medical observation ward Inside the medical observation ward, Connaught Hospital, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2015. Photo: Flickr/DFID - UK Department for International Development

This year’s Workers’ Memorial Day is set to become a demonstration of solidarity with health and care workers fighting coronavirus, writes Richard Allday 

This coming Tuesday – 28th April – the labour movement will honour Workers’ Memorial Day. Trade unionists and others will be promoting a 1-minute silence at 11am to honour all those who have lost their lives at work.

This year, the theme for Workers’ Memorial Day has (for obvious reasons) been changed to “Stop the pandemic in the workplace”.

At a time when news bulletin after news bulletin reports on fatalities among frontline workers in health and social care, their workmates are pointing the finger at the lack of protection offered in their professions. At the same time, essential workers such as bus drivers, shop workers, transport and logistics workers are increasingly protesting the selfsame disregard from their employers to basic health and safety.

Health over profit

TfL (the London Transport body) has only just, reluctantly, given way to drivers’ demands that the front door on buses be locked, only allowing access to the bus from the middle or rear doors. The argument from the drivers’ union reps was clear: where possible, the driver should be protected from too close – and unnecessary – physical contact with passengers. 

The bus operators’ argument was equally simple: if they locked the front doors, there was a real danger of a reduction in fares collected. It was only the threat that the buses would not leave the depots that eventually persuaded the bus operators to put the health of their employees above their search for profit.

Similarly, only this week, the logistics company Bibby has agreed a coronavirus safety protocol with Unite the union, ensuring proper social distancing; dedicated tractor units (i.e. no cab-hopping between day and night drivers); hand sanitizers on loading bays; and temperature checks for all staff on entry to site. It took the threat of walking off the job for the employer to concede such obvious and basic provisions.

Safety at work 

Last November, my local trades council (Colchester TUC) organised an event to coincide with International Health and Safety week. The event was to commemorate the memory of a Dutch construction worker, Joop Verburgh, who died in an accident on the construction of the Colchester Inner Relief Road 25 years earlier.

The trades council paid the costs of travel (and overnight accommodation) for Joop’s widow, his sister, and his children to attend the event. Messages of condolence were received from the Asst. General Secretary (Gail Cartmail) of Unite’s construction sector, and from the Dutch union FNV. The event was attended by local Labour councilors (including one who had been present on the tragic day), as well as trade unionists from many different industries.

Why do I mention this? Because the central theme of that day was that every worker, and their family, should have the right to expect their loved ones come home, healthy and safe, from work. That right is as pertinent today as it was then. 

It is no accident that there were no employers’ representatives at the Colchester event. It is no coincidence that, time after time, it is workers and their organisations that are raising the argument for proper protection at work. Whether that is proper PPE for health and care workers (apparently beyond the capability of this train wreck of a government) or basic safety measures, such as not having day drivers shoot straight into the cab vacated by the night driver in our transport industries, the truth is that the employers still measure everything in terms of cost and profit.

Price of everything, value of nothing 

A character in one of Oscar Wilde’s plays referred to “knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. How little has changed among the members of the employing class!

So please, this coming Tuesday, at 11am, stop what you are doing for one minute, and think of those who have needlessly lost their lives at work; think also of those who undoubtedly will lose their lives in the future if workers do not stand up together, to demand respect for that elementary right to go to work, and return in one piece. 

Ask your workmates to do the same, and to support the workers in the health and social care sectors in their demand that the government take their health seriously, and provide the PPE they need.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.