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A twitter plea from rail franchise Southern for passengers to tell RMT how they feel about ongoing strikes has backfired dramatically. The BBC reported that the social media stunt by the Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) company had “angered” passengers, who took to twitter in droves to blame the company for the substandard service and state their support for the union. Southern tweeted: “Time to get back on track. Tweet @RMTunion & tell them how rail strikes make you feel.” The company was instead deluged with angry tweets from rail users frustrated by the company’s mismanagement of services, many pointing out that service failures were commonplace and not strike-related. After initially claiming to be “unrepentant”, Southern subsequently issued a memo to managers hastily scrapping the campaign in the face of the passenger backlash and concerns its ‘Let’s strike back’ message would encourage violence against staff. The industrial action by RMT was prompted by the company’s unilaterally decision to drop the safety critical role of train guards from services. The union said it had no alternative but to take action over what it called Southern's “blatant disregard for the safety and security of passengers and staff alike.” Mick Cash, the general secretary of the RMT, said: “This is a pathetic attempt by the basket case Southern franchise to once again try to blame their front line staff for their own managerial incompetence. Southern GTR have wrecked services across the South East. The passengers know that and that is why the commuters themselves are mounting a legal challenge against the company.” The union said it was intending to lodge an official complaint with Twitter over the “targeted harassment” of workers by Britain’s worst-performing train company. The union rejected a Southern “offer” of a £2,000 payment for staff to accept its deal, circulated to the press in advance of the latest phase of strike action. RMT’s Mick Cash said “jobs, safety and access on Southern rail services are not for sale for £2,000. This dispute has never been about money, it is about guaranteeing that there is a second, safety-critical member of staff on-board the current Southern rail services.”
Southern Rail has point blank refused an offer from the rail union RMT of unconditional talks at the conciliation service Acas in an ongoing safety dispute. The union revealed the company has told Acas that it is only prepared to discuss the implementation of its existing plans and has no interest in discussing a newly defined, safety critical role for the guaranteed second member of staff on current services. RMT has said it believes a deal is there to be done that matches the package finalised this week with Scotrail, which has also faced strike action in defence of the continued use of guards on trains. Under the deal, which puts a brake on the extension of driver only operation, there will be guards on all new trains and the role’s essential safety functions will be retained. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The rejection of unconditional Acas talks by Southern confirms that they have no interest in a settlement and are hell bent on confrontation. In more than three decades as a union official I have never encountered such a shocking attitude to the basic principles of industrial relations.” The union leader added: “RMT is fighting to protect safety and access to services. It is simple as that. It's time for the government to get off the fence and to tell their contractors to get the gun away from the guards’ heads and to start talking seriously about a deal that is there to be done. If it's good enough for Scotrail, it's good enough for Southern.”
Are occupational health services at work really protecting your health? A large-scale TUC survey has found that 92 per cent of workplaces with union health and safety representatives have some form of occupational health provision. “This is well above the national average, where it is estimated that only 38 per cent of the UK workforce has health service coverage,” notes TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, who says the figure is partly explained by high levels of unionisation in larger firms and the public sector. But he questions the effectiveness of some occupational health provision. “A lot of employers are simply using it to monitor sickness absence and less than half actually provide access to rehabilitation,” he says. And a clear move to out-sourced provision has seen “some dreadful examples of very bad ‘occupational health’ providers. For many employers, occupational health means sending someone to a doctor after they have been off sick for a while to find out if they are ready to come back.” These doctors often have no qualifications in occupational medicine, he adds. Union safety reps need to be vigilant, ensuring the contract for occupational health services doesn’t just call for medical reports on sick workers or for disciplinary assessments. “Instead make sure that it includes health surveillance, access to rehabilitation, a link to prevention, and regular reports which can be shared with the safety committee. If there is any kind of pre-employment screening you should also make sure that it only takes place after a person has been offered a job.” Robertson adds that a new TUC guide advises reps to check if the occupational health provider at their firm is properly accredited (Risks 770). He warns that occupational health provision in the UK is “appalling”, with Greece the only EU member state providing less cover. “So, unless you already know, why not ask your employer what level of occupational health they are providing, who they use, and why regular reports are not given to the joint safety committee?”
