Remember the dead, fight for the living!

Ian Allinson reports from the Workers’ Memorial Day event in Manchester.

Workers' Memorial Day banner and speakers

About 150-200 people gathered in stormy weather in Manchester’s Albert Square to mark Workers’ Memorial Day. Each year around 20,000 people die due to their work in the UK, mainly due to exposure to dangerous substances. Across the EU there are around 100,000 occupational cancer deaths alone. From small beginnings, Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD) has grown nationally and internationally and even the UK government now recognises it. For workers, it is a chance to remember those killed by their employers, raise awareness of health and safety issues and counter the lie that regulation is “red tape” which poses a “burden on business”.

Workers' Memorial Day crowdAs well as speeches from union officials and activists, there were moving accounts from the families of people killed by their employers, organised in Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) and Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group:

Family of killed worker holding Families Against Corporate Killers placard

Families Against Corporate Killers

The names of some of the killed north-west workers were read out before a minute’s silence and flowers were laid on the banner:

2015-04-28 Manchester Workers' Memorial Day flowersThe event then moved to the People’s History Museum for discussion. NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney talked about the fact that asbestos remains in 86% of schools built before 2000, threatening the lives of students, teachers and other school staff. He argued that the situation wasn’t being properly managed – most teachers didn’t even know there was asbestos in their schools, let alone where it was. The estimate is that 2-300 ex-students die each year due to asbestos exposure, and Kevin argued that it should all be removed. Despite this, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) under the Tories has classifed schools as “low risk” workplaces and ended proactive inspections, even though a high proportion of inspections led to improvement notices before they were stopped.

Hilda Palmer from the Hazards Campaign talked about the threat of TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The secret negotiations between the EU and USA (where MEPs can’t tell their constituents about the talks) have attracted more publicity in recent months.

TTIP is a trade deal about deregulation, privatisation and increasing corporate power. It threatens everything from workers’ rights to consumer protection to health and safety to environmental standards. Part of the TTIP proposals is for “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) arrangements, where corporate lawyers would rule on whether government actions had infringed the right of companies to future profits. Hilda was scathing about Labour’s belief that TTIP would be OK if there was an exemption for the NHS and ISDS was scrapped. She said Labour must “believe in vegetarian wolves” if they thought it possible to give more power to corporations and expect them to behave well. TTIP also includes proposals for regulatory cooperation and coherence, which would set up a council sitting above governments to review proposed and existing regulation and give business the opportunity to mobilise and lobby against it. The EU is already adopting the UK government’s deregulation agenda under its “refit” campaign, which has already led to the dropping of proposed regulations to control various dangerous substances.

Hilda pointed out that the only party talking about health and safety in their manifesto was the Tories, who see it as “red tape” to be cut. Campaigners have a lot of work to do if we are to stop employers killing us in shocking numbers.

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