The Chartists were the first mass working class movement in the world. They had local groups across the country; organised petitions signed by millions, and held mass demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands in a time with much more limited communication networks and in an extremely repressive atmosphere.
Their strength came from the general revulsion at the extremely pronounced levels of injustice and exploitation inherent in the early factory system. The average working day was in excess of 12 hours, often in cramped workshops with few breaks and no health and safety standards. The employment of children was widespread. This practice came under increasing criticism from the 1780s but it wasn’t until 1833 that effectively enforced legislation was brought in to regulate child labour.
The 1833 act only outlawed children under the age of 9 (except in the silk industry) from working, and limited them to working 8 hours a day till they were 14 (and then 12 hours till they were 18). Workers received abject poverty pay, had no weekends or holidays, no maternity leave or sick pay or any real rights at all. After a long day they returned home to squalid slum housing to subsist off of terrible diet of the cheapest food. As in the less wealthy countries of the world today (where the majority of our cheap mass manufactured goods are produced) rates of accidents, injuries and mortality were appallingly high.
The Chartists termed the tens of thousands killed and maimed in the all-pervasive industrial accidents of their era ‘Social Murder’. These were the thousands unnecessarily killed each year by a society structured to pursue profit no matter the human (or environmental) cost. Thankfully, due largely to the efforts of past generations organising in their workplaces, communities and in political parties, we now work in far safer and more humane working environments.
But even today in the UK around 1,500 people die in largely avoidable accidents in the workplace. A further 50,000 die prematurely every year as a result of long term I’ll health acquired at work. Many more are seriously injured. In my branch of UNISON (representing around 1,500 people) sadly in this last year alone one of our members has been left permanently disabled and another with serious long term health issues.
According to our Health and Safety officer Mark, both of these incidents were caused by actions worse than negligent on the part of management. The drive to cut costs by minimising legislation and cutting corners, that can leave workers seriously disabled or worse, makes this kind of behaviour increasing likely in the UK today.
Rates of industrial accidents have been gradually rising over the last few years as both Health and Safety regulation and the budget of the agency enforcing them have been cut by the Coalitions. For years now right wing comics and TV personalities – like Clarkson – have demonized health and safety and turned it into a joke. This works in much the same way that media demonization campaigns have paved the way for cuts to the wider welfare state in general. The way health and safety discourses are conducted – couched in the terms of the names and dates of the legislative framework that created it – can be tedious. But it is an extremely important part of workplace safety and the rights that the labour movement has won us over generations of struggle.
Whilst sectors of the media denigrate health and safety legislation, and the coalition government carries out savage cut, employers are going on the offensive. Bristol made national news when revelation of the extensive use of a black list of health and safety stewards and activists by leading Bristol construction companies came to light. To maximise profits by undercutting health and safety standards at least 3,214 health and safety activists (ordinary people concerned about their welfare at work) were victimized and had their ability to work and provide themselves with a living severely curtailed. The list most famously was in use on the construction of Cabot Circus.
We don’t have to look to the past to see how the all-consuming drive to profit inherent in our economic system, when not tapered by strong unions and health and safety legislation, leads to misery. Our contemporary world is full of depressing evidence. The working conditions in the parts of the world where most of the Wests cheap manufactured goods are produced are atrocious. Rates of injury and death are shockingly high and reminiscent of our early industrial past. Often adults and children work side by side in appalling conditions.
We don’t like to think about this blood involved in the production of our cheap consumables. Occasionally workplace conditions are so despicable an ‘accident’ of such awful magnitude happens and pierces the veil of silence carefully constructed around it. As in 2013 when over 1100 people were killed and a further 2500 injured in Rana Plaza Bangladesh when a sweatshop producing goods for a consortium of western companies collapsed. Just before this disaster the building had been deemed safe twice by inspectors working on behalf of Primark.
We may not like to think about these extreme levels of exploitation and death inherent in the international trade system; but the role of western multinationals in setting up this very system to supply our domestic consumption patterns is central and makes us all partly responsible. Rana Plaza is a case in point. In the wakes of the disaster the International Trade Union movement created and signed an accord on minimum safety standards in the garment industries of Bangladesh and Cambodia.
So far only three American owned factories have signed up. We see the violence inherent in the system flare up as Western Corporation repressively extract resources all across the global south. Indigenous leaders are murdered as they try to protect their lands from invasive oil drilling. Workers striking for better wages and conditions are brutalised by police and private guards. The Marikmana massacre of late 2012 is the most vivid and bloody example. 38 strikers were killed and at least 78 more were wounded when security and police representing the London based Lonmin mining corporation opened fire on them. The revelation that most of them where shot in the back whilst fleeing make it all the more horrifying.
If we want to change this horrifying state of affairs, changing the way we interact with our economic system to become more ethical consumers is a step in the right direction. But small scale individual change is never enough. We need to organize in our communities, workplaces and political parties to protect our health and safety and our living conditions; and we need to push these organizations to restructure the economic system that causes so much global misery.
Unions are especially relevant in this struggle for the role they play in protecting conditions at work; their role in the international labour movements attempt to improve conditions in the global south; and their involvement in community campaign to protect health and the environment. This last point can be illustrated locally by the part played by unions (including UNISON I’m happy to say) in supporting Avonmouth residents successful campaign to stop the building of a biomass energy plant. Large scale Biomass energy production accelerates deforestation and climate change, and emits toxic dust clouds that seriously impact health and can cause cancer.
Finally, to commemorate the victims of industrial ‘accidents’ around the world every year we celebrate International Workers memorial day. This year on the 28th of April we’ll be marking the occasion with a march from unite the union’s Tony Ben house (setting off at 12:30 pm) to a wreath laying in Castle Park, and a talk in the evening. The message is remember the dead and fight for the living. Come along, join and get active in a union, and make sure you use your vote this May (there’s less than a week left to register).