Workers Memorial Day in the pandemic

As the coronavirus crisis rips through society, International Workerss Memorial Day on 28 April is more important than ever. Originally declared by US trade unions in the 1980s, it has spread throughout the movement globally, with its normally quiet events overshadowed by the annual May Day marches. But this year it will take place amid news reports of the grim official tally of Covid-19 deaths – over 20,000 dead in Britain, approaching 200,000 globally.[1]

Less reported is how the working class and poor are paying the highest price for the crisis, and how privatisation and austerity have damaged our health systems’ ability to respond. While the official trade union movement is calling for a moment of silence at 11 AM, trade union activists and socialists are pushing for Workers Memorial Day (WMD) to be a day of action over workers’ corona deaths and poverty, with online protests and safe-distancing events.

WMD is a chance to begin to regroup the workers movement into active resistance against inadequate, top-down, often authoritarian social measures, and job losses and pay cuts by governments and business in every country.

The poorest hit hardest

Millions of workers have been furloughed or lost their jobs and are struggling to claim benefits, while millions more are forced to continue work, often in dangerous conditions with inadequate PPE (personal protection equipment).Those on the frontline of the health sector are at even greater risk from contracting the life-threatening Covid-19 disease as doctors, nurses and porters work exhausting shifts in crowded hospitals, trying to save lives.

Unions like the public sector giant Unison, have requested the government support WMD and the minute of silence, but so far received only evasive replies.While governments might jump on the bandwagon of WMD this year due to coronavirus, and use it to praise health workers particularly, we can’t rely on their empty words to keep us safe. In Britain hundreds of workers have likely died due to catching the disease at or on their way to or from work. While trade unions have pressed for greater PPE and health and safety measures, for business these have taken second place to containing sick costs or profiting from the crisis, except when forced to act by workers’ direct action or media exposure after employees died.

Because of prejudice and its affect on opportunity and promotion, race and class are interconnected. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people have been disproportionately hit by the disease. In Britain BAME staff account for around 75% of all health worker deaths, while making up only around 20% of the healthcare workforce.[2]

As workers we need to take collective action to defend ourselves, our health and our jobs. Many workers across the world and in Britain have done just that, walking out or taking other action to force employers or the government to act. We can use WMD as a first step to building a national opposition to the government’s top down, inadequate measures, while fighting for workers’ control of health and safety on the shopfloor.

Herd Immunity and health disaster

Britain is one of the countries worse hit by the coronavirus, with the highest number of daily deaths outside the US. In reality it is worse, with actual deaths according to the FT and other sources to be twice the official figures.[3] That’s not a coincidence. In Britain, as in the US, right-wing populist governments have been more concerned to protect the economy than the people in order to keep profits rolling in for business.

Boris Johnson first tried to let the virus rip to achieve a “herd immunity”, clinging to this even after the WHO declared Europe the “epicentre” of the corona crisis, until a study was published by a leading epidemiologist showing it could lead to half a million deaths, forcing the turn to lockdown and social isolation.[4] Cooperation with the EU over vital measures like obtaining ventilators was blocked over an obsession with being seen to “get Brexit done”.

Forced to cover for itself, the government consistently minimises the casualty figures, while the media has stood back from reporting the obvious story, that a decade of austerity has left the NHS in bad condition to cope. As a result, health workers are paying the highest price for the government’s delay in turning to lockdown and its failures to procure PPE. While Health Secretary Matt Hancock patronises staff in hospitals and care homes with a “care” badge, frontline workers have had to appeal for donations of masks and visors.[5]

The Tories applaud NHS staff now, they rose to applaud in Parliament back in 2017 when they defeated a bill to increase nurses’ wages after years of frozen pay. A decade of austerity and privatisation that have left the NHS on its knees and in worse shape to deal with the corona crisis– that is a real measure of how Johnson, Dominic Raab and Hancock value NHS staff, not hypocritical praise and gimmicks to cover for their own failures.

The nurse-run website Nursing Notes has meticulously compiled figures of deaths to report that the grim milestone of 100 dead health and social care workers passed on 20 April, while the government would only confirm 27 NHS staff deaths.[6] As of 26 April Guardian reports that at least 115 have died, while government statistics for NHS staff confirmed dead have nearly double in a week to 49.[7] It does not look like the curve is flattening for healthcare staff; it’s accelerating.

Despite the vulnerability of many from age or medical conditions, doctors, nurses, porters and volunteers have courageously worked long hours, particularly those returning from retirement, even though their exposure means a huge hike in their risk of contracting the disease.The government’s lack of PPE and testing for NHS staff has pushed bodies like the doctor’s organisation the BMS and even the CEO of NHS Providers to criticise the government.

Blue collar & Key Worker

Bus workers seem to have paid the heaviest price outside of the health sector for continuing to provide their essential service. At least 26 London bus and tube workers have died so far in London alone, with more in Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham and the North West, as the companies demand that bus workers keep taking fares or face disciplinary procedures. It took the intervention of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan to close the front doors and make all bus travel free; other towns and cities should follow suit. As it stands, in most places, bus companies have done little to provide PPE, forcing drivers to rig up shower curtains and wear goggles in attempts to protect themselves, while threatening those that went off sick with loss of pay.

One such victim,36-year-old driver Emeka Nyack Ihenacho from the Holloway depot went to work after Metroline bosses wrote to staff saying they wouldn’t be paid sick pay. It has taken deaths like these, publicised in the media, to shame companies like Metroline or Royal Mail into providing PPE, paying sick pay or creating social distancing measures.[8] Workers in all industries report that the deep cleaning promised doesn’t happen or is a joke.