Fashion retailer Asos is to face a parliamentary probe after an approach from the union GMB. The decision came in the wake of an investigative report that revealed Asos has subjected 4,000 workers to a brutal management regime at its huge Yorkshire warehouse. The revelations from the news website Buzzfeed follow a Morning Star report in June that revealed Asos staff undergo body searches, are denied toilet breaks and some have even had to urinate at drinking water points as there was no time to walk to the toilets (Risks 754). Following a three-month probe, BuzzFeed confirmed that as well as suffering body searches, workers are spied on by an increasing number of CCTV cameras and are made to remove their shoes and socks if they trigger an alarm when they leave work. Staff also have to pass through a security check when they go to the toilet. Security guards are posted outside the toilets and a facility area where they can get a cup of tea. GMB regional secretary Neil Derrick said: “These reports show that employment at Asos is not only stressful, invasive, and deeply exploitative but also hazardous to workers’ health. Ignoring the concerns of GMB members has now become downright dangerous.” He added: “Health and safety issues, round the clock, in-your-face surveillance, impossible targets and unfair contracts have created a damaging, anxiety-ridden workplace and our members have been under the cosh for too long.” After a written request from GMB, the House of Commons business, innovation, and skills select committee confirmed it will now consider conditions at Asos in its existing inquiries into BHS and Sports Direct. A separate inquiry into Asos was not ruled out by MPs.
Amazon UK Services Ltd been accused by a union of putting profits before safety after it was fined £65,000 for attempting to ship dangerous goods on passenger planes. The retailer was found during sentencing at Southwark Crown Court on 23 September to have breached four UK civil aviation rules for the offence of “causing dangerous goods to be delivered for carriage in an aircraft.” Prohibited items including spare lithium-ion batteries for mobile phones or tablets and aerosol beauty products were intercepted by staff working for Royal Mail or UPS during routine screening of domestic and international airline cargoes between January 2014 and June 2015, before they could be transported. “Under the right circumstances the batteries, even new, undamaged batteries, could overheat, potentially causing burns, explosion or a fire,” prosecutor Martin Goudie told the court. Kate Staples, general counsel for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which brought the prosecution, said: “The safety of aviation and the public is paramount and we will continue to work closely with retailers and online traders to ensure they understand the regulations and have robust processes in place so their items can be shipped safely.” Amazon UK Services was convicted under the Air Navigation (Dangerous Goods) Regulations 2002 and has also been ordered to pay the CAA £60,000 in legal costs. UK delivery workers’ union CWU said it was concerned about a pattern of hazardous work by the global retailer. It points out the company is currently facing a $350,000 (£247,000) fine in the US for allegedly shipping hazardous chemicals that injured nine delivery workers, one of a series of recent breaches of the rules. The company paid a $91,000 fine in April 2014 after it was found to have shipped prohibited flammable liquid adhesive by air. CWU health and safety officer Dave Joyce said: “Amazon’s irresponsible and unsafe organisation has clearly been presenting a risk to aircraft passengers both in the UK and USA and profit clearly comes before safety.” In 2015 Amazon UK Services had a turnover of just under £1 billion, with a profit of £38 million.
The families of firefighters killed or seriously injured at work are facing hardship as well as heartbreak, the firefighters’ union FBU has said. In response, the union is launching its own Firefighters 100 Lottery to help offset the financial pressures families can face. Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “People might assume that if a firefighter is killed or seriously hurt on the job that their families are automatically taken care of. They would be mistaken. There are significant gaps in the support and financial assistance that the families receive.” He added: “It is heartbreaking stuff to see bereaved people endure even more suffering, and hardship. We hope the funds raised from this lottery will go a long way to plug those holes in the system.” The union says income raised from the Firefighters 100 Lottery, which has a top prize of £25,000, “will also be used to establish memorials for fallen firefighters as well as making sure the lessons learned from their deaths are not forgotten.” The lottery will also support research into the physical, mental health and well-being of firefighters, and the “all hazards” nature of the modern fire and rescue service. FBU says it will also provide “humanitarian assistance for those affected by fire or disaster.”
