Workers Memorial Day: Groups Air Concerns, Promote Safety Agendas

While Workers Memorial Day is an occasion for remembering those who have died in the workplace, for unions and other advocacy groups it's an opportunity to promote their agendas and voice their concerns on a day when the spotlight is on occupational health and safety.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, based in Brussels, Belgium, calls the day "an occasion for trade unions to examine the impacts of asbestos, ergonomics, HIV/AIDS, chemicals, psycho-social issues, violence at work and work in construction or by young workers as issues that reflect workplace management and uncaring employers." The organization also says it's an opportunity "to evaluate the responses of governments, small businesses and multi-national enterprises to these problems."

"It is clear that authorities and employers in several countries have adopted a passive, half-hearted attitude to the respect of workers' health," said Guy Ryder, general secretary for the organization. "Workers continue to die by the millions as governments remain lax in adopting legislation or ratifying [International Labour Organization] instruments that could solve the problem."

Ryder says that a huge factor in workers' health and safety in the world is whether or not their core labor rights were recognized. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions estimates that the plight of workers in 40 countries is uncertain because their rights to organize into trade unions and their access to simple workplace democratic processes either do not exist or have been severely curtailed.

Citing the recent collapse of a nine-story building in Bangladesh where more than 30 workers were killed, Ryder asserts that workers all too often are not in a position to engage in prevention activities at their own workplace, let alone report on unsanitary, unsafe and indecent working conditions and accidents.

In the United States, the AFL-CIO peppered its messages of condolence for fallen workers with broadsides against the Bush administration, which the organization accuses of siding with corporate America at the expense of workplace safety.

"After the Bush administration took office in January 2001, Bush and his corporate allies have stalled, blocked and repealed needed workplace protections, including the nation's first standard covering repetitive stress injuries," the AFL-CIO said in a statement. "On his first day in office, President George W. Bush ordered all executive departments to postpone a wide range of Clinton administration regulations, including several workplace protection rules."

Among a litany of concerns aired by the organization a few days prior to Workers' Memorial Day, the AFL-CIO also asserts that:

  • OSHA's whistleblower and anti-retaliations laws are inadequate and that retaliation against employees for raising job safety concerns is widespread.
  • OSHA lacks sufficient staffing to oversee the safety and health of the nation's workers.
  • Immigrant workers are suffering disproportionately high rates of injuries, illnesses and fatalities because they are hired to do the most dangerous and undesirable jobs at the lowest wages.
  • Workers' compensation laws are inadequate, as "massive changes" at the state level have reduced benefits and made workers' compensation harder to collect, according to the union.

Amicus, the United Kingdom's largest manufacturing, technical and skilled persons' union, organized Workers Memorial Day rallies through the country and also used the occasion to appeal for new workplace corporate manslaughter legislation to be introduced early in the new Parliament.

According to Amicus, the government of the United Kingdom pledged to unions at the Labour Party's National Policy Forum last July to introduce a new law regarding corporate killing for companies found guilty of causing death, disease or injury to their employees or members of the public. The government introduced the draft legislation this past March, Amicus says.

"Hundreds of people are killed at work every year because of their employer's neglect," said Graham Goddard, Amicus regional secretary for Yorkshire. "The theme for Workers Memorial Day this year is employer accountability

because as long as employers know they won't be punished for poor health and safety practices, these figures will not improve. We want fast introduction of new legislation that puts the onus directly on the employer because all

the research demonstrates that this is the most effective way of improving workplace health and safety standards."

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