Today (28th April) is International Workers Memorial Day, where we remember the workers killed, injured or made unwell by their work. This is the day where we mourn those who have died and pledge to fight for the living.
I was in Christchurch today at the memorial service, and there were others around the country, including on the West Coast, in another sad remembrance of the 29 miners killed at Pike River Mine last year.
In Christchurch, workers killed and injured were just going about their daily jobs and were the innocent victims of a cataclysmic event.
We can’t say that about Pike River. This was no unavoidable accident and we must know what caused it, how it could be prevented in the future and what a government’s responsibility for that should be. I will be in Blackball on Saturday for another commemoration – where I will have the chance to hear directly from those most affected.
Unfortunately, today Brash’s coup dominates the media, so you won’t read about these memorial events. You won’t hear about the workers who lost their lives last year in workplace accidents, including the Pike River MIners. You won’t hear about the 700 workers who die prematurely from work related illness or disease every year. You won’t hear about the 200,000 workers who suffer serious harm in the workplace each year.
If these were crime statistics, it would be leading the news and the Sensible Sentencing Trust would be calling for blood.
Despite decades of action by unions, workers and pro-worker governments which have resulted in significant improvements to safer working conditions, the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths in New Zealand workplaces remains too high. Many of these deaths and injuries are easily preventable, but the relentless pursuit of the bottom line costs workers in more than pay and conditions.
Tight economic conditions mean some businesses take shortcuts and workers bear the consequences. Most at risk are those who work on their own account, or as dependent contractors, where the struggle to make ends meet is tougher than it’s been in years. It’s no accident that the construction, fishing, forestry and agriculture industries have a much higher percentage of accidents in New Zealand workplaces.
New Zealand’s history of workplace health and safety also has a legacy we must face up to. The workplace injuries didn’t just happen in the last year. There are hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered injuries on the job in their former working lives. I meet them all the time – the old factory workers, the forestry workers, the labourers, who suffered harm at work as younger men or women, and now are bewildered to find that the support they were receiving from our world-class ACC system has been cut.
Try explaining to someone whose worked hard all of his life, who lost his hearing because of workplace conditions and lack of prevention, that he should no longer qualify for ACC funding to upgrade his fading hearing aid, because Nick Smith has decided his injury is due to “degenerative” conditions.
Today, on Workers Memorial Day, we remember those who have been lost or injured at work. We can only imagine what it is like to say goodbye to a loved one at the beginning of the working day and not have them return at the end. It shouldn’t happen.
It’s a day that we join with others to renew our determination to work together for safer workplaces.
That’s what I’ve been doing today.