Conservative conference commitments from prime minister Theresa May and Brexit secretary David Davis to protect and improve employment rights are welcome – but must be translated into action, the TUC has said. David Davis told last week’s Tory conference: “To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying ‘When we leave, employment rights will be eroded’, I say firmly and unequivocally ‘no they won’t’. Britain already goes beyond EU law in many areas – and we give this guarantee: this Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.” In her keynote speech, prime minister Theresa May said “let me be absolutely clear: existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law – and they will be guaranteed as long as I am prime minister.” She added that “under this government, we’re going see workers’ rights not eroded, and not just protected, but enhanced under this government.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “We welcome Theresa May’s commitment to guarantee workers’ rights for as long as she is prime minister. But we need stronger protection that can span across future governments. We need May’s government to ensure that any future trade deal between the UK and EU includes a commitment not to fall behind the EU on improvements to employment rights.” The TUC leader said: “The prime minister must follow her words on improving workers’ rights with action. Britain's job market has proved to be a magnet for the wrong kind of bosses. There must be tougher rules to stop them using zero hours contracts to keep the whip hand over workers, and to undercut decent employers. And the hefty employment tribunal fees that are pricing hard working people out of justice must be scrapped.” O’Grady added: “The prime minister must listen to Britain's trade unions who represent millions of workers at the hard end of an unfair labour market. The TUC stands ready to work with the government to give working people the new rights they need for fairness and security at work.” The majority of the UK’s workplace safety laws originated in Europe, with the TUC having raised concerns that post-Brexit trade deals could reflect demands from the business lobby and overlook crucial employment and safety protections (Risks 762).
Urgent changes are needed to the UK visa system to protect migrant workers from being used as domestic slaves, a union-affiliated campaign group has warned. Justice 4 Domestic Workers is calling for a better deal for foreign workers, who are employed mainly as nannies or maids in private homes. The group, based in London and Leeds and which is affiliated with the union Unite, supports some of the 17,000 people who come to UK for domestic work each year. Marissa Begonia from Justice 4 Domestic Workers told the BBC’s Inside Out programme she had seen workers who had been burnt with irons or had hot water poured over them by employers. She said some workers were only granted a six-month visa, leaving them limited choice if they wanted to find alternative work. “They are trapped in this system that tolerates abuse, that tolerates slavery, that tolerates trafficking,” she said. One domestic helper from the Philippines, who now works in Yorkshire, told Inside Out that a previous employer became abusive and violent towards her, telling her to leave before throwing a stool at her. “I was afraid at any time she could send me back to the Philippines,” she said. In 2012 visa rules were changed, tying domestic workers to a single employer. Critics claimed it made it very difficult for staff to leave if the relationship turned violent or abusive. In April this year, visa regulations were relaxed giving workers the right to switch employers. But with visas lasting six months or less, finding an alternative job may be difficult and domestic workers may still have little option but to stay with an abusive employer.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been issued with a Crown Censure by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after a soldier died when he was shot in the neck on a training exercise. Fusilier Dean Griffiths, 21, whose partner was expecting their first child, received a fatal bullet wound to the neck on 14 September 2011 during a ‘live’ training exercise at Lydd Ranges military firing range in Kent. The exercise involved troops approaching a specially built ‘shoot through’ compound - one not designed to capture rounds - that had been created to simulate the type of building the troops would encounter in Afghanistan. The compound contained both enemy and civilian targets in order to train the troops’ judgment. The targets were made from thin plywood to allow the live bullets pullets to pass through them and avoid ricochets. An HSE investigation found it was usual practice for unused targets to be laid on the floor to give the appearance of debris. However, in this instance an unused target had been stood up in the wrong place. HSE’s investigation found that as one of the troops entered the compound and turned right he saw an enemy target and fired two shots. Almost immediately someone shouted for the exercise to stop and all the men laid down their weapons. Fusilier Griffiths had been shot as he lined up on the other side of the compound wall. The bullet had passed through the incorrectly placed enemy target, through the compound wall and hit Fusilier Griffiths in the neck. He died at the scene. HSE investigators found the exercise was undermanned and two groups had been merged to cope with the lack of resource. HSE found the incident could have been prevented by not using targets as debris on the compound and by introducing a final walk through before each run through by the RCO - Range Conducting Officer - to ensure all targets corresponded to the target plan for the exercise. The MoD received a Crown Censure, an official reprimand, because government bodies cannot be prosecuted for criminal breaches of safety law. The union Unite has warned that in the last two years safety on MoD firing ranges has been further undermined (Risks 766).
