Stopping the Job – collectively
There should be a health and safety law poster in every workplace in the country. This is produced by the HSE and tells workers what their legal rights are. It is simple and well-written. There is also a leaflet that covers the same area.
However there is one very important right that is missing from both the poster and the leaflet. That is the right to stop work. Yet that right does exist. The 1996 Employment Rights Act says workers are protected from any form of victimisation by their employer if they:
“propose to leave or actually leave their workplace or any dangerous part of it, or refuse to return, in the event of what they reasonably believe to be serious and imminent danger”.
They are also protected for:
“proposing to take action to protect against a perceived serious or imminent danger.”
This is a pretty important right, and only became law because it was included in European Legislation in 1989, as it was omitted from the original Health and Safety at Work Act. However the question must be asked as to why this is not included in the law poster and leaflet. In Northern Ireland the leaflet for workers actually does spell it out. Is the HSE worried that people might actually start using the right given the dreadful conditions that exist in many workplaces?
Of course, given the lack of enforcement of any kind of employment rights in the UK we know that, were individual workers to try exercising that right, there is a good chance they would not be in work for long. We have seen it happen in the North Sea whether workers have been notified they are “not required back” when they have tried to stop working in dangerous conditions. Also many of the most dangerous industries such as construction and agriculture are notorious for using temporary, zero hours, agency, or bogus self-employed workers who can be dismissed with little fuss.
That is why, this right is one that is not really a right at all, as individual workers will always be afraid to use it. Instead we need a collective right so that trade union representatives can stop work if there is a serious and imminent danger. Only collective action can protect workers from victimisation as there is no way most individuals would dare to stop work on their own, even in the most dangerous conditions. The TUC has called for union health and safety representatives to be given this right for many years. They already have it is some countries.
Unfortunately we are unlikely to get it soon. That means the only effective tool we have is the right to strike. Strike action on health and safety is rare, but it is effective. The vast majority of strikes on safety are resolved very quickly, and in the past couple of years there have been a number of cases, including ones in rail, energy production and construction, where the threat of action over a safety issue was enough to change an employer’s mind.
That is now under threat by the Government’s Trade Union Bill. It will make strike action over issues such as safety even more difficult and leave workers even more vulnerable.
You can find out more about the Bill, and how to get involved in opposing it at www.tuc.org.uk/tubill