International Workers' Memorial Day

20 April 2016 08:52

Unions make work safer - Protecting workers around the world through strong regulation, enforcement and union rights.

Each year on the 28th April trade unions around the world organise events to celebrate International Workers Memorial Day. The purpose is to highlight the preventable nature of workplace accidents and ill health, and to promote campaigns and union organisation to improve health and safety at work. It is also a day to remember all those who have died because of their job.

This year, our theme is “Safety Reps Make Work Safe.”

Strong Unions=Safe Jobs

Around ten years ago, the BWI adopted the slogan “Strong Unions = Safe Jobs”. The workers in trades represented by the Building and Wood Workers International do some of the most dangerous jobs of all. We are often exposed to hazardous dust and chemicals, including deadly asbestos fibres contained in building materials. We work at heights, in confined spaces, we lift heavy loads and operate dangerous machinery.

BWI members among the hardest hit by fatal "accidents" and occupational diseases Each year about one hundred thousand building workers are killed on site, and thousands more are injured or made ill because of bad and illegal working conditions. Tropical loggers have about a one in ten chance of being killed over a working lifetime, and wood working machinery causes more injuries than machinery in any other sector.

The BWI believes that Trade Unions must have the right of access to all workplaces to carry out their role of representing workers on Health and Safety and to provide external Trade Union support for workplace Health and Safety Representatives. There is plenty of evidence to show that workplaces that are organised with trained Trade Union Safety Representatives are safer than unorganised workplaces.  

Deadly diseases caused by bad working conditions

Deadly Asbestos kills - we want it banned. Nearly 300 people die each DAY from asbestos lung disease, most of them worked in the building trades. Many cement products used in building materials contain asbestos. Common workplace substances used every day in our sectors can cause cancer, and need to be strictly controlled: Wood dust; welding fumes; cement dust; solvents used in glues, fillers, paints, laquers and varnishes; isocyanates; formaldehyde; and pesticides used in forestry plantations and for treating timber.

Our Rights On Site

These risks are well known and so are the solutions to avoid them. There is a clear legal framework of employers’ duties and workers’ rights on health and safety at work. By far the greatest risk for our health and safety is the negligence of employers who do not comply with even basic legislation to protect people at work. Deregulation, subcontracting chains, bogus self employment and informal contractual conditions make this situation even worse, undermining trade union and labour rights.

In a number of countries we are seeing a worrying increase in accident rates, as negligent employers try to avoid these responsibilities by avoiding an employment relationship. Trade Unions are the answer to this problem. Workers need to be able to defend their rights, and only Trade Unions provide the support they need to do so. Management has the legal responsibility to ensure that collective and individual prevention measures are in place to protect the safety and health of all those who work for their companies. Responsible employers want to work professionally, with a good working environment, and they understand the role of Trade Unions in preventing accidents and ill health at work.

A study published by the International Labour Organisation shows that in the construction industry, compliance with health and safety laws is “highly dependent” on the presence of Trade Union Safety Representatives in the workplace with external Trade Union support for information and training on health and safety problems. Trade Unions were found to be a “key determinant” in workplaces with good safety performance. Please find "The Role of Worker Representation and Consultation in Managing Health and Safety in the Construction Industry” David Walters, Professor of Work Environment Cardiff University" under the download section.

What will you do on and around April 28?

Here are some ideas: National initiatives

  • Contact your national trade union centre to ask them for support.

  • Write letters to employers organisations asking them to push for full compliance with health and safety legislation and to improve OSH standards in our industries

  • Organise a meeting to discuss the prevention of accidents and ill health at work.

  • Write letters to the authorities and ask for meetings to discuss H&S

  • Apart from writing letters, it may be possible to organise a demonstration to actually deliver the letters to government and /or employers' organisations. This is a good way to get media interest, and to create public support, particularly if there is some symbolic activity such as laying a wreath.

Write to your government and ask for a meeting to discuss these points:

  • Write to the relevant administrations who have responsibilities for health and safety, asking them to increase Public Labour Inspection and to enforce the legislation. Enforcement of legislation by government should be stronger. In a lot of countries there is beautiful, modern legislation, but there has never been a single prosecution. Employers who break the law should be prosecuted. Employers whose negligence results in serious injuries should face big fines and the threat of losing their right to operate a company. In the case of criminal negligence, where employers deliberately exposed workers to serious risks, they should face the possibility of imprisonment, as already happens in some countries.

  • ILO Conventions should be ratified and Codes of Practice on health and safety for construction, wood and forestry should be applied.

  • Legislation on health and safety should be improved to at least meet ILO standards. Policies and National Action Plans on Prevention for our industries should be developed with Trade Unions and Employers Organisations.

  • Workers' participation: Trade Unions make an important contribution to the prevention of accidents and ill health at work. Trade Union Safety Representatives should be elected to represent workers interests on health and safety. Joint management- union Health and Safety Committees should be established, as is already required by law in many countries.

  • The right for Trade Unions to appoint Regional, or Roving, Safety Representatives to cover SMEs where Health and Safety Committees are not established.

  • Information, training and advice should be given to employers and workers.

  • Contractual conditions should be improved to provide stable employment.

  • Asbestos should be banned, and workers protected from exposure. The ILO and WHO have a model National Action Plan for Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases. Please find ILO & WHO - Outline for the Development of National Programmes for the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases under the download section. Use it! Please also find the Model letter on Asbestos under the downloadsection to send to your government.

Local events

  • Get in touch with the local press to let them know what's going on and why. Send them a press release, briefly describing any events which are being organised, and invite them to attend so they can take photos and interview people. If there has been a fatal accident, or major injury or a problem with occupational ill health in your locality, this may create a focus for the day.

  • Hold memorial ceremonies in a public place, involve local authorities, plant a tree, put up a plaque in memory of those who have died.

  • Set up a stall someplace public. Give information and advice to the public on Trade Unions and H&S, explain our role in protecting workers rights and improving working conditions

Workplace activities

  • Organise to stop work for a formal two minutes of silence in remembrance of all the workers who have been killed over the last year.

  • Organise meetings to give information on health and safety or carry out a health and safety training session. Please find the BWI H&S Training Materials and the ILO Training Materials - Protecting Health and Safety in Construction under the download section.

  • Carry out a walk-through inspection of the workplace and talk to workers to identify health and safety problems.

  • Try to get everyone in the workplace involved, including management.

For more information, please find the BWI Briefing for International Workers’ Memorial Day 2016 “Unions Make Work Safer”

Please report back to us on your activities, send us photos. For further details contact: Fiona Murie, Director of Health, Safety and Environment E mail: