International Workers Memorial Day is an important annual event often overlooked by the mainstream left. It's an opportunity to highlight the preventable nature of workplace deaths and promote campaigns and unions who fight for workers' rights. Activist and lecturer Luke Campbell shares his observations from this year's commemorations in Scotland...
Saturday 28th April 2018 marked this year's International Workers Memorial Day – and not only in Scotland. Events took place formally and informally in almost 100 countries to mark the occasion. It's a day that's frequently overlooked, even by most on the left. First recognised by the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) in 1993 and the UK Government in 2010, the annual event brings together workers, trade union members, social activists, and community members to commemorate those who have died at work or as a result or workplace activities.
Originating in North America during the 1970s, various sources within the workers movement accredit the late Tommy Harte (an activist with the Hazards Campaign, who challenge work-related injuries and diseases, and formerly of the West Midlands Health & Safety Advice Centre) as establishing the event within the UK at some time between the late 1980 and the early 1990s. After Harte’s first events in Birmingham, vigils, demonstrations and other ceremonies spread initially through neighbouring areas. Decades on, the commemoration is now a permanent fixture in the labour movement.
The slogan is simple and powerful: ‘Remember the Dead – Fight For the Living’. It strikes the perfect tone, commemorating ordinary people who died unjustly while spurring us to look forward. It's encouraging, then, that a wealth of events took place around Scotland this year with activities organised in Edinburgh, Bonnybridge, Kilmarnock, Alexandria, Glasgow, Dundee, Falkirk, Aberdeen, Bathgate, Hamilton, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, Coatbridge, Kirkcaldy, Inverness, and Irvine.
Ahead of our local event in West Princes Street Gardens, I was invited to lay a wreath on behalf of Unite the Union's Not-for-Profit Edinburgh Branch - where I have been an active member for three years - at the base of the Workers Memorial Tree.
Chaired by Kathy Jenkins of Scottish Hazards, and with guest speakers from throughout the Edinburgh workforce, this year’s theme centred on unionised workplaces as safer environments and on remembering the 1984 Bhopal disaster, during which more than 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas.
Among the Edinburgh event speakers and those placing commemorative wreaths this year were: Mark Lyon of Unite; Migrant Pride, a predominantly Spanish-run workers organisation; Pat Herd of the National Union of Journalists; Councillor Joan Griffiths, Deputy Lord Provost for the City of Edinburgh Council; Shereen Benjamin of the UCU; Unison, and the Protest in Harmony choir.
But while it's important to commemorate those who have died or suffered in disasters beyond our shores, we must always remember that Scotland has suffered its own workers' tragedies over the years. As the Aberdeen Trades Union Council reminded us, 2018 marks 30 years since the Piper Alpha disaster in which 167 workers died following an explosion and subsequent gas and oil fires on the North Sea platform (6th July 1988).
Of particular emphasis across these events was the Health and Safety Executive 2016/2017 annual report. This suggested that although only 19 worker deaths had occurred in Scotland over the year, when deaths through work-related suicide, occupational illnesses, deaths of members of the public, and accidents on the road, at sea, or in the air were factored in, Scottish Hazards estimate that 12 people die each day in Scotland through workplace safety issues.
The Unite the Union website notes that 'workplaces [with] union safety reps and a safety committee have half the major injury rate of companies that don’t have these structures', whilst the TUC add that 'every year more people are killed at work than in wars'. Similarly, Unison suggested that 'up to 50,000 people die each year in the UK from work-related ill health and accidents', citing injury, permanent disability, reduced work-lives, and work-related deaths.
As I laid a wreath of behalf of the Unite the Union Not-for-Profit Edinburgh Branch, I delivered the following speech:
'My name is Luke Campbell. I'm here representing the Unite the Union Not-for-Profit Edinburgh Branch. We lay this wreath today in recognition and remembrance of workers here and around the world who have died in their workplace as they earned to provide for their families, to keep themselves in food and housing, and to defend their rights of safe working conditions.
With increasingly precarious, lone working, and isolated conditions, with short term contracts and poverty wages rife in both domestic and international contexts, with more than twelve work-related deaths and many more injuries each day in Scotland due to working conditions, we cannot allow employers to forgo the rights of workers to basic protections and safe conditions in the workplace.
With more than eighty people in attendance today, we come together in our trade unions, our campaign groups, and in our own right, with our intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, culture, and class, to remember and to commit to our basic rights and safe working conditions. Thank you.'
It's worth remembering exactly what drives us and motivates us when we go to march on our various May Day weekend rallies, where many of the groups involved in organising this weekend’s events will once again highlight the wealth of issues faced by workers today. I'd encourage Glasgow and Edinburgh-based activists to get involved with these: the Edinburgh event this Saturday kicks off at Johnstone Terrace at 11.30; the Glasgow event on Saturday at George Square at 11. Let's march with the aforementioned slogan in mind: We remember the dead, yes, but let's fight for the living.