Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 33, August 29, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum Discussion :

Workers Themselves Face the Challenge of Organising for Safety at Work

During the pandemic, workers have been told to continue working or to prepare to return to work.

For many workers, whether in factories, offices, schools, or elsewhere, there has been little meaningful consideration for the risks that people are having to take with their wellbeing and that of their families. It is these missing considerations that need to be central.

In place of these considerations, there was, initially, a self-serving categorisation of who is "essential". It needs to be asked: essential for what and to whom? Essential work to protect people, essential work to defeat the pandemic? Or essential to maintain profits for the rich? The harsh reality, particularly now as the furlough scheme is closed, is that many face being cast into redundancy. In flagrant violation of the dignity of labour, the workers, the producers, the creators of wealth, are divided into those who can be utilised for making good for the self-serving interests of the rich - who are to return to work regardless of the dangers - and those who, under the present conditions, are deemed expendable.

The government, who serve the narrow interests of the rich, act contrary to the interests of the workers and the general interests of society. It is the key interest for society and the workers - defeating the pandemic and protecting people - that should take pride of place. However, it is not these interests that are foremost in the considerations of the ruling elite.

For example, during lockdown, care homes were devastated by and significantly contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. Yet the government showed little or no interest in protecting care homes and the elderly people who were in them, let alone the care workers who had to work without the necessary personal protective equipment.

The overall aim at present has to be the wellbeing of the people. Instead, the pandemic has seen the elite and the owners of the means of production utilising the lockdown to bring worsening conditions, tightening wages and generating unemployment through redundancy.

In June, food company 2 Sisters asked staff at chicken processing plants in North Wales and Anglesey to self-isolate only after more than 300 cases of coronavirus were confirmed. The number of cases was a shock and has focused attention on the industry as a hot spot for transmission.

Now, with the dangers of new spikes and a second wave, "hotspots" have appeared. These include Leicester, parts of the Black Country, Manchester, Oldham and Aberdeen. New hotspots have recently emerged in West Yorkshire, Blackburn and Pendle, and other cities are experiencing rises.

What is becoming clear is the concentration of poor working conditions in unsafe environments associated with these hotspots. Low-paid, often migrant, workers have been particularly affected. These are people on extremely low pay, less than minimum wage, or even unpaid, not union organised, and including unregistered workers, often doing multiple jobs or "gigs".

Workers have the right to safe working conditions, a secure livelihood and a claim to decent dignified standards of living. Many of the conditions of work have been fought for over hundreds of years. Workers always demanded well-ventilated work areas, uncrowded conditions and comfortable workplace temperatures with appropriate hygiene standards. These not only allow for the productivity of workers, but also their dignity, to flourish.

It is the duty of the government, authorities and employers to provide rights with guarantees under all conditions and circumstances. Further, workers have the right to exercise control over their conditions and enforce their rights.

The lockdown has been presented as war, heroic key workers taking risks with their health and even their lives, the government hypocritically applauding. Now, returning to work post lockdown is presented as for "the economy". One thing is pitted against another as a supposed "balance" is struck between health of the public and "the economy". What is left unsaid is that by "the economy" is meant the profits of competing private interests. Throughout the crisis, all is made an individual matter. Now workers are forced to "choose": to take on serious risks, or lose their jobs and income. Or should workers go in to work or work from home if possible? It is fend for yourself. These questions are posed, these choices are presented, without workers being empowered to sort out the issues as they pose themselves, from the workers' own standpoint.

When the economy has a direction in harmony with the interests of society, its running should contribute to these aims, not be counter to them. The new conditions show that business cannot be conducted as usual. There are new conditions emerging and changing, both during the pandemic and will exist post-pandemic too. Production must be in step with the conditions.

With protecting against the virus as the aim, workers themselves face the challenge of organising for safety in factories, warehouses, supermarkets, large offices and business parks. It is workers organising themselves that is at the core of the solution. Without the crucial human factor, everything is left to chance. It is only the workers who are able to develop the outlook required that is independent of narrow private interests and favours the general interests of society. It is also only the workers, whose very nature is socialised, who have the necessary all-sided view. Even the question of anti-viral treatments and vaccines depend on the creativity and productive capacity of workers. With this outlook and human-centred perspective, workers' organisations, including their trade unions, can act to keep the population informed. What is crucial is to release this human factor, the social consciousness, of the workers.

Experienced or skilled unemployed workers could return and expand the workforce, while furloughed workers are kept on the books with a guaranteed income, funded from the social product as required. Enlarging the workforce as a whole allows more creative approaches to organising shifts and reduced workforce in any specific instance. Can empty offices or other suitable spaces be converted into workspaces? Could prefabricated buildings be erected? Could certain machinery be replicated or modernised and installed? Could working days be reduced from eight hours to six, the week to four instead of five without loss of pay? Could new workers be trained in an expanded workforce? Can free transportation boost income, be regularised or brought into existence, to limit car parking and use of space? How can health work be expanded and include factory or workplace hospitals or doctors' surgeries on site? It is questions such as these that present themselves as problems for solution.

Living and housing conditions need to be investigated, upgraded, and in some cases, people need to be rehoused in modern, well-ventilated accommodation for their families. Starting with the most vulnerable, no migrant worker should be considered as illegal, which brings with it precariousness, a condition of being at the mercy of others. Workers with existing health conditions need to be supported through this pandemic. Workers may have specific domestic conditions that require support. New arrangements of remote working need to be investigated.

In short, it is necessary to guarantee the rights of workers to safe, healthy conditions of life and work over which they exercise control. Ways to overcome the barriers set up by the captains of industry to workers' exercising their rights must be found, whether it might be setting up works councils with the involvement of shop stewards and safety representatives, in which all workers are encouraged to participate, or other collective means. This, and the needs of an economy directed to meet those aims, combine to form the substance of the new, which finds its expression in workers finding forms to empower themselves and ensure that what they say goes.


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