Hundreds of health and safety representatives and rank-and-file union members as well as family and friends mourned workers who have been killed, disabled, or physically or mentally injured at work on International Workers Memorial Day on April 28 at Argyle Square.
Organised by Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), the event noted more than 60 lives have already been lost in Victoria this year. “We remember the dead, but we also commit to fighting like hell for the living” was the event’s theme.
Luke Hilakari, secretary of VTHC, said the union movement’s core responsibility is to “protect people”.
“There is a misconception out there … that worker’s compensation is like ‘winning the lottery’, but it is not. These people lead difficult lives … And for those who can’t go back to work, it is our job as union members to stand up for these people.”
He said potential changes to WorkCover would look after injured workers, rather than them having to instead rely on Centrelink or the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Colin Radford, spokesperson for WorkSafe Victoria, said it is “unforgivable”, that in a so-called modern society, people continue to die at work.
“We need to do better. Every work-related death and injury is entirely preventable. No task, no deadline, no profit, or productivity gain is worth risking a life.”
Belinda Jacobi, a United Workers Union organiser, drew attention to the fight against the “silent disease” — mental health disease, which she said “is growing exponentially”.
“In our union, many workers face this: hospitality workers, migrant workers in warehousing, manufacturing: those people suffer in silence. Forty per cent of injured workers with a mental health injury will never return to work. You don’t see the blood on the floor, but it happens every day.”
Jacobi worked at a food processing plant for 15 years and which witnessed workers being crushed to death. “I saw one man lose his arm and a cleaner caught in a machine.”
“We need to ask ourselves, when someone is injured and they can no longer perform … the job to 100%, how is it that they can be taken out of the workforce and have their employment terminated?”
The 10th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster was marked on April 24. Workers were sent into a building, known to be unsafe, and in 90 seconds, the building collapsed, killing 1140 people, mainly young women and children working in the garment industry. More than 2500 workers were injured and maimed, and many could not return to work.
Rupali Akter, a garment worker who survived the collapse, and who is President of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity (BGWS), spoke about the experience.
“I was under the rubble, on the 24th of April, 2013, for more than 18 hours.” After this trauma, Akter said they do not want any more “Rana Plazas” to happen anywhere.
Taslima Akter, Secretary of BGWS, represents 4 million Bangladeshi workers. “We are not only Bangladeshi citizens, we are members of the global world and we want to … remember the 1100 workers who lost their lives and the 60 workers you lost,” she said.
The memorial included a reflection on each of the 60 workers who lost their lives: the youngest was 23 years old and the oldest 82.
They died from diseases following exposure to asbestos, silica, carcinogens and toxins. Many firefighters have died from exposure to chemicals and toxins. There have also been suicides — the result of workplace pressure.
We were informed about a 34-year-old who died after being entangled in a machine conveyor belt at a workplace in Lethbridge. A 50-year-old transport worker was found dead, due to asphyxiation, in a low-oxygenated cool room being used to preserve apples at a Shepparton warehouse.
Many workers have also been crushed to death. A 31-year-old construction worker died after being crushed between an elevated platform machine and a roof purlin.