Tom Mellish
Speech to EU/US Occupational Health and Safety Conference


First I would like to express the sincere condolences of the Workers' Group on the Luxembourg Committee, and those of the unions affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation, to the people of the Gulf Coast states for the loss they have suffered and the terror through which they have lived in recent weeks. Despite all the news coverage I do not think any of us, who were not there, can truly imagine what the people of New Orleans and Biloxi and those other small communities, which we never hear of on the news, have been and are going through.

The American Trade Union Movement has responded magnificently to this disaster. From the AFL/CIO setting up Labor Centres to help union members get in touch with family and friends, $4 million donated to hurricane relief aid for Communication Workers to a truck of supplies being moved from North Carolina by the Plumbers and Pipefitters of the Northeast Central Labour Council.

There has been a lot of bad news coming out of the areas flattened by Hurricane Katrina but there is also good news, which gets buried in the 'sexier' stories of violence, looting and grief. The good news of people, themselves in extremis, helping each other and looking out for each other, and those in neighbouring States opening their doors to the refugees passing by with no thought of reward except that of helping a fellow human being.

The last few weeks have also brought out that which we sometimes wish to hide in the West, in the economic highland of Northern Europe. There is a vast group of people who are disenfranchised from society. Who work in dangerous unregulated jobs, at minimum or below minimum wage levels and whose poverty and poor housing segregates them from the rest of society. Segregates them from the politicians, as there are no votes in poverty and segregates them from social inclusion as Society would rather not confront the implications of a radical reform of how Society is structured.

Having a job, work, is a vital element in developing a cohesive, informed and inclusive society and trade unions are key, are the adhesive that can ensure that society sticks together. A civilised society recognises the contribution that working people make and recognises that the trade union Movement is the legimate voice of those people. A civilised society is a society that sees health and safety a cornerstone of that society. It is vital that employers recognise trade unions as partners in industry, as partners in promoting and developing health and safety at work, as partners in creating that civilised society.

When bosses and employees work together in partnership businesses they have less staff turnover, less sickness absence and a down turn in accidents and occupational ill-health leading to increased productivity, sales and profitability.

Effective workplace partnership is a relationship based on trust, and that can only be delivered through strong, independent unions representing the workforce. Union members want to feel a sense of personal achievement at work. They also want to be proud of the company they work for, and in return to be treated with respect. Successful businesses know this by seeking to work in partnership with the union and their workerforce.

But in order for partnership to work, our main task is to make what we have got on the statute book work on the factory, office and shop floor.

We need to see a great deal more joined-up thinking from our Governments – joined-up not only between the various engines of government here and in Europe but joined up also between the Government and the governed.

We need Government that delivers action on penalties, so that the next person, for instance, convicted of exposing school children to asbestos gets rather more than a community service sentence.

We should be making sure that those cases that do get to court result in fines large enough to make a difference. And we need to be looking at how we deal with prosecution and penalties in the light of growing globalisation with companies exporting their bad practices to developing economies while paying lip service to health safety laws at home.

We need Government that can deliver a holistic occupational health service, from identification through treatment to rehabilitation, with access to occupational health expertise for every General Practioner, helping to deliver challenging workplace health targets.

We need to develop the idea of tax breaks for health and safety champions, and financial penalties for employers, for whom the moral arguments for better safety standards do not seem to be enough. Recovery of the costs of treating victims of workplace injury and illness on the National Health Care system would be an important step towards making the polluter pay in health and safety terms. Insurers also have an important role to play here.

And we need to ensure that the public service sector is a model employer in health and safety, with contracts awarded on the basis of good health and safety records and provision. It is no good Governments in Europe and America trumpeting the value of self-regulation when they cannot regulate their own health and safety.

And finally, in this short list of what Government can do, it has a key role to play in ensuring that school children are ready for the world of work and all its challenges, and that older learners are able to contribute positively to the world of work before work acts negatively on them.

Partnerships demand ownership and the most effective ownership comes from consultation and involvement particularly from those who depend on the trade union movement to be heard.

President Clinton was elected back in 1993 on a campaign slogan, which even Republican appointees will remember, "it's the economy, stupid" and that must be true of health and safety.

For those not persuaded by the ethical arguments, the financial arguments against poor health and safety must be made overwhelming.

The world of business is about building successful enterprises and then keeping them that way, and whilst business will always have a moral and legal duty to protect their employees' health and safety, they will always have as their first priority the need to create and maintain that economic success. All too often a plant manager can be heard to say, "In my plant, safety is king". Unfortunately, the plant manager also adds "but profit is god!"

We need not to dwell on the possible contradiction, but to stress that safety and profit go hand in hand, that good management is the source of good health and safety risk management, and making the case on a more global scale that the health and safety record of the European Union (unparalleled in the world) has contributed to the ways in which our economy has been able to withstand the shocks which have hit other economies in recent years.

Let me now turn to the issue of equality, which used to be firmer ground for a trade union speaker than economic success, but which in fact is as new to us as it is to most of the rest of business.

Women make up nearly 50% of the workforce. Most part-time workers are women. Most service sector workers are women. So most of the workers in the growth areas of the economy are women.

Many of the key occupational health problems we face - back strain, RSI and stress - are problems that have a particular impact on women.

