Thursday, 28 April 2011

Workers Memorial Day: Fight for the living.

Speech, Workers memorial Day Edinburgh 2010: 20,000 people die prematurely every year because of work related injury or disease. Another 1.2 million say they suffered illness that they thought was due to their work.

Many of them still come to work, despite their illness.

Another million who have left work say they have ill-health because of their work - still suffering in retirement.

70% of workplace accidents have been shown to be down to poor management of health and safety.
And the government says health and safety regulations are just 'red tape'.

Unnecessary rules that get in the way of the business of making money.

Lord Young couldn't have been clearer in his report the other week about the government's aim: 'The aim is to free businesses from unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and the fear of having to pay out unjustified damages claims and legal fees'.

A recent Institute for Employment Rights briefing explodes these claims that businesses are over-regulated. Instead the evidence points to the opposite:

"In fact", they say, "The collapse in inspection, investigation and enforcement has dramatically reduced the chances of businesses being detected and prosecuted for committing safety offences".

Prosecution and the chance that you might have to pay damages is one of the few things that focuses the corporate mind on health and safety. Without that, regulations are toothless.

And it gets worse. As the Scottish affairs committee met in Aberdeen earlier this month to launch an inquiry into health and safety in Scotland and the higher number of injuries at work here - it emerged that the coalition's cuts could mean that the Scottish Health and Safety Executive losing up to 35 per cent of its current funding.

And the detractors have the corporate media on their side. A media that publicises ridiculous and invented stories about 'health and safety gone mad'.

These false stories have a purpose - and the purpose is to soften up the public for attacks on laws that protect workers' lives.

We need to tackle the myth that health and safety is 'red tape'.

And that will be all the more important as spending cuts begin to bite.

As the protective services provided by local authorities are cut - as proactive checks that protect public health and public safety are reduced.

In the City of Edinburgh Council, in councils across the country, in the Health Service, Universities and Colleges, in police and fire services, we negotiate and we take action to avoid compulsory redundancies.
But whether a redundancy is voluntary or compulsory - a job still goes. And what happens to those who are left behind?

If the need for the service hasn't gone away, how do you manage without the people to provide the service?
All too often you manage by piling more and more work - and more and more stress on the workers who are left.

The TUC reckons that over a quarter of public sector workers work 'extreme overtime'. Mostly unpaid. Contributing £27 billion to the economy - a fact ignored when employers moan about sickness absence levels.

Do they never ask themselves why they have a sickness absence problem instead of just putting more and more punitive measures in place?

Does it never cross their minds that they are pushing people too far?

That extra work and those extra pressures bring their own hazards. Workplace bullying, lone working, unsafe manual handling, repetitive strain injuries (RSI), and stress.

Other work just won't get done, corners will be cut and the first to suffer will be safe working practices.
And as the public get more and more frustrated about the services they can't get, it's our members in the front line that take the flack.

UNISON's 2010 survey of violence at work showed an increase of over 3,000 assaults on public service workers over the year.

More than 28,000 assaults on staff.

And some public authorities still don't keep figures that truly reflect the problem.

Until employers are properly held to account - it will always be someone else's fault and the front line worker will be the one to suffer.

That's one of the reasons I've been proud to be part of a UNISON Scotland guide for social work staff on 'Keeping Safe in the Workplace'.

A guide that urges workers to take responsibility for their safety, their colleagues' safety and their services users' safety.

But most of all it demands that employers take their responsibility for their duties under the codes of conduct.

We stand today to remember the dead. But as it has always been on this day, we are also here to fight for the living.

Surely there is nothing more obscene than profits, cuts and financial or political fortunes being built on the back of pain, suffering, the destruction of lives and the shattering of families' hopes.

That fight has never been more important.

It is time for us to rethink how we organise to fight with and for our people in the face of such an onslaught.
23 October in Edinburgh showed we can mobilise. London on 26 March took it to a new level. They both showed we are not alone. There are millions of us with shared values.

And one of the most basic values is to be safe at your work. We now need to take the next step. Organising, lobbying, demonstrating and, yes, taking action together across unions where we can.

Because if we don't, we will not just lose a generation of progress on health and safety - but a lot more lives and hopes.

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