Work – its existence or absence – helps define a person. If we are lucky, it brings in enough to pay the bills. But if we are truly blessed we have work which we enjoy, maybe even a calling, a vocation.
Work also contributes to making a place. Barnsley would not be the place it is without our long tradition of mining and glass making. Even in its absence – in those difficult years after the pits closed – it defined what we were. Fortunately, some new work has taken its place and our town is making those tentative steps towards rebuilding its economy.
When I look around Barnsley I see all the people who work here to make it the town we are proud of – from those public servants who care for us and provide the services we rely on every day – the street cleaners, the health workers, teachers, police and fire fighters. To the entrepreneurs who have set up local businesses – and are helping to rebuild our local economy.
It is therefore tragic when work brings about the end of life; when it contributes to the breakdown of families and the fracturing of communities. Sadly, Barnsley has seen its fair share of such tragedy – from the days when mining accidents were commonplace to more recent industrial and workplace accidents.
Whilst we here in Barnsley know and understand the importance of caring for people when tragedy strikes, it should never be an expected part of working life. It is often quoted on this day that more people die at work every year than in wars. As a former soldier I find that statistic shocking. Whilst those I served alongside in the armed forces knew that they were risking their lives as part of their job, it is unacceptable that the modern day worker should face the same challenge.
It is estimated that in the UK at least 20,000 people die from injuries and illnesses related to their job every year. That's at least 20,000 families missing more than just a breadwinner – missing their father or son, mother or daughter. And countless communities bearing the knock on effects – the grief, the mental health problems, the financial and social pressures.
That is why we all have a responsibility to ensure that health and safety is seen as more than just a nice add-on to everyday business, or a bureaucratic tick list to be checked. We must all take responsibility for ourselves and those around us, for making sure we look after one another and don't make work a risky business.
This is even more achievable when we are organised in the workplace, when we join together in trade unions to campaign for safer working conditions. The unions have a long, proud history of not only helping their members when tragedy and hardship strike, but also of using their collective voice to ensure that these awful accidents never happen in the first place.
Sadly, we should be under no illusion that the current government will seek to turn back the clock.
Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron was criticising our Health and Safety legislation calling it “a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy”.
Since 2010, we have seen:
- Proposals advocating businesses “firing at will.”
- “Repatriating” powers from the EU, meaning that employees may not be entitled to basic rights – 11 hours rest a day, 4 weeks of holiday, at least 1 day off a week; all of these vital to our health and wellbeing.
- And just this week, a proposal in the Commons, for workers to exchange their rights for shares.
Many people in my constituency of Barnsley Central have asked about my response to this and it is very simple: employment rights should never be for sale. These were hard fought for, over many years, and today we should seek to protect them for future generations.
So today we join with others around the world to remember those who have been killed, made ill, or injured by their own or someone else's work.
And we renew our commitment to demanding safe and healthy work for all.
Let us remember the dead. And fight for the living.