Recession no excuse for construction safety cuts

Along with soft-touch “regulation” in the financial sector, New Labour has championed self-policing in other sectors of the economy – most lethally, in construction.

With the government accelerating public works projects and becoming a big fish as private construction shrinks, there’s an opportunity to regulate the industry.

Alan Ritchie, the general secretary of UCATT, writes in Tribune:

End confusion and chaos in construction

LAST April, Sonny Holland, a 20-year-old “apprentice” scaffolder, fell to his death while at work. His death was a chilling example of everything wrong with the construction industry. Despite being described as an apprentice, Sonny was not being formally trained. He was officially working as self-employed – a ridiculous situation for a so-called apprentice. After he was killed, the firm he worked for went into liquidation in an attempt to avoid its liabilities and then established a “new” company.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Sonny’s death is not that it was unusual, but all too common. In the past two years there have been just over 150 construction deaths – an average of six a month. It says much about the media’s view of the expendable nature of construction workers that the vast majority of these deaths barely received a mention. If there is any reduction in the next annual fatality figures, it will be due to a combination of luck and less available work due to the economic downturn.

My union, UCATT, fears the recession could actually make construction sites more dangerous in the medium term. Much of the industry has a macho culture that only pays lip service to health and safety. When times are tight, safety is first to be cut. With thousands of construction workers losing their jobs, those still employed are even less likely to refuse to perform a dangerous task, for fear of being given their cards and told there are plenty of others who will work without complaint.

Despite these problems, there is a very real opportunity for major improvements in health and safety in general and the construction industry in particular. Two major initiatives were announced shortly before Christmas.

They are the Health and Safety Executive’s launch of a consultation on a new strategy and the Government’s announcement of an inquiry into the high number of construction deaths, chaired by Rita Donaghy, the former head of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

In recent years , the HSE has suffered a bad press. The recurring refrain from the right-wing media – of health and safety legislation “gone mad” – has distorted the real story about what is wrong with the organisation responsible for keeping us safe at work.

Since 2002, the HSE has suffered year-on-year real term cuts in resources. This has led to a reduction in the number of frontline inspectors and fewer inspections. In the construction industry, there has been a 42 per cent decline in the issuing of enforcement notices and a 30 per cent reduction in prohibition notices.

The reduction in safety notices is not because sites are safer. When the HSE scrapes together the resources for a targeted blitz of construction sites, at least 75 per cent of those visited are found to be breaking health and safety laws. Many are so unsafe they are shut down immediately. Yet so slim are the HSE’s resources that these blitzes, which cover a tiny fraction of the industry, are becoming more infrequent and visiting a smaller number of sites.

Even more disturbing are the low level of prosecutions following a construction worker’s death. Convictions rates have fallen to just 30 per cent. This is put into perspective by the HSE’s admission that management failure is a factor in more than 70 per cent of fatalities.

Construction is the most dangerous industry in Britain, but a similar pattern of a reduction in safety enforcement can be seen in other sectors, particularly agriculture.

The HSE is under the misapprehension that safety will not improve through an increase in inspectors, inspections and prosecutions.

Instead it is the responsibility of industries to regulate themselves. This dangerous nonsense would be funny if it was not so serious.

In a highly casualised industry such as construction, the only way to keep the many rogue employers in line is by the constant threat of prosecution. Sending them glossy leaflets asking them to be more safety aware is a waste of time and money.

There has been a growing awareness of the failure of the self-regulation throughout the labour movement. Last September, the TUC Congress unanimously backed a UCATT motion opposing self-regulation at the HSE and mandating all TUC-nominated representatives to campaign against it.

That the HSE is now consulting on a new strategy gives the labour movement an opportunity to have a say. This is vital, as the HSE document produced to launch the consultation is so bland and non-specific. It is essential that as many people as possible attend the road shows planned for this month and contact the HSE calling for a greater number of inspectors, more inspections and greater enforcement. Further details of how to get involved can be found at http://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy

If we do not give clear direction to the HSE, then business – obsessed by so-called red tape and “flexibility” – will use try to dilute safety at work still further.

The Government’s inquiry into construction was created because of UCATT’s lobbying, to which ministers finally conceded as part of last year’s Warwick agreement between Labour and the unions.

