WORKERS all round Britain – and all around the world – took time off from work last Friday, 28th April, to mark Workers’ International Memorial Day. This is an annual international trade union event that is growing in size and support.
It is aimed to commemorate all workers who have been killed, injured or made ill at their workplace and is marked by wearing purple ribbons.
Last year more than 200 people died at work and 150,000 were seriously injured. Globally, each year more than 56,000 workers die from job injuries and illnesses, and another six million get injured.
This year’s Workers’ Memorial Day theme was: “Union Workplaces – Safer Workplaces”.
The purpose behind Workers’ Memorial Day has always been to “remember the dead: fight for the living” and unions are asked to focus on both areas, by considering memorials to all those killed through work but at the same time ensuring that such tragedies are not repeated.
That can best be done by building trade union organisation, and campaigning for stricter enforcement with higher penalties for breaches of health and safety laws.
This year trade unionists in London marched from Canada House in Trafalgar Square to the Tate Modern and then on to the Greater London Authority headquarters near the southern end of Tower Bridge.
In the south-west of England the local Forest of Dean history society has commissioned a dramatic sculpture to honour those who worked, suffered and were killed in iron and coal mines and quarries in the Forest.
Last week the sculpture, created by local artists, Graham Tyler and John Wakefield, provided the backdrop for a wreath laying ceremony to mark Workers’ Memorial Day.
In Bristol city safety representatives gathered with other trade unionists at the City Council’s Romney House site to tie purple ribbons to the Workers’ Memorial Day tree.
A similar event took place in Wolverhampton by the Workers’ Memorial Day Tree, next to the war memorial in St Peter’s Square. In Birmingham there was a wreath-laying ceremony at the Workers’ Memorial Stone, Brueton Park, another in Solihull and a service of remembrance in Coventry.
In Sheffield there was a public meeting followed by a ceremony organised by the Sheffield Trades Council. At Immingham there was a memorial service at the Workers’ Memorial in the grounds of the War Memorial.
There were other similar events in Leeds, Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Manchester, Chorely, Preston and Liverpool. In Scotland students on the TUC health and safety planted a tree and placed a bench, both with plaques, in Dundee’s Discovery Point – one of the town’s busiest tourist attractions.
There were ceremonies in Edinburgh, Bathgate, Bonnyrigg, and Glasgow.
Trade union leaders spoke at these events and released statements. Transport and General Workers’ Union general secretary Tony Woodley said: “We call all these deaths accidents, but it is time we used a more precise term. They are killings, and many of them are the result of criminal greed and indifference to safety at work.
“If the Government wants to show how tough it is on crime, then this criminal waste of human life must be addressed immediately with legislation that identifies the responsibility of company directors for killings at work, and forces them to make workplaces safer.”
Bill Callaghan, who chairs the Health and Safety Committee, spoke of the 200 workers killed and 150,000 seriously injured last year in Britain. He said: “There has been progress in reducing this figure but the progress has been slow. Workers have the right to be protected at work. Everyone has a duty to see this happens; employers, regulators, trade union representatives and the employees themselves.
“We must all remember that every injury and death at work seriously affects not only the victim but those around them, their families and work colleagues.”
The shopworkers’ union Usdaw gave full backing to the Workers’ International Memorial Day. General secretary John Hannett said: “In Usdaw we can take pride in the fact that we were one of the first British trade unions to adopt Workers’ Memorial Day back in 1995.
“It’s good to see how the event has grown in stature and is now truly international so it is only right and fitting that we should all take a few minutes to reflect on the toll of death and serious injury that poor health and safety management causes.
“A safe workplace to work should be a right and not a privilege, yet millions of workers are killed and maimed every year. Even greater numbers suffer diseases and ill health as a result of risks that can and should be prevented.”