Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1083/30672
International Workers' Memorial Day - 28 April
The history of struggle to make the workplace safe
Bill Mullins, South East London Socialist Party
Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Every year these workers are commemorated on 28 April, International Workers' Memorial Day.
The coronavirus crisis has created a heightened awareness, like never before, for millions of workers of the importance of staying safe and healthy at work.
The scandal of this crisis has been revealed time and time again by the criminal indifference shown by the employers to the safety of their workers in the place of work.
Everybody is now aware that the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), has directly led to the deaths of frontline workers in the health service and social care, and on public transport, such as bus drivers and tube workers.
Those workers who might have come into contact with the people they serve - such as their patients, residents and customers who could be suffering from the disease - are themselves now contracting it, and in some cases dying as a result.
Tory health secretary Matt Hancock blundered into another calamity when he blurted out the accusation that it is the fault of the health workers for wasting PPE.
It is business as usual for the bosses who seek every time to blame the workers for any health and safety problems in the workplace.
Passport Office workers
The latest example is in the Passport Office, where the employer has demanded that workers come into work despite the ongoing threat of catching the virus.
The Home Office told workers: "We cannot hide away from it forever." (See 'Passport workers forced back to offices as Home Office shirks its duty of care' at socialistparty.org.uk)
Where does this cold cruelty come from? Is it a new phenomenon or is it intrinsic to the motives of the capitalist system, a system based on profit, as much today as it was in the past?
The history of working-class struggle is littered with examples of the attempts by organised workers to make their place of work safe and secure. From their point of view, they are forced to enter them fundamentally to earn a living.
But from the bosses' point of view, however, the role of the worker, once inside the workplace, is, as Marx expresses it, to put their labour power at the disposal of the employer.
Nothing, from the point of view of the capitalist owners, must get in the way of their ability to exploit the labour power which they have purchased to maximise their profits.
The exploiters want to eliminate obstacles to their ability to get that return. That not only means attempts to drive down wages, therefore keeping more of the value of the workers' labour, but also removing any 'unnecessary' expense in the physical environment of the workplace, or anything that slows down the work processes.
This is especially true of things that obstruct that process such as decent sanitary conditions, extra guards on machines that stop workers injuring themselves, and so on.
The history of working-class struggle shows that these issues are just as important for workers and their trade unions as the wages that the workers get for their labour, and sometimes more important.
The response of the employers has always been, with very few exceptions, to look with disdain on any attempt by workers to increase health and safety at work.
In his book 'Austerity Britain 1945-51', David Kynaston gives an example of this when the scandal of the widespread use of asbestos was being revealed for the first time to the wider public. Even though, as he says, the bosses had known about it for at least 30 years before that.
"Asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma - all were caused by the insidious dust, which (as victims from Clydeside shipyards and building sites would recall) came 'down like snow' on them, whether in the form of dust, asbestos cuttings or dried-out 'monkey dung' as asbestos paste was called."
One of the leading producers of asbestos was Turner and Newall of Rochdale: "An appalling tale of management indifference to the dangers to which its workforce was exposed, allied to an almost systematic policy of trying to wriggle out of financial liability to the families of those who had died as a direct result of those dangers."
The historical struggle to ensure that the workplace is a safe environment is in general hidden from the history books. But the parliamentary reaction to this struggle is often recorded in a series of 'Factory Acts'.
The first Factory Act was in 1802, and it was in relation to the appalling loss of life and stunted growth of the thousands of children in the textile mills. The children were often rounded up from the orphanages to be used as forced labour.
The process of spinning required a closed hot environment to protect against the snapping of the threads on the machines. This meant that typhus, smallpox and other diseases were prevalent.
The Act was called the 'Apprentices Act for their health and morals,' and called for "proper ventilation and cleanliness as well as regular religious service". Other Acts followed throughout the 19th century.
Yet as historian EP Thompson pointed out in his book 'The Making of the English Working Class', in the history of working-class movements between 1780 and 1832, strikes and struggles demonstrated that legislation did not come about because of the "enlightenment of the rulers," but despite these very same rulers.
The bosses, through gritted teeth, were forced to make these concessions from above to stop revolution from below.
The same century was littered with examples of often bloody struggle that led to death, imprisonment and continual efforts by the working masses to improve their lot.
Today, in this unprecedented coronavirus crisis, a new generation of workers' leaders is springing up. The issue of health and safety in the workplace is not something that only a few are interested in, it is now the concern of many thousands and tens of thousands who are demanding not to go to back to work unless it's safe to. We demand the right to full protection from the effects of this crisis now and in the future.
Workers fighting for safety during Covid-19
- Public meeting via Zoom - Sunday 26 April, 3-5pm
- The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is hosting a public Zoom meeting to share experiences of how workers are fighting for PPE in the NHS and care system, posties are walking out to make Royal Mail management adhere to agreed safety practices, and how London bus drivers have sealed the front doors in response to the tragic deaths of their workmates.
- Zoom details - Meeting ID: 834 6072 7169 Password: 50884
- The NSSN and other workers' organisations are building for what is becoming a global day of protest and action on International Workers Memorial Day, on Tuesday 28 April. Never have the words 'Remember the dead, fight for the living' been so important.
In The Socialist 22 April 2020:
Frontline workers speak out
Lenin at 150