The inquiry must get to grips with the dark underbelly of the construction industry. If it has the courage, it will take some far-reaching decisions to change the way the industry operates. It must examine the highly casualised nature of construction. People are able to walk onto a site and start work immediately with no checks on whether they know what they are doing and whether they are a danger to themselves or others. Such laxness can have tragic consequences. In January 2007, Zbigniew Swirzynski was killed on his first day on a site in central Liverpool when the jib of a tower crane fell off. A lack of paperwork meant it was several weeks before his family in Poland was informed.

Casualisation in construction is made worse by bogus self-employment. Rather than employ workers directly, companies opt to use bogus self-employment via the Government’s Construction Industry Scheme, a unique stand-alone tax scheme. More than 400,000 workers are officially classified as self-employed while having all the characteristics of an employee.

They are placed at greater danger because they lack employment rights and can be fired at a moment’s notice. Sites using bogus self-employment are almost exclusively unorganised and do not have safety representatives. A well-organised site with independent safety representatives can reduce accidents by 30 per cent.

Is there another industry where the major players do not employ their own workforce? It is the norm in construction. The big household names barely employ a single construction worker.

Work is performed by sub-contractors, who then further sub-contract the work. On a large site, it is perfectly possible to have a dozen companies all working at the same time. Chaos and confusion reign. Even if intentions are good, safety messages are lost and unnecessary accidents occur.

Fragmentation in the industry has accelerated in recent years due to the rise of employment agencies and gangmasters. Workers of widely varying abilities are placed on sites without competency checks being made. UCATT has campaigned for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to be extended to the construction industry in order to improve health and safety. Sadly, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform rejected our proposals.

The inquiry should examine the arguments in favour of introducing directors’ duties. This would require companies to nominate a director responsible for health and safety. If someone died as a result of flagrant breaches of health and safety, there would be the possibility of a director going to jail. The first time a director was filmed being led from their office in handcuffs, the vast majority of the industry would swiftly get their act in order.

This year could see the beginning of a huge improvement in protection at work and a subsequent reduction in deaths. We need those writing the new HSE strategy and conducting the construction safety inquiry to have the courage to challenge vested interests, ask difficult questions and reach brave conclusions.

We cannot afford another false dawn or a report that is a damp squib. Workers’ safety is simply too important.

PFI + EU = poverty pay for migrant workers

From the Guardian, a story which demonstrates the terrible effect of the expansion of the EU and New Labour’s Private Finance Initiatives on the living standards of construction workers.

This case was uncovered because of the strength of the union and the fact it’s happening on a government project (albeit outsourced & subcontracted) – many similar cases go unreported.

Eastern European migrants working on the construction of a £600m NHS hospital have been taking home as little as £8.80 for a 39-hour week, the Guardian has learned, in what has been described by union bosses as one of the worst instances of employee abuse in the building sector since EU enlargement.

The group of around 12 men, most of whom are Lithuanian, are construction workers on the government-backed PFI project in Nottinghamshire. Though allegations of abuse of migrants’ rights on construction sites are widespread across the country the scale in this instance has shocked unions and politicians.

Michael Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, who is due to raise the matter in parliament today, said: “This happened on a government project where there are good rules and a strong union – who knows what is happening on the hundreds of smaller sites around the UK?”

According to industry guidelines and an agreement between unions and the building firm Skanska, which is overseeing the project, workers on the site should have been earning more than £7 an hour. But after deductions for rent, tool hire and utility bills, some of the Lithuanian employees were receiving so little observers say it left them virtually destitute.

Payslips seen by the Guardian show that one man worked a 39-hour week and took home just £8.80 after his entire monthly rent was deducted in one week, in breach of the law. A second worker was paid £79.20 for a 63-hour week and a third worked 70 hours a week for just £66. As they were registered as self-employed they did not receive holiday or sick pay. One man had £228 taken from his pay in one week for tools. The men each had a further £76.80 deducted weekly as their payment to the “construction industry scheme”, which technically registers them as self-employed, meaning their employers have no requirement to pay national insurance.