Supermarket giant Tesco had faced a double blow as two of the giant retailer’s companies have been fined a total of half a million pounds after a worker plunged nine metres through a skylight roof. Andrew Burgess miraculously walked away with cuts, bruises and some muscle damage. He was off work for a number of weeks during which he had physiotherapy and was able to return to work. His employer, Tesco Maintenance Ltd, was fined £300,000. Tesco Stores Ltd was fined £200,000. They have to jointly pay £9,379 prosecution costs. Judge Steven Everett said it was “a minor miracle” Mr Burgess had not been killed or seriously injured after plunging into the store and landing on shelving in the soft drinks section. The judge added that customers could also have been hurt and although Mr Burgess was not seriously injured it was the risk of harm that was the issue. Workers had been on the roof at the premises, a Tesco Express in Liscard, on seven or eight occasions in the preceding five years. Judge Everett said: “It is astonishing that there wasn’t a fall of this nature on an earlier occasion.” Tesco Maintenance pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and Tesco Stores admitted one criminal offence. The incident happened after four workers got on the roof to deal with a rain leak into the store, which is in leased premises. Skylights had been painted white along with the rest of the roof and it was only when one of the men felt a crack beneath his foot that day that they realised there were plastic roof lights, which were not marked as being fragile. A colleague began marking around the skylights with yellow warning paint, but before he had done them all Mr Burgess fell through one of them. HSE inspector Chris Hatton said: “I am shocked at a company the size of Tesco failing to take even basic precautions to prevent injury to its employees and further, to risk injury to the public.”
A London exhibition venue firm and a building contractor have been fined for criminal safety failings after a specialist contractor fell through a fragile skylight. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard how the Business Design Centre Ltd allowed workers to cross an unsafe roof, which contained three fragile skylights and open edges, and failed repeatedly to prevent contractors crossing the same roof. The court also heard that James Murphy, 64, who had been appointed by The Business Design Centre Ltd to undertake repair work at the site, had led a specialist lead contractor over the unsafe roof on 14 May 2015. As he walked over the roof, the lead contractor fell through a skylight, falling 5.5 metres. He suffered serious injuries including a shattered pelvis, broken wrist and a broken elbow. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident found that the Business Design Centre failed to ensure that access to and from the areas of the roof that required repair was suitable and safe, and that sufficient measures were in place to protect against the risks of falling from height. James Murphy failed to ensure that the job of accessing and then inspecting the auditorium roof was properly planned. The Business Design Centre Limited pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,925.56. James Murphy pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £4,000 and also ordered to pay costs of £2,925.56.
A King’s Lynn roofing company has been prosecuted after a worker fell seven metres from a scaffold access ladder, suffering permanent injuries to his hands. Kings Lynn Magistrates’ Court heard how the worker was subcontracted by J Webber Roofing Limited to assist with removing waste, mixing cement and bringing tools up to colleagues who were working on the chimney at a domestic property in Kings Lynn on 10 July 2015. The company had erected a scaffold platform around the chimney with an access ladder attached to it. The worker climbed up the ladder carrying a cement filled bucket with a radio attached to it, on his shoulder. He lost his balance and fell approximately seven metres to the ground. The fall resulted in multiple fractures to both of the worker’s wrists and his lower left arm. He required surgery and steel plates and will never regain full use of his hands. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that J Webber Roofing Limited failed to adequately plan the work. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £1,582 in costs. HSE inspector Kasia Urbaniak said: “This incident which has left a worker without the full use of his hands could have been easily avoided if a ‘gin wheel’ had been installed on the scaffold platform to transport tools and other construction materials.”
Global trade union confederation ITUC is warning that gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It says more than 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence and between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of women experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work. The union body says that women can also be subject to verbal abuse and threats of violence, stalking, bullying and psychological abuse and intimidation. Domestic violence has a clear impact on the workplace, ITUC adds, through factors including absenteeism and loss of productivity and job security for the victims. The union body is calling for a new global standard on prevention. It notes: “Trade unions are taking action to end gender-based violence at work and are campaigning for a new international labour Convention to tackle the various forms of gender-based violence that occur in the world of work,” through the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Border authorities in Australia have made more than a dozen interceptions of asbestos since a department shakeup last year, amid fears lax enforcement was allowing the killer substance to flood into the country from overseas. Australian Border Force has made 13 seizures of the banned building material since it was established in July last year. The disclosure comes after asbestos was discovered in Chinese-sourced materials at a string of construction sites this year, casting doubt on the enforcement of an import ban introduced in 2003 (Risks 762). Overseeing tens of millions of consignments annually, ABF inspects only a tiny fraction of cargo coming into the country, based on prior risk assessments. Asbestos can only be detected through physical testing, rendering non-intrusive methods like x-ray useless. In July, ABF commander Erin Dale said 1,000 shipments had been flagged for possible asbestos, with 100 sent for testing. But Michael O'Connor, national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), criticised current enforcement efforts as “ad hoc” and “symbolic”. “I think they've been trying to Band-Aid up a massive gaping hole,” the head of the country's largest construction union said. He said penalties on asbestos importers were like being “hit over the head with a feather duster.” The union leader added: “You need better compliance, you need tougher sanctions and you need basically a government that wants to do something about it. And this government doesn't want to do anything about it.” Australia has the second highest rate of asbestos-related cancer deaths in the world, after Britain.
