This International Workers’ Memorial Day, we remember all those who have died at work or due to work-related illnesses. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we must do all we can to support and protect every worker.
Below is the text of my speech at Sheffield Trade Union Council’s online memorial event:
Today is a day when millions of workers and trade unionists come together to remember those we have lost at work and fight for the living.
This year – of all years – they have faced a challenge as hard as any other, and worked night and day across communities to keep the rest of our families safe and our country moving.
Nurses, doctors, bus drivers, prison and probation staff, emergency service workers and many more have lost their lives to keep the country running in the covid-19 pandemic.
And in this crisis, when our key workers – our brothers and sisters in the trade union movement – have been asked to step up to the plate – they have done so.
They’ve been called heroes and angels and they are all those things; but we cannot forget they are also mothers and fathers and friends and when they go to work without the protection they know they need to keep them safe, they are frightened. But they turn up for work nevertheless because they wonder what will happen to their patients, passengers, communities if they don’t.
It should never have been that way; their fundamental decency shouldn’t have covered the gaps where protection, PPE and testing should have been.
Health and safety at work is a right not a privilege. It is a legal right we in the trade union movement fought for decades to secure.
They have been badly, badly let down – by a government that has not provided the PPE they needed or the testing that should have kept them safe.
But this has been a long-time in the making.
You know for a decade and more we have been told their wages are unaffordable, that investment in our public services couldn’t be justified when the focus had to be bringing down the deficit. You know for years, care workers have had to go home after a long-days shift via a foodbank so they can afford to feed their family.
If any good can come from this crisis – it is that those that have been devalued for far too long, must be valued again.
I’m proud that our trade unions have played a vital role in holding the government to account and forcing Ministers to provide more support to workers. But there is more to do:
Over the coming weeks we will hear the drumbeat calling for the lifting of restrictions. The Daily Telegraph have already begun saying trade unions are “undermining” the back to work drive, because they felt a risk assessment was a step too far. It shows what we will be up against, and it shows where priorities lie:
From my perspective, it really is pretty simple: the health of workers comes first, always. And as we begin to navigate the difficult weeks ahead; that must be the overriding priority of the Government.
This must not be the last time their sacrifice is recognised. We all, and especially our politicians, owe an unpayable debt to these key workers and let us also not forget the countless low-paid, insecure, mostly BME workers who are still being forced day-in, day-out to go into work even though their work is not essential. They are being asked to put their lives on the line because they simply cannot afford to do otherwise.
The bottom 30 percent of earners are twice as likely to be employed as key workers as those in the top 10 percent. And, because of the work they do, female, young and low-paid workers are at particular risk from coronavirus as their jobs make it difficult, if not impossible, to socially distance. These workers, at the frontline of the crisis, are risking their health, if not their lives, to keep society running.
Yes, they deserve a statute on Whitehall when all this is over. Yes they deserve our love and support. But they also deserve to be paid a proper wage they can live, they deserve protection right now and they deserve to be valued at the top of our society and economy where they belong.
They don’t want warm words – they want action and that is what we all come together today to commit to fighting for.