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Stormont fails on workers safety

28 April 2020

The publication of an essential workers list by the Stormont Executive has displayed once again its inability to offer any protection to the working class in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Such a list had been promised after protests by workers over unsafe conditions at a number of food processing plants. Another unstated yet glaring motivation in the production of a list was the need to defuse the public dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein over what constituted an essential business and what businesses should continue to operate.

In addressing concerns over workplace safety the Executive deployed the tried and tested method of establishing a committee - made up of government officials and the representatives of trade unions and employer bodies - that was tasked with discussing the issue and reporting back. That this was no more that a bureaucratic fix became apparent very early on with the issuing of its report on a supposedly urgent matter being promised imminently and then put off. The report of the Engagement Committee was finally published THREE WEEKS after it had been commissioned!

That it was released on a Friday afternoon - the traditional slot for burying bad news - was another indication of the lack of seriousness being given to the issue. In their haste to bury the report officials from the Dept of the Economy wrongly released a earlier partial draft and had to do a second release of the final version.

Unsurprisingly the delays and bungled publication of the report were very much in keeping with its content. It contained nothing of substance in relation to workplace safety beyond a list of types of businesses classified as being in “priority sectors” anda guidebook on the measures employers should take to ensure safe working conditions.  The critical element about these is that they are only advisory - a point made clear in the attached statement by Economy Minister Diane Dodds in which she said that the list was published for “advisory purposes to allow companies to make their own decisions” and that if a company “can work within the social distancing guidelines then it should do so.”  Under these terms businesses are free to ignore the advice and open anyway.  The list and the safety guidebook are already rendered utterly meaningless.  There is no inspection regime or sanction for employers who defy safety advice.  Indeed, the Health & Safety Executive, who were part of the committee, have abandoned workplace inspections during the period of the pandemic despite being inundated with complaints.  The advice given to workers who have concerns over safety is to engage in “constructive dialogue”!

All this is a long way from the earlier claim by Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill that she would use “every legal power” to shut down unsafe workplaces.  It is also damning ofthe trade union officials who sat on this committee and endorsed it's recommendations. It serves as a reminder of their deep commitment to a social partnership approach, and the degree to which they will sacrifice the interests of their members for a place at the table.

Despite their involvement in such things Sinn Fein and the unions continue the pose as an opposition. So in the same week as the essential workers list was published Sinn Fein Chairperson and Junior minister Declan Kearney wrote an article in An Phoblacht in which he accused "some right-wing elements in the British Cabinet, andalso some unionists in the north of Ireland" who are pushing for an easing restrictions of putting "Corporate greed over public welfare."  It provoked a furious response fromUnionists with the DUP’s Dianne Dodds saying that it was, “not the time for either identity or ideological politics” and UUP leader Steve Aiken warning that the virus "should not be politicised".   This was particularly ironic given the unionist deference to a British government whose approach to the pandemic has been led by ideology and politics.  But there is also hypocrisy on the part of Sinn Fein who, while they can make correct rhetorical points, use them merely to appease their own supporters and distance themselves from their own responsibility as a part of the Executive.

Trade unions act in a similar way. So at the same time as endorsing the essential workers report - which gives a freehand to employers - they are also critical of the push for a return to work. This week Unite criticised moves by manufacturing firms Caterpillar and Bombardier to restart production and bring back workers. Regional officer George Brash questioned whether the work Caterpillar does at Springvale was essential and criticised the “many grey areas around the government's current guidelines.”  Of course he doesn’t mention those guidelines were endorsed by the trade unions or that this own union has been engaged with employers in preparing a return to work.

The trade union line has been echoed by PbP MLA Gerry Carroll who has called on Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill to intervene to “block Caterpillar, Bombardier andother non-essential businesses from opening.”  He doesn’t seem to be aware - or is ignoring - the role that trade unions are playing in the push for a return to work.  Clearly influenced by trade unions the arguments he is putting forward over whether abusiness is essential or not are fundamentally flawed. The critical point is not how a workplace is classified but whether people are working in safe conditions.  Classification is an arbitrary and bureaucratic process that gives a false sense of security.  Indeed, we need only consider health care - the most essential sector at the moment - where protections for workers are completely inadequate to see the absurdity of these classifications.

The demand must be for safe working conditions irrespective of the business or sector. These struggles around safe working conditions - and who will bear the cost ofcreating them - will increasingly come to the fore during the pandemiccrisis and beyond. What is already clear in the north is that the health and safety of workers can only be secured through their own self activity not by looking to Stormont or trade union officials.

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