“The kind of people who deride health and safety are the kind of people who have safe jobs.” So says film director Ken Loach, who attended an event organised by York & District TUC for this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day on Saturday April 27th . Mr Loach, who spoke at the Early Music Centre to an audience of just under 200 trade unionists and activists – the maximum capacity of the venue – said that he also feared that Brexit would be used by a Conservative Government to reduce health and safety protections for workers. “Even in the EU,” he said, “Health and safety protections have always been second to company profits. But the Conservatives would like to reduce these protections even further – they like to call it red tape.” Asked by a reporter from the BBC why he thought the number of workplace accidents had gone down, he replied “The figures are coming down because we’ve lost most of our manufacturing industry. That’s where most of the deaths and accidents occur. I’m here because its very important to remember those who have suffered accident or death as a result of unsafe working conditions – we need more health and safety protections – not less”.
Mr Loach, famous throughout the British film industry for classic films such as “Kes” and “Cathy Come Home” has for many years been a Left-wing activist, with social issues playing an important role in many of his films. His most recent film “I, Daniel Blake” follows the life of an out-of-work joiner who is denied Employment Support Allowance under the sanctions regime of the Conservative Government. He has previously stated that the DWP’s system of sanctions places the unemployed in a “Catch 22” situation, and seems to be deliberately designed to make people drop out of the system by demoralising them with petty sanctions. At the Workers’ Memorial Day event he introduced an exclusive showing of his 1991 “Riff Raff”, about a group of construction workers working in an unsafe environment. Ironically the film stars Ricky Tomlinson, who a couple of years ago was guest at another York TUC event on the subject of the blacklisting of construction workers.
Mr Loach was preceded by a number of other local speakers,including York MP Rachael Maskell, FBU Regional Secretary Steve Howley, UCATT official Karl Stephenson and York TUC President Leigh Wilks. Rachael Maskell, who is defending her York Central constituency in the upcoming General Election on June 8th, paid tribute to her colleague, Batley & Spen Labour MP Jo Cox, who last year was murdered in the street in the run-up to the EU referendum. “Nobody expects to go to work and not to return home,” she said, “I’d like to pay tribute to all those people, some of them working in our vital public services, who have paid the ultimate price and not returned home. It is so important that we remember them.”
Steve Howley of the Fire Brigade Union, representing a sector which traditionally has a high number of workplace deaths, highlighted the devastating effect that cuts to the fire services was having on the health and safety of his colleagues. “This Government is playing hard and fast with peoples’ lives, “ he said, “Not only that, but cuts to fire services directly affects the general public as well. Safety must come first, it must always be the number one priority.”
Karl Stephenson of construction union UCATT, the sector with the highest number of deaths per annum from workplace accidents, also paid tribute to his colleagues and warned that the increase in contracted casual work was having a negative impact on health and safety in the construction industry. “Construction workers have always had to fight for health and safety protections,” he said, “Often with direct consequences for whistleblowing employees. Nobody should face adverse consequences for highlighting problems with safety.”
The event was coordinated by Julie Kay, an accredited celebrant for the British Humanist Association – of which Ken Loach is a patron, and a poem commissioned by York TUC for last year’s memorial day event and written by Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan, was read out by Unite Community delegate Nigel Smith. York TUC President Leigh Wilks, who welcomed everyone to the event as the first speaker, broke with tradition by paying special tribute to those who had taken their lives under the benefit sanctions regime of the current Government. “We don’t know the figures, because the Department for Work & Pensions refuses to release them,” he said, “But there are certainly examples of people with terminal illnesses like cancer being deemed fit for work, of people being asked if they are mentally ill why it is that they haven’t attempted suicide yet – even of people being deemed fit for work who have already passed away from a terminal illness. This could be explained if it was only just an odd few cases – the problem is, it isn’t just an odd few cases.”
He cited extensive criticisms of the Government’s policies by independent UN bodies, which have stated that the UK could be in breach of its international human rights obligations as a result of its austerity policies. “Please remember that, when these people are knocking on your door and asking for your vote.”
all photography (c) Chris Hargraves 2017
York TUC President Leigh Wilks welcomes everyone to the event
Ken Loach with Vice President Br Clark
York Central MP Rachael Maskell
FBU Regional Secretary Steve Howley
UCATT official Karl Stephenson
Unite Community delegate Nigel Smith
British Humanist Association celebrant Julie Kay
Ken Loach signs the York TUC Memorial Book