Ian Ward, Leader of Birmingham Labour Council, writes:

Today is International Workers Memorial Day, when we remember those who died in workplace accidents or from work-related injuries and diseases. As a society, we must strive to protect workers from preventable deaths resulting from poor health and safety standards. And as a proud Trade Unionist, today is a very good day to remind you that the best way to organise and fight for your rights at work is to join a Trade Union!

At Birmingham Labour Council, we make sure that our workers are protected and receive the support they need to do their job safely. Last year I was proud to sign up to Unite’s Construction Charter. Workers on all our construction sites, including the Commonwealth Games Athlete’s Village and Curzon Street Station, work in a safe environment and can raise any safety concerns they have without fear. All construction workers are now paid directly by the council, rather than on bogus self-employment terms, so they get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

The theme for this year’s International Memorial Worker’s Day is coronavirus. So far over a hundred NHS staff have died from COVID-19, including Dr Vishna Rasiah, a consultant neonatologist at Birmingham women’s hospital. Each one of these is a tragedy and my thoughts and prayers go out to their families.

It is a shocking statistic that more people are killed at work every year than die in wars. In the drive against COVID-19, we have to be especially careful about using military metaphors, or of talking about “battling” or “fighting” the illness. As Labour MP Chris Bryant has said, “it implies that those who lost did not fight enough”. Some Conservatives talk of the government being on a war footing against COVID-19, and of the “Dunkirk Spirit” of NHS staff. We should not compare our key workers to soldiers in a war. If we do this, we may be fooled into thinking that, just like soldiers, deaths of NHS staff are seen as an inevitable, tragic result of the struggle against coronavirus. No care worker, nurse or doctor should go to work risking their life.

That is why it is so important that we are able to provide Personal Protective Equipment to all Birmingham’s frontline staff. After ordering thousands of sets from the government, we have received just 40% of what we asked for. Stock levels are running dangerously low, and we need to protect the health and safety of our frontline workers. If they don’t do this, then the government is failing to follow WHO guidelines on keeping our frontline staff safe.

We should be very clear that every fatality resulting from a lack of protective equipment is avoidable and tragic. Our key workers are heroes. It is right that we clap for them every Thursday. But we must remember that our key workers need much more than claps. They need to be given protective equipment in line with WHO regulations.

At 11am today there is a one minute silence in memory of workers who have died doing their job. You are also encouraged to light a candle in your window to remember those workers who have lost their lives, thank those who continue to risk theirs and fight for safer work.

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