Organise to put health before profit!

by Daniel Waldron

Despite the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, infection spreading faster than it was when the lockdown began, and evidence of second spikes in countries which have already relaxed social distancing measures, Boris Johnson has outlined the Tories’ ‘roadmap’ to reopening sectors of the economy. This was a response to the big business demand to move towards restoring profitability, regardless of the impact on public health. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, have chosen not to follow Johnson’s plan. But do they represent a fundamentally different approach?

Stormont’s plan

On Tuesday, the Northern Ireland Executive announced its own five-stage plan for the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown. We were told that the current guidelines would remain in place until at least 28th May and that schools will remain closed for all but the children of key workers until September at the earliest. However, there has already been a change in that position, with garden centres, golf courses and some other outdoor facilities being allowed to open from next week. 

The Executive’s strategy includes no provisional dates for when each phase will be implemented, saying instead that they will be guided by medical evidence and scientific advice, the capacity of the NHS, and impacts upon wider society and the economy. On the face of it, who could argue with that? But the devil is in the detail.

Politicians buckle to big business demands

Stage 1 is to include a phased return to work of those who cannot work from home, in sectors such as manufacturing and retail, with others to follow in later stages. We are assured that this will only take place with adequate health and safety measures put in place. But this belies two important realities; firstly, that much non-essential manufacturing has continued throughout the lockdown or has already been allowed to resume by the Executive, as they have bent to the demands of big business; and secondly, that bosses are already being allowed to put workers’ lives at risk.

Factories producing goods which cannot be deemed essential in the midst of this pandemic, from carpets to tyre pressure valves have continued operating throughout the supposed shutdown, with workers publicly voicing concerns about a lack of PPE and social distancing measures. Laterly, major firms like Bombardier and Caterpillar have also reopened, with the Executive’s blessing.

Lack of enforcement costs lives

The Stormont politicians’ assurances that workplaces will only reopen when safe ring hollow when you look at the track record of enforcement so far. At the outset of lockdown, it was announced that no physical inspections would be carried out by the under-resourced Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Instead, bosses were to be taken at their word. But even where inspections have been carried out, it has led to little change.

The meat processing industry is a particular case in point, and has become a hotspot of infection here, as it has across much of the world. With bosses cutting corners on PPE, sanitation and testing, in order to defend their profit margins, clusters of infection have developed in factories. Tragically, one worker at Moy Park in Dungannon has lost her life through Covid-19. The limited interventions from the HSE have brought only limited change.

We cannot rely upon the bosses to defend our health and safety, or the Stormont politicians who have consistently served their interests, campaigning for the power to cut corporation tax while slashing jobs, pay, pensions, benefits and public services. Instead, it is up to workers ourselves and our trade unions to ensure that lives are not sacrificed in the name of profit.

Workers take action for health and safety

Workers in Moy Park, ABP Meats and, most recently, the Foyle meat factory in Omagh have all walked out in protest over dangerous working conditions. Through our collective ability to bring workplaces and, therefore, profit to a halt, workers have the ability to secure concessions from the bosses much more effectively than any state agency.

As moves are made to re-open sectors of the economy, it is worth bearing in mind that the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Management of Health & Safety at Work Act 1998 allow us to refuse to work in conditions which put us at immediate risk, without threat of disciplinary action or loss of pay. But if workers are isolated and unorganised, making this call can lead to victimisation, sackings and so on, regardless of the letter of the law. It needs to be backed up with collective power. All workers should join a trade union and, where one is not already in place, organise with their workmates and encourage others to join.

Trade union movement should lead the way

The trade union movement has a key role to play as we move into this new phase of the crisis. There are almost 250,000 union members across Northern Ireland, including thousands of workers’ representatives trained in health and safety. Independently of the bosses and the politicians, the trade union movement should draw up its own guidelines on the measures that need to be in place before workplaces can re-open, both in general and in specific sectors, which should be made widely available for all workers, organised and unorganised.

These guidelines should be linked with an energetic campaign, through social media and workplace interventions where possible, to recruit and organise in largely non-unionised workplaces and sectors. It should be guaranteed that the movement as a whole will rally behind any workers who feel it necessary to walk out or strike in defence of their health and safety. 

If bosses threaten job losses in response, the trade unions should campaign for firms to be brought into public ownership to defend jobs and skills. With capitalist governments around the world being forced to nationalise sectors as the ‘free market’ breaks down in the midst of this pandemic, public ownership can no longer be dismissed as fanciful. In fact, it has been demonstrated that this is a necessity.

Prepare to battle new wave of austerity

Such a campaign would not only potentially save lives in the coming weeks and months, but it would strengthen the working class as we face into a new period of economic downturn and capitalist chaos. Already, the indications are that the Tories – after hypocritically praising health staff and other key workers on the frontline of this crisis as heroes – are planning a new wave of austerity, with a potential two-year pay-freeze in the public sector and the hiking of taxes on working people. 

Experience leads us to believe that the Stormont politicians will slavishly follow suit. Local councils in Northern Ireland are reportedly considering rates-hikes of up to 30%, as well as laying off hundreds of staff. Capitalist politicians are intent on making us, not the billionaires and bankers, foot the bill for this crisis. 

This crisis has graphically illustrated that it is workers – including those previously dismissed as ‘unskilled’ – who allow society to function, who produce the goods and provide the services we need. It is workers who have also led the way in demanding that public health is put before private profit. Workers now need to organise industrially and politically to fight for a society which reflects that reality, which is run by and for working people, not the super-rich and their acolytes.

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