Every year on April 28th, the global trade union movement marks International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD). With the slogan, ‘Remember the dead: Fight for the living’ the day remembers those workers killed, disabled, injured or made unwell by their work, whilst also highlighting the continued need to campaign for safe working conditions.
Not surprisingly the theme of this year’s event is Coronavirus. The day will be a focus to remember the workers who have lost their lives after contracting COVID19 whilst working. While everyone is affected by the crisis, workers are on the front line and already across the globe hundreds of workers have lost their lives to the virus. In the UK more than 100 healthcare staff have died from the virus and workers, across many sectors, are still having to risk their lives, attending work ill-equipped and without necessary safety measures in place. IWMD day provides a sharp focus for the continued need to campaign for safer working conditions during the pandemic.
What Can You Do?
Light a Candle
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is calling on people to light a candle on the evening of Tuesday 28th April. It may be for a loved one, a worker, a group of workers, or for all those who have lost their lives from work. Post a picture of your candle on social media.
Due to the current circumstances most activities on the day will be online. Promote the day on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using #IWMD20 and #StopthePandemicAtWork. Downloadable #IWMD posters, and social media graphics are available via the TUC website.
However IWMD day can’t be just about gestures. We should also use the day to campaign and orgainse in our workplaces.
Around the world union members have been organising around COVID19: spontaneous strikes have taken place in car factories in Italy, Canada and the US; Amazon workers in Spain and France and New York walked out, as have call centre staff in Brazil; public cleaners and mining workers are on strike in Peru and garment workers in Bangalore refused to enter the factories without protective gear. Due to the restrictive anti-trade union laws in the UK there hasn’t been as much strike action but 500 workers walked out of work at ASOS demanding that social distancing be maintained in the workplace.
Unions in the UK have been running campaigns around health and safety, including the successful Unite campaigns to stop Global Foods sacking over 100 low-paid workers, for sick pay from day one for all London’s 20,000 bus workers and for the front doors on London buses to be locked.
Over the weekend Unite, Unison, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal Colleague of Surgeons openly advised healthcare staff not to work if they are not given appropriate PPE. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said, “Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock needs to sort out the logjam in PPE supplies urgently, otherwise he may have to consider his position as this situation can’t continue, as health professionals would be quite right to decline to put themselves in danger. Unite has already advised its 100,000 members that reluctantly NHS and social care staff could legitimately and lawfully decline to put themselves in further danger and risk of injury at work. Unite will continue to stoutly defend the NHS and social care staff.” It will go against every instinct for healthcare workers not to work but safety must not be compromised. Not only should members be provided with individual support and legal representation but collective action must be taken to ensure that staff have the appropriate PPE.
Finally, with COVID19 we could not have a more stark reminder of the important role of trade union health and safety reps in saving and protecting workers’ lives. Unions are asking members to consider becoming H&S Reps, to help work to ensure the safety of staff. If you are a member of a trade union then consider volunteering to take on this role. Safety reps can identity where risk assessments should take place, carry out workplace inspections of particular areas, and have rights to be consulted by the employer on workplace change.
Join a Union! Organise! Keep Each Other Safe!
Helen Russell, former Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Mid Worcestershire and Unite the Union workplace rep.