Today is International Workers Memorial Day on the 28 April, where we remember those who have been affected by tragedy and ill health in the workplace, and to show solidarity to ensure that rules and regulations are being properly implemented, and enforced, for the benefit of workers everywhere.
As a Labour Member of the European Parliament I am proud to stand up for workers as part of my role. I have spent my career doing this, as before I was an MEP I worked for 15 years in the union movement, in the end as an elected Confederal Secretary for the European TUC.
According to the EU occupational health and safety agency (EU OSHA), for every investment in OSH there is a gain for society and the economy through reduced days lost to accident or fatalities, families damaged and welfare costs. A real long term economic plan should have a safety culture at its heart.
Europe has made a massive contribution to health and safety, and workers' rights, and the great strength of Europe is its ability to create rights that mean millions of workers' lives can be improved. After the Second World War the European project was founded on four principles of freedom of movement - the movement of goods, capital, services, and people in its Member States. A stable, prosperous continent was the goal to be achieved in order to create lasting peace. But the four freedoms could not function unless its people were able to work across a level playing field, in safe conditions in every member state. This is how Europe has evolved over the past 50 years. If you want a strong European economy with quality jobs, you must support and protect its backbone - the workforce.
As we come together today to remember workers who have lost their lives, we can look back on the change that has swept across our continent and be thankful for an end to the wars and the overall improvements for people as they go about their daily lives, especially in the workplace. But we know there is more to do.
Over time, these rights have become enshrined as it became apparent that a Social Europe was fundamental to its success. Such rights as equal treatment for men and women included in the original Treaty of Rome; the right to information, consultation and participation in the workplace; and special measures for young people were brought into being. Along with the creation of the European Union in 1992 came the Social Chapter, which the last Tory government opted out of. This opt-out was overturned by the Labour government in 1998 and a series of measures were brought in guaranteeing rights for part time workers, parental leave, anti-discrimination, and working hours. The minimum 20-week paid holiday you have comes from the EU.
But having the rights is one thing, making sure they are enforced is something else. TUC have highlighted a number of problems with the number of inspections falling, so we need to fight to make sure that our workplaces are as safe as they can be. I want to see this across the whole of Europe so that when workers are travelling to work in jobs with our neighbours in other Member States, they have full protection while they are there.
However, I believe we need to strengthen our rules to ban blacklisting of workers and stewards who raise concerns about health and safety. We should be commending people concerned about the working conditions of their co-workers not punishing them. Labour MEPs and the unions - especially in the construction sector, have led this fight for justice from the front.
There are still many laws which need to be brought in to protect workers. As technology changes so health and safety protection needs to change to keep pace, and this has not been happening via the Commission. I drafted the European TUC’s call for better regulation on exposure to cancer causing substances; for regulation on back, neck and elbow pain; and to limit stress in the workplace. The number of accidents and illnesses caused by work should be brought to the absolute minimum – it is estimated that 100,000 people are affected each year in Europe, a figure which is unacceptable. We owe it to those who have lost their lives and who we are honouring today to address this urgently.
We must not be complacent. As member state governments across the European Union have shifted to the right so is the danger that rights so hard won could be eroded. We must fight to ensure that this does not happen and that our work places remain safe, healthy places which promote well-being for all staff.