Employers are allowed to make deductions from their staff’s pay for accommodation, but the amount is limited by law to a maximum of £30.10 a week, or £4.30 a day. According to Ucatt, the building union, this means that an employee working 37 hours at £6 an hour should take home a minimum of £174.14 a week unless they have agreed to any other deductions. The men refused to talk about their experiences when approached by the Guardian. However, a colleague said at least seven of them were sharing a three-bedroom flat and they cycled to work to save money. “We are worried about how they are managing to survive,” he added.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of Ucatt, said: “This case is the worst we have seen. These workers were virtually destitute.”

The men have been working on the Kings Mill hospital site in Mansfield. They are not employed directly by Skanska, which has subcontracted another firm, which in turn subcontracted a third, responsible for supplying the men. A number of other subcontractors are operating on the site and have no complaints against them.

Last night Skanska, the main contractor on the site, said it had been made aware of the allegations two weeks ago and took “such issues very seriously”. It has since held meetings with the subcontractors and the union. “On June 24 matters were resolved with the parties involved. Skanska understands that all back pay will be paid to the relevant workers on or around July 2.” The Guardian attempted to contact the subcontractor that had directly employed the men at an address it had registered with Companies House but there was no response. Last night Ucatt’s regional secretary, Steve Murphy, said he was confident the men would receive back pay for deductions and missing overtime in the next few days. “We will be able to eventually get a fair resolution for these workers. What is truly frightening is to think what happens on the many unorganised sites in our country.”

The men were building internal walls and some were working up to 70 hours a week without receiving overtime. Clapham said: “Working that long on a building site is hard work. How can we expect to improve safety standards in this industry when employers carry on like this?”

Philip Hyland, partner at the employment law firm PJH Law, based in Stamford, Lincolnshire, said that in his experience excessive deductions from migrant workers’ payslips were widespread, and cited an experiment in which his firm invited local Poles to contact it. Of 80-100 people who got in touch over a month, he said, only one was getting the correct pay.

Ucatt is campaigning to have the Gangmasters Licensing Act extended to cover the construction industry, which would mean that employment agencies and subcontractors have to pass minimum standards before they can supply labour.

A spokesman for the department for business said that the construction industry was covered by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. “The reason we have not extended the GLA into construction is because there has been no consensus to do so and we have felt there are more effective ways to tackle abuses in the sector.”

Case studies
After a 39-hour week, one man took home £8.80 when his monthly rent of £155 was deducted in one week. Another man worked a 70-hour week, earning £420, but was not paid overtime and after having £228 deducted for repayment on tools was left with £66. A third man worked a 40-hour week but was left with £13 after paying £155 for a month’s rent. As self-employed workers they received no holiday pay.

Safety crime – a forgotten killer

Respect MP George Galloway has an Early Day Motion on safety crime, and the following appeared in his Morning Star column:

AMID the acres of column inches about violence on Britain’s streets, a greater cause of death and injury takes its toll with scarcely a mention.

You are in fact more likely to be killed by working than you are through some act of interpersonal violence.

I had the author of a shocking new report into the collapse of workplace safety standards on my radio show the other week.

Professor Steve Tombs outlined how there has been a staggering 49 per cent fall in enforcement notices brought by the Health and Safety Executive. The cause is twofold.

First, the HSE is facing year-on-year cuts, which are affecting the number of inspectors that it deploys, as well as other vital staff. Second, there is a doctrinal shift, under the Establishment mania for deregulation, from enforcement to advice.

In other words, voracious corporations are to be advised on how to improve health and safety, but are not to feel the discipline of inspections and enforcement to make sure that that advice has been heeded. It is a staggering retreat for a Labour government.

For it was a Labour government, freshly elected in 1974, which brought in the Health and Safety at Work Act. That was the fruit of the preceding years of labour militancy. Now, it is being whittled away and the body meant to oversee it is being left to wither.

In conjunction with Tombs and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, I’ve tabled an early day motion (number 1855) calling for the recommendations of the Commons select committee which oversees the HSE to be implemented.

They include giving workplace safety reps the legal right to stop the job if a hazard is identified and publicising the sentences for safety breaches imposed on directors. I hope that you’ll encourage your MP to sign it.

Over the years, much of the media has reduced health and safety matters to bogus stories about “banning conkers” in playgrounds – something that was never true, by the way.

In fact, it is about the legitimate expectation of workers that they will clock off in one piece and that they won’t be worked into an early grave.

