Every country and pan-national organisation has almost sacred texts that grant fundamental rights. These documents are supposed to guarantee the right to life, to protect workers from discrimination, and the planet from climate catastrophe. Yet in every country in the world, workers are dying, discrimination is rife and the environment is being destroyed.
What is written on paper and what happens in real life are too often two completely different things. Flowery words in a legislative chamber don’t help much when the boss is more interested in making a profit than complying with legal minimum standards. What is needed isn’t just rights, but their enforcement.
Unfortunately, when it comes to health and safety, the public enforcing authorities have become completely neutered by the conscious involvement of big business in statutory decision making structures. This is corporate capture: major corporations are literally writing the laws that apply to them and advising the enforcing authorities about what should and shouldn’t result in prosecution.
Arconic, the multinational that makes the flammable cladding responsible for the Grenfell tragedy, advised the UK government on the relaxation of Building Regulations for its own products, even bragging about it on the company website. The Office of Rail and Road regulator is literally paid for by the major rail companies. Just as the airline industry finances the Civil Aviation Authority, a body that publicly acknowledges its intention not to be a proactive regulator.
Whole swathes of the British economy are now allowed to self-regulate when it comes to safety, including patently dangerous sectors such as the docks. Tesco and other major supermarkets sit on a panel that decides whether prosecutions of safety violations in the sector are in the public interest. Unsurprisingly, this has seen legal action against retail giants dropped.
Rather than defending workers’ fundamental right to life, the HSE repeatedly sides with business against tougher regulation, whether that be over silica dust or organic spores in industrial scale composting facilities. Any pretence of acting as a champion for working people has been jettisoned by the HSE, which is now firmly in the pocket of powerful vested interests.
Never has this been more apparent than during coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, the HSE has not prosecuted a single employer for endangering their workforce, this is despite workplaces being repeatedly identified as the centres of outbreaks. Official government guidelines for safe working in industry have been outsourced to the major employers in each sector.
The Construction Leadership Council, a body comprising representatives of the major construction firms that fund the Conservative Party and blacklist union safety reps, has been made responsible for drawing up the ‘Site Operating Procedures’. Now on Version 7, successive revisions of these official guidelines have watered down social distancing and other control measures to ensure construction projects remain open for business.
The enforcing authorities have all but abdicated responsibility for defending workers’ safety, but this is nothing new. Many legal rights in the UK are civil law, which means that rather than the state, it falls to individual workers to enforce their rights by standing up to employers. Yet despite the legal system reinforcing the laughable notion that an employment contract is ‘an agreement between two free and equal parties’, in the real world there is a huge power imbalance between individual workers and employers. Managers who victimise workers who raise concerns about their health and welfare, do it because in most cases they can get away with it.
So even where workers are granted individual rights, it is by acting in unison that workers are more likely to protect themselves and others. The historic action by the National Education Union in encouraging teachers to talk to their colleagues and quote Section 44 of the Employments Rights Act to their managers forced the government to close schools. The lives of thousands of education workers and pupils have been saved, not by the emasculated HSE or even by the letter of the law, but by proactive union organising. That’s a lesson we should all remember from school.