Our lives, their profits

A speech by Anne Jones from 2004

We know the true cost of the money you make. We feel it. We live it.

Those words are taken from a book that Simon was writing. I found his notes and some fragments of manuscript among his belongings after he was killed. The book was about the exploitation of workers in a third world country but the same exploitation exists everywhere that employers can get away with it.

It is ironic that Simon, who was so much against casualisation and in particular against the dereglation of dock labour, should have been killed while unloading a ship.

When the news came to us that Simon had been killed and where, none of could understand it. We knew he had been working for an agency but his job had been with Lewes Council’s refuse department and was supposed to be continuing for another six weeks. Hadn’t then been some mistake? How could he have been on board a ship?

The answer was simple. Euromin did not employ enough labour to operate safely. They always waited until the last minute before contacting the agency for extra workers even though they knew when the ship was due to arrive and could tell from the weather forecast whether or not it was likely to be delayed.

They only ever bothered contacting one agency – Personnel Selection. Personnel Selection didn’t have any workers available on the morning of April the 24th 1998 so it was a godsend to them when Simon phoned in and told them he had missed the bus to Lewes. They told him to come into the office and put him in a taxi, not to Lewes but to Shoreham and Euromin.

Clearly they didn’t want to lose the Euromin contract. There was no time to train Simon. He was given no details of the job, not even a contact name. Euromin sent Simon straight into the hold of a ship – no instruction, no training, no safety warning. Within two hours he was dead.

When I began to emerge from the total initial numbness brought on by the shock of the news. I started to ask questions. How could anyone organise a place so badly that it was even possible for an open excavator grab to be somewhere near a worker’s head? Wasn’t this illegal? Didn’t they have a duty of care? Why weren’t the police involved?

I expected that the companies concerned would write to me express some sort of regret at Simon’s death, giving me at least some brief insight into what had happened and allow my tortured brain some peace.

Six years on I am stlll waiting to hear James Martell of Euromin or anyone from Personnel Selection express any form of remorse or regret for what happened.

The Health and Safety Exeutive sent a single inspector to conduct the investigation. For days Martell could not be found. The workers at Euromin workers had not been told to give the inspector a safe place to conduct her investigation. The large tractors, lifting equipment and lorries continued work as usual. No regard was given to the fact that a lone woman was on the quayside trying to investigate the death of a young man.

Can you imagine the police having to investigate a road death without closing the road? But if it is a worker killed in their place of work anything that costs the company money seems to be unacceptable.

If it hadn’t been for the well publicised occupation of Euromin by the group of Simon’s friends who formed the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign I don’t think the case would ever have come to court.

Even then it took three years of in-your-face direct action to keep the matter in the public eye, keep the media interested, make a few officials feel ashamed enough to try and help and make the Health and Safety Executive and Crown Proecution Service realise we really weren’t going to go away and shut up until we saw some action.

The first action was a masterpiece for which I can claim no credit. It was September the first, Simon’s birthday. He would have been twenty five. We would normally have all been with Simon to celebrate his birthday. Instead we spent one of the most miserable days of our lives at home.

Meanwhile in Shoreham a group of hardy activists were providing him with a birthday present in the form of the occupation of Eromin limited. They had thoughfully notified the press and television companies and the event was given massive coverage.

It resulted in four important developments.

It caused other safety campaigning groups to get in touch to offer their support and advice.

It raised public awareness and aroused public anger at the way workers’ safety is disregarded.

It caused people to contact us and recommend an excellent solicitor to deal with the case and it made us realise that we were not alone or powerless.

It also brough a smile to my face the first time in four months.

Two days later this loyal bunch of people occupied and shut down the premises of Personnel Selection. The action was once more an outstanding success. The two companies involved could not ignore what they had done and hide under a veil of anonymity. They had acquired public notoriety.

Those two actions were only the beginning of a long battle against obfuscation, procrastination, sophistry, apathy and downright lies. Part of the problem was that there were so many who needed targeting.

There was Parliament itself. Our legislators drag their feet on anything that might be useful.

There was the Department for Trade and Industry, aka the political wing of the Confederation of British Industries, the hardest nut to crack. The DTI are responsible for the conduct of employment agencies and for enforcing regulations. The only action I know that they have taken is to increase their security in response to the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign invading and occupying their premises.

There was the Health and Safety Executive. It appears you need to block Southwark Bridge to get an audience with the Director General. At least she later did supply me with one very useful piece of information which allowed us to put pressure on HSE’s legal department and provided further ammunition to fight the Crown Prosecution Service.

Then there was the CPS itself, and of course the Home Office who don’t think failing to train the police to investigate deaths at work has anything to do with the high failure rate of corporate manslaughter cases.

Of course you couldn’t leave Euromin and Personnel Selection out of the picture. They needed several return visits.

Back in 1998 I remember saying to Colin that I thought whatever happened with the court case the action of the memorial campaign was likely to be more effective at improving the protection of workers and bringing companies to justice.

Indeed the only punishment meted out to Personnel Selection has been courrtesy of the memorial campaign. The losses of business and bad publicity they suffered as a result of our direct action was the only financial penalty imposed upon them. The fines imposed on Euromin were derisory – companies always provide a little creative accounting to the courts to make themselves out to be much poorer than they really are. I suspect having to provide legal representation for judicial review proceedings in the High Court and to contest the corporate manslaughter and health and safety charges proved more expensive than their fines.

None of this would have happened without direct action. There would have been little publicity. The criminal activity of Martell and Euromin and the outright negligence of Personnel Selection would have been quietly swept under the carpet.

One thing conspicious by its absence in all this was visible, vocal and financial backing from the big wealthy unions. Local union branches were very supportive but the big guns didn’t want to know.

They argued that ‘Simon was not a union member’ – true, but two hours in a job is hardly enough time to get organised. Only 30% of the country’s workforce is unionised thanks to short term contracts and casualisation.

They said if they got involved in direct action they could have their funds frozen. It was fine for our people to risk arrest, imprisonment, the possibility of ruined future careers. But the unions couldn’t risk losing money.

There was a time when the unions would have taken industrial action over the government’s failure to protect the workforce and to demand better workers’ rights but now they seem more like toothless pussy cats.

With Tony Blair’s so called ’New Deal’ and the latest ‘Welfare to Work’ schemes where people are being forced into unsuitable and unsafe jobs on pain of losing benefit how are we going to protect workers’ rights?

The only way is to refuse to do a job which appears unsafe and to make sure you report the problem in writing. You still get sacked and of course the government is making it more difficult for workers to go to Employment Tribunals. Why don’t the unions take action over this?

Many people are unaware of how few rights they now have. We need more direct action to bring these iniquities into public knowledge and to put pressure on the government to redress the balance which has swung far too much in favour of employers.

Is it so much to ask? A safe place to work run in accordance with health and safety laws? One thing is certain – if we wait for someone else to improve matters for us we will wait forever. The unions have been emasculated and the government is in bed with the bosses. We shall have to claim these rights for ourselves.