Next month will bring the fourth anniversary of the deaths of two firefighters in my constituency – Adam Meere and Bill Faust – who were killed while attending a fire at a shop on Bethnal Green Road.

It’s time that the minds of parliamentarians, most of whom wouldn’t plunge into a darkened room for a firefighter’s pay cheque, were concentrated.

Work-related deaths are higher than the murder rate

Violent crime is a serious and complex problem. The capitalist media gives it a lot of coverage, but not so those preventable safety crimes that last year caused twice as many deaths as violent criminals.

The solutions offered by the corporate press for violent crime – longer sentences, new offences – are often inferior to policies which would tackle the production and distribution of dangerous weapons. But as Britain has now become the worlds foremost arms exporter, you’d hardly expect the Sun to be demanding restrictions on the manufacture and sale of dangerous weapons…

Because safety crime has not been “problematised” – it not thought of as a problem – no solutions are offered by the mainstream media. In fact, government policy has lead to increasing numbers of safety crimes. You might even say, New Labour is a soft-touch when it comes to crimes against the safety of workers and consumers.

From The Guardian:

In January Garry Weddell, who was on bail awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, killed his mother-in-law before taking his own life. The fact that he was out on bail generated a huge public row and Jack Straw, the justice secretary, ordered a review of the bail arrangements for murder suspects that was published today.

The review concluded that banning bail for all murder suspects would “present legal problems”. Straw said that the important thing was to “strike the right balance between respecting individuals’ right to liberty and protecting the public”.

But, if he wanted to learn more about protecting the public, Straw should have dropped in to committee room 11 in the Commons this afternoon where the authors of a new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies were presenting the findings of a fascinating study into “the decriminalisation of death and injury at work”.

Officially, you are more likely to be murdered in the UK than to die in a workplace accident. In 2005-06 there were 765 homicides in England and Wales (14 per million) and 217 fatal injuries to workers (7 per million).

But the authors tried to get a more accurate figure for workplace fatalities. The official Health and Safety Executive figures only include fatal injuries to employees and the self-employed. If you include accidents that kill members of the public and road deaths involving “at work” vehicles, the number of people killed from occupational injuries rises to around 1,300.

Or, as the authors say, “at least twice as many people die from fatal injuries at work than are victims of homicide”.

The authors described this as “safety crime” (a term I have never heard before). And they suggest that Labour’s light-touch regulatory approach to business is making it easier for employers to get away with it.

“What is remarkable about these unremarkable processes is how they attract little or no popular, political or academic attention,” they say.

“Just as remarkable here is the contrast between this deafening silence on the one hand and the ongoing moral panic that characterises social responses to most ‘mainstream’ violent crime on the other.”

No nukes or prescription charges for Scotland, free school meals and social housing instead!

[Tuesday]

If the British ruling class have any plans to back the US in bombing Iran over its nuclear energy programme, they should think again. It could cost the Union…

The SNP/Green Scottish government is keen to push for nuclear disarmament, which is actually a stated aim of the UK Labour government.

First Minister Alex Salmond is seeking support from the international community in his campaign to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.

He has written to representatives of 189 countries signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Mr Salmond is asking them to back his bid for Scotland to have observer status at future treaty talks.

Labour MP Eric Joyce said the letter could “potentially damage our national security interests”.

[…]

Mr Joyce, the MP for Falkirk, said that the UK had very complex relationships with some countries such as Iran and Zimbabwe.

Ah yes, complex relations. In the case of Iran, the British government has in the past intervened with the US to depose a democratically-elected government; as for Zimbabwe, it is a former colony to which the UK government did not meet its commitments and has helped cripple its economy with sanctions.

But neither state threatens the interests of any of the nations in the “United Kingdom”…

What are the other objections?

David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, says that Alex Salmond should be sorting out the free personal care instead of “cavorting across the world stage with his discredited loony-left policies” and giving comfort to our enemies. Well, they are also his loony policies, since Labour is still formally committed to pursuing “multilateral nuclear disarmament” under a defence policy which dates from the late 1980s.

Well, it looks like the matter of freebies hasn’t escpaed the Scottish Health Secretary:

Charges for prescriptions are to be abolished within four years, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has pledged.

The deputy first minister said some people were being forced to go without vital medication because they could not afford to pay.

And there’s more:

Primary pupils are starting to receive free school meals as part of a pilot project in five parts of Scotland.
The scheme for all children in the first three years of school is under way in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

They will be followed in the coming days and weeks by schools in East Ayrshire, Fife and the Borders.

The Scottish Government has invested £5m in the pilot scheme, with about 8,500 additional pupils expected to take up the offer in Glasgow alone.

The city already has free fruit, milk and mains-fed water coolers in its schools.

The six-month pilot has been set up to see if providing a nutritious lunch for all children could help improve their diets.

It all sounds very “Old Labour”, doesn’t it? Okay, the SNP are objectively a party of big business, but they are committed to winning independence for Scotland, and to this end will push the limits of devolution and provide reforms for working people to win them over to independence…

With measures like this:

The SNP government will consider a ban on the sale of new council and housing association homes.

A Scottish Government source said it would consult on the option, which would only affect those tenants moving to new-build homes.

The option will be contained in the government’s housing green paper, which should be published in coming weeks.

Now, this shows two things:

1. Socialists north of the border need to work together to ensure that these progressive reforms are implemented. This means some kind of conciliation between Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party.

2. Devolution can stall the neo-liberal agenda and allow a return to social democratic politics and reforms to benefit working people, which is why socialists should back a parliament for England.

Here endeth the lecture.

It was cheaper for BP to let refinery workers die…

[Tuesday]

Yet again preventing accidents is thought more expensive than saving lives:

BP weighed costs of refinery blast
Paul Hill
People’s Weekly World Newspaper, 09/13/07

In the ongoing litigation against BP following the March 2005 blast at the company’s Texas City oil refinery that killed 15 workers, a lawyer for some of the victims has produced an internal memo showing BP did a cost-benefit analysis that concluded it would be cheaper to not make structures blast-resistant than it would be to absorb the costs of a possible explosion.

The memo, disclosed by lawyer Brent Coon and reported in the Houston Chronicle, placed a price tag of $10 million on the life of each worker.

Meanwhile, former plant manager Don Parus testified that he was so concerned about three deaths that occurred at the plant in 2004 that he decided to investigate the history of similar incidents. He found that in the 30 years prior to the 2004 deaths, 22 workers had died in the plant. A 23rd was identified later.

Parus, who has been on paid leave since the 2005 explosion, also said a workplace safety study stated, “We have never seen a site where the notion of ‘I could die today’ was so real for so many hourly people.”

Parus said that even though the plant was yielding $100 million a month in profits, his superiors declined to fund upgrades to the physical operations and decided instead to cut his budget.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found in their investigation that cuts in costs, training and personnel before the blast led to the tragedy.

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Courting disaster

[Thursday]

So, Gordon Brown is claiming that the strike by prison staff changes nothing and that he will not bow to pressure from public sector workers and pay them the ammount recommended.

Brown will be fearful of “winter of discontent” talk: if there is a serious threat of co-ordinated action he will have to rethink his 2% limit.

United action might just be possible, but there was a mixed reaction to yesterday’s events.

Britain’s largest civil service union, The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents instructional officers and administrative support staff in prisons, sent a message of support to the POA.

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: ‘PCS members fully support those Prison Officers who walked out today.

‘We understand and support the motivation behind today’s industrial action by POA members. Below inflation pay awards leading to pay cuts in real terms are completely unacceptable and is a problem that PCS members delivering vital public services also face.

‘Like POA members, PCS members are prepared to stand up for fair pay and the services they deliver which is why your fight is our fight.

‘The government need to recognise that they cannot continue to use civil and public servants as an anti-inflationary tool, by beginning to value them with fair pay.’

Asked if the courts sequestrate the Prison Officers Association, should the other public sector unions take supporting action, a PCS spokesman said he could not comment as ‘that would be up to the whole NEC to decide’.

A Fire Brigades Union spokesman told News Line: ‘The FBU has sent messages of support and FBU members have been visiting prison officers’ picket lines.’

Asked if other public sector unions should take action in the event the POA is sequestrated, the FBU spokesman added: ‘The POA is fully entitled to restore union rights and normal industrial relations procedures that are available to everyone else.

‘We hope the government sees sense and addresses the issue of the staged pay award which has upset people.’

The GMB trade union said the government should pay the prison officers the pay review body award in full and stop using the threat of court action to settle industrial relations matters.

A GMB spokesman offered no comment on other unions taking action in support of the POA.

UNISON had no comment.

A spokeswoman for the TGWU trade union told News Line: ‘We are not going to comment on another union’s strike.’

We’ll have to see how things pan out at the conferences…

Back to the strike itself, the Socialist Worker has this considered piece by Simon Basketter:

Prison officers’ unofficial strike rattles governmen

Some 20,000 prison officers in England and Wales took illegal unofficial action on Wednesday 29 August against Gordon Brown’s public sector wage cuts and the disastrous overcrowding in prisons.

Brown’s initial response was to turn to the anti-union laws and get an injunction against the strikers. In response to a question about the prison officers’ action, he restated that public sector pay must be held down as an “essential part” of tackling inflation.

However the action has forced Jack Straw and Gordon Brown to the negotiating table. Straw is to hold emergency talks with the Prison Officers Association (POA) on Friday.

Colin Moses, chair of the POA, said, “The POA executive has decided in the light of the offer of meaningful discussions regarding the staging of pay, to lead our members back to work, irrespective of the threat of an injunction”.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, disputed that the action was illegal. “I believe every officer has human rights, and they include the right to withdraw their labour,” he said.

Prison officers were banned from striking by a court ruling in early 1993, which found prison officers had powers and authority similar to those of the police and subsequently could not strike. That was written into law by the Tories in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

The New Labour government promised to repeal a ban on strike action among prison officers. It did this – only to sign a voluntary no-strike agreement with the POA in 2001.

Wednesday’s strike came after a pay review body recommended a rise of 2.5 percent this year but the government decided that it should be staged, with an initial 1.5 percent rise followed by another 1 percent six months later. Overall, this kept the prison officers’ pay rise under Brown’s 2 percent public sector pay limit.

Prison officers currently start on a salary of about £17,500, going up to about £25,000 over ten years.

Brian Clarke, chair of Birmingham POA, told Socialist Worker, “Our pay awards are meant to be according to performance. There is a growth in prison population but not in prison staff, so our performance is increasing.

“Prison managers have received increases of £4,000 per year. That pisses me off. When they tried to serve an injunction on me this morning, I refused to take it.”

Every trade unionist should oppose the use of anti-union laws and welcome any assault on Brown’s pay freeze.

However, there are contradictions in the role of prison officers.

It is summed up by Cardiff prisoners chanting “you’re breaking the law” to the strikers.

Prison officers should have the right to strike and to a union and it is noticeable that the first response of Labour to industrial action was to head to the courts.

Getting relatively low pay for doing the system’s dirty work gives prison officers a collective identity and means they see themselves as workers.

But it should be remembered that the victims of the prison system are the 80,000 prisoners rather than the prison officers.

Those locked up in prisons are mostly poor and disproportionately black. Increasing numbers of prisoners suffer mental health and addiction problems.

Prison officers’ work, upholding law and order, frequently pushes them to accept the most right wing ideas and actions of the system. One of their main jobs is to control prisoners – and throughout the prison system, many officers have a proven record of racism and violence.

Some of the contradictions can be seen in the strike. In Liverpool the POA shop steward Steve Baines responded to the high court injunction by telling fellow strikers, “Tell them to shove it up their arse, we’re sitting it out.”

Yet when prisoners in the jail protested against their treatment, the POA members rushed back in to control the situation and end a roof top protest.

That one prisoner died locked in his cell in Acklington prison in Northumberland during the dispute should also be a reminder of the harsh reality of life in prisons.

The POA should be looking for fewer prisoners and better conditions in prisons as part of the their demands.

Traditionally prison officers – like their colleagues in the police – have been accommodated at the first sign of trouble. This is the POA’s first strike in 68 years. It is noticeable therefore that Brown’s commitment to neoliberalism means he is currently more interested in maintaining the public sector pay limit than keeping the POA onside.

The strike will have focused minds – as every strike does. The government quickly offered talks to head off the action.

There is a clear lesson for other workers here. If prison officers can take unofficial illegal strike action over Brown’s cuts and force concessions from New Labour ministers, surely other public sector unions must be able to do the same.