Meanwhile at least four, and as many as twelve Royal Mail employees – at least two BAME – have also died from the disease. Selim Ghebru Gaim who worked at Leeds Mail Centre was just 34, while Scottish Akie Fenty, who had been “fit and healthy” according to his wife from Peterhead in Scotland, was 45 years of age. Most worked in the big, congested mail centres of hubs where social distancing is hard to do.

The CWU postal union has slammed Royal Mail for its lack of interest in securing PPE or reorganising the workspace and working day to allow for social distancing.As a result, at least seven offices have walked out over the lack of safety measures, with managers more interested in getting parcels and junk mail delivered than employees’ health.This inspiring example of workers’ action is one that other workers should take up.

Workers at the Warrington mail centre who walked out twice in early April pointed out the reality behind the official Royal Mail line of “our people’s safety comes first” and how this could spread the disease:

“Management have told us that a ‘deep clean’ is happening overnight. When questioned what that entails, the reply was ‘hotspots like door handles’ and that is it. They want us all back in tomorrow as normal. The staff are extremely concerned about spreading it around to the public, specifically the elderly and vulnerable.”

“We all stuck together and went home. The big bosses haven’t done nearly enough to clean the office. They insist all is well and that we should continue working.”

Now construction workers are demanding that non-essential work, such as construction on luxury hotels should stop. As a union activist says in a ReelNews campaign video, “No one who has ever worked on a building site thinks its remostely possible to keep the two metre social distancing rules, we work together in small teams, , in close proximity on scaffolds, internals, in close confined spaces.” ReelNews says it has been inundated with support from construction workers demanding their sites are closed during the crisis, while a “shut the sites” campaign has been launched on facebook.[10]

As one construction worker says, laying a wreath at a memorial, “hundreds of construction workers could die in the coming weeks”. The same could be said for those forced to work out of poverty or by hard-nosed bosses in every sector, or designated as key workers such as retail staff in the big supermarket chains.

Join the unions and fight

As the TUC says, “Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don’t die of mystery ailments, or in tragic ‘accidents’. They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn’t that important a priority.” Against official Health and Safety Executive figures, the Hazards campaign estimates that up to 50,000 workers are killed each year through workplace accidents, stress or health conditions: one every 10 minutes.

The fact is capitalism is the main killer of people outside of old age, even in wealthy countries and peaceful times.But in the age of its decline, with a stagnant, crisis-ridden economy driving austerity and destroying full-time jobs and our welfare systems, it is unleashing deeper, more existential crises such as environmental destruction and its associated climate change and pandemics.

With papers like the Sun and the Telegraph already pressing for the lockdown to be lifted as fast as possible in order to “save business”, those still working and those returning could soon be in even greater danger. The protests by hospital workers, firefighters, council staff, etc. demanding adequate protection on Workers Memorial Day shows the way. Our lives are not put a risk by big business and its slavish press.

It is vital that workers themselves organise to take control on the job. With the aid of our unions we have to insist that high-risk “non-essential” jobs remain on hold, with their workers sent home on full pay. We have to insist management provides adequate safety measures in workplaces, before re-opening schools, at all health and care facilities, on public transport, for delivery workers, etc. 

Likewise unions and workforces need to take up the cause of underpaid workers on furlough or those facing dismissal. Millions of workers are realising that they need the protection that only workplace organisations and trade unions can provide them with. Unison has reported that 62,000 new members joined in the first three months this year, which shows the potential for a massive growth in both membership and, because they joined to fight for protection, militancy.

The best tribute we could pay to all those workers who have lost or risked an their lives would be to undertake a massive union membership drive. Only such actions can prevent even larger numbers suffering illness, death or long-term unemployment.

RESOURCES

Corona Support Group for Workers: https://www.facebook.com/groups/coronasupportgroupforworkers/

International IWMD site: http://28april.org/

TUC #IWMD20 site: https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/coronavirus-remembering-workers-who-lost-their-lives-covid-19-work

Hazards Health & Safety campaign: http://www.hazardscampaign.org.uk/

Harards #IWMD20 site: http://www.hazardscampaign.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/thewholestory.pdfhttps://www.tuc.org.uk/international-workers-memorial-day-iwmd


[1] FT 26 April: https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-deaths-care-homes-cases-uk-eu-italy-spain-ireland-a9463846.html

[2] https://nursingnotes.co.uk/news/workforce/health-social-care-workers-died-covid/

[3] FT 26 April: https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest; https://www.ft.com/content/67e6a4ee-3d05-43bc-ba03-e239799fa6ab

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/neil-ferguson-transformed-uk-covid-response-oxford-challenge-imperial-model-2020-4?r=US&IR=T

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-matt-hancock-social-care-worker-badge-nhs-of-all-the-things-that-longsuffering-social-a9467631.html; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/watch-moment-tories-cheered-blocking-10707293

[6] https://nursingnotes.co.uk/news/workforce/health-social-care-workers-died-covid/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/20/at-least-100-uk-health-workers-have-died-from-coronavirus-figures-show

[8] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/bus-driver-killed-coronavirus-told-21832054; https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/first-bus-driver-coronavirus-covid-4052297; https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11416178/bus-drivers-die-coronavirus/

[9] https://www.warringtonguardian.co.uk/news/18364746.warrington-royal-mail-staff-walk-worker-tests-positive-coronavirus/; https://www.warringtonguardian.co.uk/news/18366660.royal-mail-staff-walk-second-worker-tests-positive-coronavirus/?ref=nuo

[10] https://www.facebook.com/ReelNews/videos/509238589733130/