So just because there are fewer women in traditionally hazardous occupations such as mining and construction doesn't mean that their jobs are safe.

I think that a partnership approach has implications for the way we deal with differences among employees, and the way we promote equity, equality and diversity.

Our experience at the ETUC - and it is occasionally a bitter one - is that if you want to get everyone on board, if you want a real partnership, you need to accept that people have different experiences, different beliefs and different needs. Partnership means recognising diversity.

So we believe that there is a need to abandon the gender-neutral approach of the past, and become gender-sensitive instead. If you don't speak the language of the people you deal with, if you don't respond positively to their different-ness, you are left with a monolithic, bureaucratic, rule-driven health and safety system. That's not the modern way. Nowadays, people won't be a part of a process that doesn't respond to their experience.

The partnership agenda is about bringing the two sides of industry together. Partnership means unions challenging employers in a positive way - not through conflict, not by making crises out of problems – but by seeking greater influence over business strategy, searching out areas where there is a common interest in resolving shared problems.

Modern safety reps want to understand the pressures on their employers and develop a trade union strategy that recognises these constraints. Our objective is to improve both organisational performance and the quality of working life, building a better business environment as we improve the working environment. Safety reps are central to our concept of a health and safety partnership.

Some people say that you can have a health and safety partnership without safety reps, that where unions are not currently recognised, individual consultations can create the partnership that cuts accident rates and improves health at work.

But ask yourself as you ask your unrepresented employees: are they telling you the truth? Aren't they aware, always aware, that the employment relationship is always unequal, and that the employer has the power to hire and fire. And of course, if it wasn't for the union, employers might start believing their own propaganda!

Safety reps add value to the health and safety process in several ways. They do perform a vital function of 'reality checking'. They often contribute their expertise about health and safety as a sort of unofficial, junior safety manager. And they represent the workforce, listening to their concerns on a day-to-day basis and bringing them to management's attention. The best safety reps do this as part of a strategic approach to health and safety.

We need to build on the unique role which safety reps have, bridging the gap between the workers whose lives are often literally on the line, and the managers whose legal duty it is (among a host of other duties) to protect them. Safety reps are the glue that holds the health and safety partnership together at local level.

There are, of course, many more partners in the health and safety process than safety reps and line managers but I personally feel that I am right to think that the role of the rep and the manager is unique, because they are the people on whom the whole edifice of health and safety rests - the duty holder and the object of that duty.

I have made the emphasis of my contribution this morning on Partnership, as I wanted to emphasise the basis of our discussions over the next few days. Our tripartite delegations, government, employers and unions, have come together to develop a partnership in health and safety between what used to be called the Old World and the New World. When we go into our discussions in the various meeting rooms we go into them as equals with the views of each group equally valid and listened to by the others.

I would be naïve in the extreme if I thought that we go into those discussions as bosom buddies. For some of us this is the only opportunity we have to sit down with our opposite numbers and to work through contentious health and safety issues away from the industrial bargaining table.

For some of us this will be the only occasion that unions will have sat down with industry in the last two years.

For colleagues from the new Member States of the European Union, many from the former Soviet block, this conference will be an eye-opener for what health and safety means in a free trade society, the kind of society to which some are heading in free-fall towards. It will also be a conference where they will meet and make real friends from both sides of industry that will be of great assistance.

This will be my third US-EU Joint Conference and some of you will recall that I have not always sung the praises of OSHA, concerned that the self-regulatory approach being advocated in the US will be exported to the European Union. For instance, there has indeed been a great deal of discussion before today about VPP being anywhere near our agenda this week.

But I do believe that this conference has matured over the eight years of its existence. That we have learned to work together in the intervening years between conferences and that when we come here we come here to work. That this not a show or bean feast, which I suspect next week's razzmatazz will be, and which so many of these International Health and Safety Conferences become – although Health and Safety in the Magic Kingdom!!!

They should at least Risk Assess Snow White's apple first or perhaps Miami's famous son, Carl Hiassen, said it all in 'Native Tongue'.

But seriously, I know that OSHA has put up a fight to make sure that this conference continues to run and Jonathan Snare and his team are to be congratulated. The ETUC recognises these conferences as important milestones in joint working between Europe and the US, the world's only super power with an economic empire only equalled by the British Empire in its heyday. The conferences are important in developing a common language and joint understanding across industry that not only have profound consequences for health and safety between us but could also influence how industrial relations develop around the world. So our thanks to our American colleagues for being our hosts and, if it is anything like San Francisco, I know it will be good both in terms of work and socially.

I will end as I began and draw our thoughts back to the events of 29th August and the subsequent horrors.

Each year April 28th is the International Workers' Memorial Day at which we recall the true costs that workers face trying to earn a living in unsafe workplaces – the thousands that die in Europe and the USA each year and the many more whose lives are blighted by workplace accidents and ill health.

As the working people of the Gulf Coast States struggle to rebuild their lives, as the survivors of work place accidents try to cope with their injury or the death of a colleague and friend, as the migrant workers who, without a union to speak for them, strive for a better life despite the constant fear of violence from the gangmasters, let us recall the theme of Workers' Memorial Day, which is 'Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living' and let it be a reminder of why we are here this week.