Workers' Memorial Day - Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living
Workers’ Memorial Day, Walsall, 28.4.17
This is an important day. We are meeting to remember people who have died as a result their work, whether through accidents or the effects of poor working conditions. Neither of those should ever happen and proper Health and Safety will go a long way to making sure they don’t. Nothing we do is worth getting hurt for.
There’s not a lot about workplace accidents or Health and Safety at Work in the Bible. Thousands of years ago the Bible tells us, “For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbour to cut wood, and as he swings his axe to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbour and kill him.” The Bible recognises that accidents can happen, but it doesn’t say much about preventing them.
But the Bible does include guidance for workers and employers - though in those days it was slaves and masters.
St Paul says that slaves were to work hard even when they were not being watched (Ephesians 6:6) and slave owners were to treat them well (Ephesians 6:9). He sums it up saying that people should look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). This is an example of what the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has called the principle of gratuity – giving a little more than we are obliged to do.
I recently watched the TV series, “The Mill”. It is set at Quarry Bank, near Manchester, in the 1830’s. It portrays the dreadful conditions of workers and children, little better than slaves.We see children crawling under the machines as they operated, and in one terrible incident, a young boy loses his hand in an accident. Thankfully things have improved since then.
In the Black Country, particularly between the wars, Rubery Owen, a Christian run business, provided its workers with benefits that were ahead of its time, including sports facilities, subsidised canteens, day nurseries, a convalescent home and retirement advice programmes.
Enlightened employers improved working conditions because they saw it was something good to do. Others, generally, responded to pressure and legislation, often brought in after accidents. Years ago I worked on the railways. Any safety provision you come across on railways was introduced after an accident. The trouble is that legislation sets a minimum standard and most employers will do the minimum necessary to comply. Eventually another accident will force a higher standard.
The same is true with legislation about wages, working hours or training.In many workplaces, the minimum is done, and it easily slips away. “Time is money” people say and it can lead to cutting corners, taking risks and a lack of quality training and so consequently an increased risk of injury and exposure to hazards. People – employees and employers - need to remember that Health and Safety isn’t a joke, it is good for everyone and it’s good for business.
If we apply John Sentamu’s principle of gratuity, both employers and employees giving a little more than they are obliged to do, setting higher standards, aiming above the minimum, then accidents are less likely to happen. There will be a greater safety margin.
The nature of employment, with employers having more power in the relationship, means that it is employers who need to take the lead.
But isn’t this naïve? Can employers afford to be generous? The world of industry and commerce is a competitive one. Every last penny must be pruned from budgets.
Well, when it comes to wages, companies which pay the real living wage, which is higher than the national living wage, have found that it improves the reputation of their business and that productivity improves as a result. Safer workplaces will be places where people feel more valued and motivated. People who are not on precarious zero-hour contracts will be more inclined to invest something of themselves into their work. Employees who feel valued will have higher morale and be absent less often. If your boss makes a commitment to you, won’t you be more likely to make a commitment to them? It may be in terms of harder work, or perhaps going in for training to gain new skills and abilities. My initial grounding in railway operations, with its many safety rules and regulations, came through voluntary classes.
Gratuity isn’t naïve.It works, and will have a real payoff. When employers take the lead, complying fully and willingly with laws, and maintain higher standards, people will respond. As St Paul says, “Each of you should look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others.” A top modern economist put it like this: “Paying attention to everyone else’s self interest – in other words the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well being” and “Looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for business.”