmasters enjoy to exploit such vulnerable groups of workers. Yet 10 years on, the GLA has had its licensing and inspection powers reduced in key areas, prompting fears that more rogue gangmasters will be able to slip through the net.

"Despite these and other potentially worrying scenarios, the safety standards generally upheld in British industries continue to be the envy of workers who toil in highly dangerous settings in many parts of the world. And worker-centred initiatives do crop up alongside commercial ones. There are major union and Scottish government moves underway against employers who use blacklists to silence those who voice safety and other labour concerns, for example; and just this month, a robust new set of proposals to tackle bonded labour has been unveiled by a parliamentary select committee in its bid to strengthen a new anti-slavery bill.

"Should this committee get the hearing human rights campaigners believe it deserves, we might see the hand of regulation making a re-appearance on behalf of workers who need protection from harm.

"Forget the dalek cry of “deregulate, deregulate, deregulate” say Workers Memorial Day activists. Selective deregulation may have a place in market liberation, but freedom is not all that matters in business. Red tape is, as the Memorial Day slogan says, “better than bloody bandages”."

Image: TUC logo for worker's memorial day

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