Big Issue 22 February 1999

Death on the dock

The death of Simon Jones has exposed sinister practices in the low paid world of casual labour

by Colin Chalmers

Simon Jones went to work for the first time on Friday April 24 last year. By the end of the day, he was dead. Simon, 24, who was taking a year out from his studies at Sussex University, was sent by an employment agency to work inside a ship at Shoreham dock – one of the most dangerous jobs in the country – with no training or experience. Within two hours, his head had been crushed by a crane.

No person or company is being held responsible for his death. Despite a lengthy police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has ruled that there is “insufficient evidence” to warrant a charge of corporate manslaughter.

In the 10 months since his death, Simon’s family and friends have mounted an extensive campaign aimed at pinpointing who was responsible and preventing such a tragedy occurring again. But their efforts have been frustrated at every turn. They have written to every MP and all Government bodies involved in protecting employees like Simon from unscrupulous employers. They have received a lot of sympathy, but no action.

It seems Simon was yet another victim of the growing casual labour economy where concerns about safety come a long way behind the quick profits that can be made from a low-paid, casual workforce. The Simon Jones Memorial Campaign hopes its work will raise public awareness of th dangers of casualisation just as the Stephen Lawrence Campaign has made police racism a national issue.

“Its the hypocrisy that gets me” says Emma Aynsley, Simon’s girlfriend at the time his death. “All these politicians expressing sympathy about Simon and at the same time nothing is getting done about it. The Stephen Lawrence Campaign has been a real inspiration to us. They’ve been campaigning for five years for justice and still not got it, but they’ve exposed the truth about police racism to everyone. We want the truth to come out about casualisation, because it’s killing people. W’re not going to go away until it does.”

Simon’s mother, Anne, adds: “Students nowadays have to pay fees as well as having no grant so they’re forced onto the casual labour market. Most of them don’t know what to watch out for when they go into a quarry or a building site and they don’t get training if they’re casuals.

“When the CPS told us they weren’t going to prosecute we couldn’t believe it – with the amount of evidence available, it was incomprehensible. Tim (Simon’s brother) asked the CPS: ‘If Simon wasn’t killed by negligence, what did kill him?’ There just seems to be a lack of political will when it comes to persecuting employers for corporate manslaughter.”

Personnel Selection, the agency that employed Simon on the day he died, has also escaped any sanction, despite a legal obligation to assess risks and safeguard the health and safety of employees. Personnel Selection’s publicity material claims that it provides companies with “ideally qualified people – that’s guaranteed”. A spokesman for Personnel Selection told The Big Issue that Government inspectors had looked at the agency’s procedures and found them to be satisfactory.

However, the application form Simon filled in does not mention any experience of working inside a ship – work that Personnel Selection accept on the accident report for Simon’s death that Simon was authorised to do. In the cost-cutting world of casual work the gulf between glossy leaflets and reality is large.

The Health and Safety Executive, whose job it is to ensure that workplaces are safe has been investigating the way Euromin, the Dutch company which owned the Shoreham Dock, operate since the day Simon was killed. It merely told Euromin to provide training and supervision to employees to ensure the health and safety of employees.

While taking time out of university, Simon was involved in the Brighton-based direct action group Justice? in particular helping organise support for the Liverpool dockers during their two-year strike against casualisation at the port.

“We supported the Liverpool dockers because they were fighting casualisation,” says Jo, one of Simon’s friends, “and more and more jobs are becoming casual. That means lower pay, no job security, less training and poorer safety. Now Simon had been killed casualisation – we had to do something.”

The Simon Jones Memorial Campaign first went into action on September 1 last year, on what would have been Simon’s 25th birthday. Thirty protesters converged on the dock where Simon was killed and laid a wreath by the dockside.

Two 80 foot towers were occupied and gian banners reading “Simon Jones RIP” and “Casualisation Kills” were unfurled. Protesters refused to leave until the dock was closed for the day and Euromin was forced to send their casual workforce home on full pay.

That evening, a packed meeting in a Brighton pub decided it couldn’t stop there. “A lot of those at the meeting had casual jobs,” says Emma. “People were furious that employment agencies could get away with taking half your wages without even making sure that the jobs they were sending you to were safe.”

The Big Issue carried a feature to coincide with Simon’s birthday and as a result the campaign started to get letters from all over the country. “People on the dole were sending us postal orders for £5 or £10,” says one campaigner. “Union branches started offering support and we started getting letters about other accidents.

One was about a 19 year old in Scotland who was killed on his first day in a quarry and another showed how hairdressers were given work as cargo handlers on a dock without any training. We soon realised that Simon’s death was no one-off.”

The campaign’s actions forced a government admission that not enough was being done about safety at work. Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that he was “absolutely outraged that penalties that are perhaps as little as £2,500, which I certainly think are derisory and insulting, are sometimes awarded in the case of death or serious injury.”

By now, the campaign had produced thousands of leaflets and posters and set up a website Every MP was contacted about Simon’s death and dozens replied, often expressing enormous sympathy. The Prime Ministers’s private secretary wrote to Simon’s parents in November, 1998, telling them that when it came to safety at work “those who flout the law can expect firm enforcement action”.

As yet no action has been taken, and the fine words seem to be no more than that. After Simon’s family’s solicitor insisted on a meeting with the CPS, it has agreed to reconsider its decision not to prosecute. The family is not optimistic.