The prison officers’ strike is another sign of the crisis facing New Labour and another argument for workers pushing hard for action against Brown.

Yesterday I alluded to the speed with which the government was able to secure an injunction against the Prison Officers’ Association in comparison to the Stockline trial.

The conclusion of the court case, in which two companies were only charged with health and safety offenses, saw the judge fine ICL Tech and ICL Plastics £400,000 for failing to spend £405 on repairs that would have saved nine lives. This leniency will continue if Brown has his way: no corporate killers will be threatened with jail under New Labour.

Socialist Appeal has this article by Kenny McGuigan:

Scotland’s Worst Workplace Disaster: £405 would have saved lives

In May 2004, we reported Scotland’s worst ever industrial disaster when the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow exploded leaving 9 dead and 40 injured. It was another searing indictment of breaches in Health & Safety legislation, now a matter of course in Britain. Public anger ran high as extensive news coverage showed 4 days and nights of rescue workers in the rubble of the 4 storey building searching for survivors. Ex-employees told journalists they had been sacked after raising concerns about safety. One man claimed the gas oven was shielded by a metal door improvised from the rear end of an old bin lorry. The authorities in Glasgow launched a criminal investigation which turned into a dead end and the 2 companies jointly responsible, ICL Tech and ICL Plastics, faced only charges relating to Health & Safety. On 26th and 27th August 2007, the accused companies admitted 4 Health & Safety offences at Glasgow’s High Court. As the inquiry drew to a close, lawyers for the companies pleaded for leniency, asking that the subsequent fine be “not too severe” as to force their clients into bankruptcy. They were fined £400,000.

The court heard that risk assessments in the factory were “carried out by a student on a holiday job” who was also the son of one of the company directors. An expert stated the estimated cost of replacing the leaking, corroding pipes, which had never been properly lagged,would have been £405. The cause of the explosion was established as ignition of gas, built up due to leakages in old pressurised petroleum gas pipes that had never been lagged with suitable anti-corrosion protection.
Kirsteen Murray, whose brother died in the explosion was one of the many relatives in court. She said, “It has taken over 3 years to come to court and the result is pointless. A £400,000 is no deterrent…I spoke to a relative of mine who said his house was worth almost as much”.

But Lord Brodie, who presided, said the fine should not be equated with the loss of life. “It is balanced against the company’s ability to keep trading and providing employment,” he mused. Oh really! How considerate of the noble Lord to think first and foremost about our employment opportunities! Who would want to work in a place where bosses neglect the safety of their workers and the premises to such an extent the place goes up in a massive explosion for the sake of £405?

This single horrific fatality should never have occurred, that much is obvious. 3 years after the explosion, one would have thought that employers would have been shocked into some action to ensure the safety and health of the people who create the wealth they enjoy; sadly, the most up to date figures show that this is not the case. In the TUC’s document, “Risks” of August last year, the report showed, “Scotland has the UK’s worst prosecution record and highest fatality and injury levels. It also has the lowest penalties for safety offences”.(TUC Annual Report. Risks (219)). As recently as February the TUC website reported, “European research published today (Feb 21) exposes the myth that British workers are quick to use illnesses caused by their work as an excuse to ‘throw a sicky’. In fact the study shows that British workers are the least likely in Europe to complain about the affect of work on their health”.

The latest official figures for 2005/6 from the Health & Safety Commission (HSC) website reveal 2 million workers in Britain are suffering ill-health due to work related illness. In a section entitled, “Progress on fatal and major injuries” HSC report that their initiative to reduce these catastrophes for the decade 1999-2009 is “not on course” (their emphasis). But at the same time the number of working days lost due to illness has decreased! “There has been a significant decrease since 2000”. This is due to the constant bully boy management techniques in place, especially, but not exclusively in the private sector. Workers are faced with speed-ups to maximise profits. This raises the question: Given the scandalous figures reported by trade unions, HSC, and on the T&G website, there must surely be evidence of an increase in prosecutions against ruthless firms who disregard Health & Safety legislation? Alas, no – in 2005/6, the period covered by the HSC figures and one in which Scotland was shown to have the poorest record in workers safety, prosecutions were DOWN by 23% (hse.gov.uk/statistics). Sadly, those who perished so tragically in the Stockline plastics explosion in May 2004, will simply be lost in the figures.