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Saturday, 18 April 2015
Social Murder, Health and Safety, and Trade Unions
Guest blog from WH Quick, first published on his website 'A Green Trade Unionist - In Bristol' LINK Published here because it has a much wider relevance.
Early photograph of the last mass Chartist meeting of 150,000 at
Kennington Common to deliver their final petition, allegedly signed by 6
Chartists were the first mass working class movement in the world. They
had local groups across the country; organised petitions signed by
millions, and held mass demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands
in a time with much more limited communication networks and in an
extremely repressive atmosphere.
strength came from the general revulsion at the extremely pronounced
levels of injustice and exploitation inherent in the early factory
system. The average working day was in excess of 12 hours, often in
cramped workshops with few breaks and no health and safety standards.
The employment of children was widespread. This practice came under
increasing criticism from the 1780s but it wasn’t until 1833 that
effectively enforced legislation was brought in to regulate child
Boys working in a textile mill
The 1833 act only
outlawed children under the age of 9 (except in the silk industry) from
working, and limited them to working 8 hours a day till they were 14 (and then
12 hours till they were 18). Workers received abject poverty pay, had no
weekends or holidays, no maternity leave or sick pay or any real rights at
all. After a long day they returned home to squalid slum housing to
subsist off of terrible diet of the cheapest food. As in the less wealthy
countries of the world today (where the majority of our cheap mass manufactured
goods are produced) rates of accidents, injuries and mortality were appallingly
Chartists termed the tens of thousands killed and maimed in the
all-pervasive industrial accidents of their era ‘Social Murder’. These
were the thousands unnecessarily killed each year by a society
structured to pursue profit no matter the human (or environmental) cost.
Thankfully, due largely to the efforts of past generations organising
in their workplaces, communities and in political parties, we now work
in far safer and more humane working environments.
even today in the UK around 1,500 people die in largely avoidable
accidents in the workplace. A further 50,000 die prematurely every year
as a result of long term I’ll health acquired at work. Many more are
seriously injured. In my branch of UNISON (representing around 1,500
people) sadly in this last year alone one of our members has been left
permanently disabled and another with serious long term health issues.
to our Health and Safety officer Mark, both of these incidents were
caused by actions worse than negligent on the part of management. The
drive to cut costs by minimising legislation and cutting corners, that
can leave workers seriously disabled or worse, makes this kind of
behaviour increasing likely in the UK today.
of industrial accidents have been gradually rising over the last few
years as both Health and Safety regulation and the budget of the agency
enforcing them have been cut by the Coalitions. For years now right
wing comics and TV personalities – like Clarkson – have demonized health
and safety and turned it into a joke. This works in much the same way
that media demonization campaigns have paved the way for cuts to the
wider welfare state in general. The way health and safety discourses are
conducted – couched in the terms of the names and dates of the
legislative framework that created it – can be tedious. But it is an
extremely important part of workplace safety and the rights that the
labour movement has won us over generations of struggle.
sectors of the media denigrate health and safety legislation, and the
coalition government carries out savage cut, employers are going on the
offensive. Bristol made national news when revelation of the extensive
use of a black list of health and safety stewards and activists by
leading Bristol construction companies came to light. To maximise
profits by undercutting health and safety standards at least 3,214
health and safety activists (ordinary people concerned about their
welfare at work) were victimized and had their ability to work and
provide themselves with a living severely curtailed. The list most
famously was in use on the construction of Cabot Circus.
don’t have to look to the past to see how the all-consuming drive to
profit inherent in our economic system, when not tapered by strong
unions and health and safety legislation, leads to misery. Our
contemporary world is full of depressing evidence. The working
conditions in the parts of the world where most of the Wests cheap
manufactured goods are produced are atrocious. Rates of injury and death
are shockingly high and reminiscent of our early industrial past. Often
adults and children work side by side in appalling conditions.
don’t like to think about this blood involved in the production of our
cheap consumables. Occasionally workplace conditions are so despicable
an ‘accident’ of such awful magnitude happens and pierces the veil of
silence carefully constructed around it. As in 2013 when over 1100
people were killed and a further 2500 injured in Rana Plaza Bangladesh
when a sweatshop producing goods for a consortium of western companies
collapsed. Just before this disaster the building had been deemed safe
twice by inspectors working on behalf of Primark.
Rana Plaza just after its collapse in 2013
may not like to think about these extreme levels of exploitation and
death inherent in the international trade system; but the role of
western multinationals in setting up this very system to supply our
domestic consumption patterns is central and makes us all partly
responsible. Rana Plaza is a case in point. In the wakes of the disaster
the International Trade Union movement created and signed an accord on
minimum safety standards in the garment industries of Bangladesh and
far only three American owned factories have signed up. We see the
violence inherent in the system flare up as Western Corporation
repressively extract resources all across the global south. Indigenous
leaders are murdered as they try to protect their lands from invasive
oil drilling. Workers striking for better wages and conditions are
brutalised by police and private guards. The Marikmana massacre of late
2012 is the most vivid and bloody example. 38 strikers were killed and
at least 78 more were wounded when security and police representing the
London based Lonmin mining corporation opened fire on them. The
revelation that most of them where shot in the back whilst fleeing make
it all the more horrifying.
Armed police with the miners they’ve just killed
we want to change this horrifying state of affairs, changing the way we
interact with our economic system to become more ethical consumers is a
step in the right direction. But small scale individual change is never
enough. We need to organize in our communities, workplaces and
political parties to protect our health and safety and our living
conditions; and we need to push these organizations to restructure the
economic system that causes so much global misery.
are especially relevant in this struggle for the role they play in
protecting conditions at work; their role in the international labour
movements attempt to improve conditions in the global south; and their
involvement in community campaign to protect health and the environment.
This last point can be illustrated locally by the part played by unions
(including UNISON I’m happy to say) in supporting Avonmouth residents
successful campaign to stop the building of a biomass energy plant.
Large scale Biomass energy production accelerates deforestation and
climate change, and emits toxic dust clouds that seriously impact health
and can cause cancer.
to commemorate the victims of industrial ‘accidents’ around the world
every year we celebrate International Workers memorial day. This year on
the 28th of April we’ll be marking the occasion with a march from unite
the union’s Tony Benn house (setting off at 12:30 pm) to a wreath laying
in Castle Park, and a talk in the evening. The message is remember the
dead and fight for the living. Come along, join and get active in a
union, and make sure you use your vote this May (there’s less than a
week left to register).
Flyer for the Bristol Hazards Group International Memorial Day talk