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Health and safety: we must protect the self-employed

Gerry Morrissey, BECTU general secretary.

8 September 2014

Gerry Morrissey on why we mustn't allow the Tories to turn the clock back on health and safety legislation.

First appeared in the Morning Star on 08.09.14.

It is now 40 years since Harold Wilson's Labour government introduced the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, putting employers under a binding obligation to send workers home after a day's graft in a healthy condition, not in an ambulance or a coffin.

It was a very different era then: the horrors of the Thatcher/Reagan neo-liberal project to suppress working people weren't even on the drawing board; the Cold War was still in full swing; and David Cameron had not yet started at Eton College, his privileged gateway to a place in the ruling elite.

Even in those days, the new health and safety legislation wasn't a pushover. Labour legend Barbara Castle had proposed it almost five years earlier as Employment Minister, but was thwarted by the election of Ted Heath's Tory government who, despite today's fond memories of "One Nation" conservatism, resolutely blocked attempts to give workers adequate protection until Wilson regained power.

Health and safety under threat

Now, a generation on, the modern Tory party is trying to turn the clock back by watering down health and safety protection for self-employed workers.

"The modern Tory party is trying to turn the clock back by watering down health and safety protection for self-employed workers."

The change is in the Deregulation Bill which reaches its final stages in the House of Lords towards the end of October, and its significance tells a story about structural changes in the UK economy since the days of 70s Labour. Outside a few areas of the economy, self-employment was then relatively rare, while the latest figures put 4.6m workers into this category, equal to 15% of the entire workforce, and twice the level of 1975.

This growing group of workers, many of them forced into self-employment against their will in order to save employers the costs and obligations of a proper contract, is now about to be completely removed from the protection of health and safety legislation, unless their activities are on a "prescribed list" drawn up by government.

Protection: only for some?

In a consultation which closed at the end of August the TUC, and the many unions that now represent self-employed workers, highlighted the shortcomings, and indeed shortness, of this list, which defines the few areas where health and safety will still apply.

Most workers in the entertainment industry, including actors and musicians, will not be covered at all, unless they are doing electrical work, handling explosives, or building scenery.

Those in the construction sector, the other major growth area for self-employment, will depend for protection on their employers acknowledging that the Construction and Design Management regulations apply to their work. Many bigger employers are likely to play by the rules, but among smaller building firms it is easy to predict that standards will be allowed to drop, posing danger to workers in a high-risk industry.

"There is a fear that some employers will take advantage of the insecurity that comes with self-employment to intimidate them into cutting corners."

For workers in the film, TV, theatre, and event sectors, there is a fear that even if their activities are, on occasion, covered by health and safety rules, some employers will take advantage of the insecurity that comes with self-employment to intimidate them into cutting corners, putting them and their colleagues at risk.

Last chance to beat the Bill

There may be one last chance in the House of Lords to beat this change, viewed by most specialists as the worst backward step in health and safety since 1974. Unions need to keep up lobbying efforts on behalf of the self-employed who don't need an exemption from the legislation, but instead should benefit from roving safety representatives who can enforce the existing law.

In short, we need a bit more of the 70's Labour spirit to protect all workers from injury and occupational illness, and should fight to improve the workplace rights of the self-employed.

Safety at work wasn't the only pro-worker policy of the Wilson government, which in two 1974 elections stood on a platform which included increased public ownership of industry, more local authority housebuilding with affordable rents, and an annual wealth tax on the rich. 40 years, on it seems that we're still waiting.

Morning Star article ends. 

"No one should go home from work in an ambulance or a coffin."

BECTU at TUC

Today (8 September 2014) at the TUC Congress, a composite motion was carried making it TUC policy to lobby against the 2014 Deregulation Bill. John Handley, BECTU NEC member, told Congress that “Health and safety should not be negotiable. Hundreds of thousands of workers suffer from work-related injury and disease. The Health and Safety at Work Act is the only piece of legislation that protects all working people including the self-employed. No one should go home from work in an ambulance or a coffin”.

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