Big Issue 6 September 1998

Life is Cheap

In the low paid world of casual labour Simon was just another expendable commodity

This article by Colin Chalmers appeared in The Big Issue on the week of Simon’s 25th birthday and the first campaign action against Euromin

Simon Jones should have been celebrating his 25th birthday this Tuesday. Instead, his friends will be remembering how he died on the first day of a job he should never have been doing, another of Britain’s rapidly increasing number of people killed at work. There were 302 deaths at work last year, 17% more than the year before. Simon’s death will be included in this year’s total, whatever that comes out at.

Simon was taking a year out from Sussex University when he died. “He had his exams to study for,” says Emma Aynsley, Simon’s girlfriend when he died, “but he needed to find work, any work, to get the dole off his back. They just stop your benefit if you won’t take what’s on offer.”

Simon got work through a Brighton employment agency, Personnel Selection, working on the bins. Within three days he was off the bins. “I don’t know how he came to be working inside a ship”, says Emma, “Even when the police told me about the accident, I thought it was on the bins.”

Employment agencies must, by law, give employees written details of the sort of work they are going to do. They must also ensure that the jobs they send people to are suitable and safe for that person. Personnel Selection refused to comment on this or any other matter relating to Simon’s death.

On Friday 24th April Simon Jones went to work for his first and last day inside a ship, unloading cobble stones at a Shoreham dock owned by the Dutch-owned company Euromin. He was getting paid about £5 an hour for doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

Simon worked alongside Sean Currey that day. “Simon told me he’d never worked on a ship before,” says Sean, “It’s a skilled job, and he just turned up and started. I suppose it was lack of staff.” One of the Polish crew was acting as banksman, directing the crane. “It was a bit worrying,” continues Sean, “because I’d heard he knew very little English.”

Something else was unusual that day. The crane used for unloading would normally have had either a grab or chains fitted, depending on the cargo. There was no need for the grab to be on the crane that day as the bags of stones were being hooked onto chains.

A few months earlier, however, the grab had hooks welded inside it, allowing chains to be hung from inside the grab. “It would only have cost a few pounds to take the grab off and put the hook on each time you needed to” says Sean. “But it would have cost those few pounds.”

It was about an hour after unloading began that the accident happened. “Suddenly I heard Simon make a grunting noise. When I looked up, his head was trapped in the grab, making his face bulge forward. I knew he was dead when I saw his eyes. He’d obviously died instantly. I shouted up to the Polish banksman to open the grab but he wasn’t using the recognised signals. I ran up the cargo hold and signalled to open the grab, stop the engine and get an ambulance.”

Simon’s funeral took place three weeks later in Banbury. As family and friends gathered in the church, Sean got a call on his mobile phone – there had been another accident at Euromin’s docks. A forklift truck had tipped over, ripping a hole in a lorry’s cab. Could Sean get back from the funeral and work that night? He agreed.

“I was willing to do that, but some things I wouldn’t do. I remember being asked to clean up bags of stones that still had Simon’s blood and other remains on them, so they could be sold. I wouldn’t do that, so I was sent home – I’ve worked as a docker  for years but I’m still casual labour, paid for by the hour.”

Casualisation certainly reduces costs for employers (no holiday or sick pay for starters), but for employees it means lower wages, poorer training, no job security – and worse safety. Casualisation kills – and nowhere more so than on the docks.

In 1989, the National Dock Labour Scheme, introduced to protect dockers from casualisation, was abolished. Within four years the accident rate in docks had leapt by a third. The Liverpool dockers had been the last to go back to work in the abortive strike against the ending of the scheme. When they went on strike again in 1995, it was once more casualisation they were resisting.

But the New Britain of the late 1990s has little time for such ‘labour market inflexibility’. The Liverpool dockers’ strike was viewed by many as a last ditch defence of dinosaur ways that were now a thing of the past. The dockers did find support, however, amongst direct action groups like Reclaim the Streets and Justice? in Brighton. On the first anniversary of the strike, activists from these groups descended on Liverpool docks, joining the picket line, climbing the gantrees before dawn and stopping all work on the docks.

Simon was deeply involved in Justice? and wrote for its national newsletter SchNews. “A lot of people couldn’t understand why all these road protesters and dreadlocked party people supported the dockers,” says Jo, one of Simon’s friends, “but to Simon the connection was obvious. The dockers were fighting the same crap-jobs-for-crap-pay system that affected us. In the end it was a connection that became all too real for him.”

Sean spends a lot more time with his two year old son now. “You stop worrying about little things and you realise what is important. I get concerned about whether my son will have a father in the future. I can’t blame anyone for the accident because I don’t know the full story, but I do know it has affected me. You realise that everyone doesn’t grow old like you think.”

Some friends have decided to set up a memorial campaign for Simon to highlight the dangers that casualisation brings with it. For Simon’s friend Jo, there is no doubt how Simon came to die.

“Simon was killed by the money grabbing system he hated. We’ve stopped motorways, defended our right to party and lots more, but it would all be pretty meaningless if we let a mate die and did nothing. I suppose there was a time when you had unions that went on strike over things like this, but not anymore. If we want to make things better, it’s down to us.”