Thousands of Canadian miners deliberately exposed to aluminium dust that was supposed to protect their lungs may have developed brain and respiratory disease as a result. As many as 20,000 miners were exposed to a dust called McIntyre powder, developed at McIntyre Mine more than 60 years ago. The gold and uranium miners were told the powder would coat their lungs and prevent them from contracting deadly silicosis. More than half a century later, there is no evidence it prevented silicosis and, in fact, it may have caused respiratory and other problems in workers who breathed it in. A McIntyre Powder Project is being led by Janice Martell, who believes exposure to the powder caused her father's Parkinson’s disease, as well as Alzheimer's disease and other dementias in other former miners. A University of Toronto study of stored aluminium dust in 1987 prompted the Ministry of Labour to do a study that showed miners exposed to McIntyre powder scored “statistically worse” on Alzheimer's tests than did miners not exposed to the dust. “That was the first real finding to show that McIntyre powder could have been a neurotoxin,” Martell told a meeting this week in a union hall. She began speaking out in April 2015 about the possible link between aluminium powder and neurological diseases, after a year of researching the subject. She is now compiling a registry of workers who were exposed to McIntyre powder in mines. In 18 months, 313 people have signed the voluntary registry. The United Steelworkers union (USW) is putting its resources behind the project. Of the 313 on the voluntary registry, two-thirds suffer from respiratory ailments. One third of those workers is suffering from neurological disorders. Concerned former miners arrived by the bus load for this week’s meeting in Sudbury, Ontario. Martell said the clinics now assisting the campaign are “casting a wide net” in terms of health problems related to McIntyre Powder, not just looking for it causing neurological diseases. In the 18 months since she launched the registry, as least half a dozen people on it have died, said Martell. “Their voices die with them, their stories die with them.”
Asbestos is the leading cause of work-related death in Canada, prompting renewed union calls on the federal government to ban asbestos. “There is no excuse for putting Canadian families at risk,” said Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Hassan Yussuff, who as a mechanic was exposed to asbestos in brake pads for many years. Speaking on 26 September, which is Mesothelioma Awareness Day in Canada, he said: “More than 2,000 Canadians die every year from diseases like mesothelioma that are caused by asbestos exposure. This is about workers’ safety and it’s about public safety, which is why we are calling for the government to adopt a comprehensive ban on asbestos.” Yussuff said Canadian unions believe the legislation should ban the use, import and export of asbestos. CLC is calling for the creation of an expert panel to advise the federal parliament on implementation of a nationwide ban. The union body also wants national registries of both contaminated buildings and cases of asbestos-related diseases, and a “comprehensive health response.” It adds that the Canadian government should support the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list of hazardous materials under the UN’s Rotterdam Convention, which would mean any asbestos exports worldwide would have to be accompanied by an explicit health warning.
The global reach of Samsung’s ruthless pursuit of profits impacts dangerously on the lives of its workers, a new report has charged. ‘Samsung - Modern tech medieval conditions’, published this week by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the global union IndustriALL, reveals how the company’s ‘corporate greed’ is causing problems from cancer to brutal working conditions and job insecurity throughout the multinational’s supply chains. “From denying justice to the families of former employees who died from cancers caused by unsafe workplaces, to dodging tax and engaging in price-fixing cartels, one thing is constant: Samsung’s corporate culture is ruthlessly geared towards maximising profit to the detriment of the everyday lives of its workers,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC’s general secretary. The report’s publication came ahead of a 7 October rally at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters. The protest, on World Day for Decent Work, was organised by the Seoul-based health and safety campaign group SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semi-Conductor Industry). “Corporate greed, corporate bullying cannot be tolerated – it’s time for a global rule of law to guarantee globalisation with fair working conditions, with rights, minimum wages on which people can live with dignity and safe and secure work,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL. Sharan Burrow said: “Beginning with Samsung, we have begun to expose corporate greed and the failure of the world’s biggest corporations to account for abuse in their supply chains – from union busting, poverty wages, insecure and unsafe work, to forced overtime, informal work and modern slavery.” The ITUC leader added: “It doesn’t end here: we will keep up the pressure for reform and the rule of law, we will engage with pension funds managing workers’ capital regarding investment strategies and we will stand with workers everywhere as they demand the rule of law. We will end corporate greed.” The ITUC is petitioning Samsung to end worker abuse and to abolish its no-union policy.
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Issued: 6 October, 2016