International Workers’ Memorial Day is observed every year on 28th April in countries on every continent, to commemorate workers killed and injured through their work. This year, as many countries across the world are in some form of lockdown, the commemorations are likely to be few, while the number of dead is rising rapidly.
In pre-Covid-19 days, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that there were around 5,000 people killed every day as a result of their work.1 That’s 2.75 million deaths due to working conditions every year. On top of this, there are an estimated 374 million non-fatal occupational accidents each year – more than a million every day.
Sometimes, this is because employers are ignoring best practice and even health and safety laws in an attempt to drive down costs. Sometimes, it is because health and safety laws are so restrictive that workers are forced to ignore them to do their jobs.
The system is not there to guarantee the safety of workers; it is there to make a profit for capital. Where health and safety laws exist, they often seem to be in place to penalise workers. Over-restrictive policies are designed to help companies fight compensation claims, not keep workers safe.
According to the Health & Safety Executive, the death and injury figures for Great Britain for 2017/182 were:
144 workers killed at work;
555,000 injuries occurred at work according to the Labour Force Survey;
1,4 million working people suffering from a work-related illness.
Wales is the region in Britain with the most work-related deaths, with 0.85 per 100,000 workers; the East Midlands has the highest number of non-fatal accidents (2,370 cases per 100,000 workers); the South West region has the greatest numbers of workers suffering from occupational ill-health (4,640 cases per 100,000 workers), but Yorkshire and Humber came close second for both non-fatal accidents and occupational ill-health.3
These figures mean that in the UK 30.7 million working days are lost each year due to work-related illness and workplace injury, and the estimated cost of injuries and ill-health caused by working conditions for 2016/17 was £15 billion.4
Covid-19 has exacerbated this picture tremendously. A tweet has been doing the rounds claiming that in the UK, more than 100 medical professionals have now died from Covid-19, in less than 4 months. This figure is compared to that of the Armed Forces, where in only 5 of the last 60 years have there been more than 100 casualties. So, being a medical professional is now more dangerous than being a soldier, which puts Covid-19 into some perspective.
However, it is not only doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who are at risk. As the lockdown started in the UK, it was being reported that workers up and down the country were demanding PPE, for safe systems to be put in place, and for non-essential work to be stopped.5 In construction, cases of Covid-19 were covered up and workers were told not to raise concerns.6 Here there has been a campaign using the hashtag #ShutTheSites to close non-essential sites, with some success, such as building workers in Hull who forced the closure of a site that was not adhering to safety guidelines.7
So far, Covid-19 has taken the lives of 29 transport workers, 23 of which have been bus drivers.8 Although in response to transport workers’ anger and fears from passengers, almost every bus operator is claiming to be deep-cleaning all their vehicles on a daily basis, drivers have been complaining that the buses are not being cleaned properly, if at all.9 Bus drivers are being sent onto the roads with nothing but a perspex screen which is covered in holes to protect them; it is no surprise that many are being infected.
International Workers’ Memorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have lost their lives in pursuit of profit for capitalism. What more fitting tribute could there be than to fight to end the system that is killing millions and maiming hundreds of millions of our class sisters and brothers every year? As the striking Italian workers last month put on their banners – “We are not lambs to the slaughter!”10
This should be the essential message of International Workers’ Memorial Day – as our comrades of Battaglia Comunista in Italy phrased it a few weeks ago, in a round-up of strikes happening at the end of last month -
"In some ways the coronavirus has unified workers around the world under one slogan: we don't want to die for your profits."11
The working class needs to destroy capitalism before capitalism destroys all of us. Only the working class has the power to do this, and to create a new society in which the free development of each will be the precondition for the free development of all. The Internationalist Communist Tendency is dedicated to working towards the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a system that produces for human needs. We call this socialism or communism, but it has nothing to do with the state-capitalist monstrosity that was the Soviet Union. It will be the organs of the working class that carry out the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism; freed from the drive for profits and under the control of workers, workplaces will be safer and our class brothers and sisters will no longer be sacrificed to the inhuman logic of capitalism. We urge all those who agree with this perspective to work with us to create the conditions to make this new society a reality.
- 1Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-related Illnesses 2017 Published September 2017 by Workplace Safety and Health Institute, Singapore, for the International Labour Organisation icohweb.org
- 2Health and safety statistics Health and Safety Executive hse.gov.uk
- 3Countries and regions Health and Safety Executive hse.gov.uk
- 4Health and safety statistics Health and Safety Executive hse.gov.uk