Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living

6 May 2010

Notes for a short reflection at ICTU event to mark Workers Memorial Day

28 April 2010 at Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

by Noeline Blackwell, Director General, FLAC.


Today's slogan: 'Remember the dead and fight for the living' resonates well with the attitude of FLAC, a legal rights organisation which seeks social advances through law. I think that the slogan was coined - though rather less neutrally - by an Irish woman who made her home in the USA. As Mother Jones, the noted labour activist put it: we have to "pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living". Mary Harris - Mother Jones - the Cork-born emigrant to Canada and the USA who died 80 years ago this year, aged 100, earned the label of the most dangerous woman in America. Working out of huge personal loss of family and business, in a time of depression, she fought and organised for the rights of workers - for better conditions and the right to associate.

The quote particularly appeals to me because it is a reminder of the struggle that we all know has had to take place, and continues, to ensure that we all have that workplace safety, that fair conditions of work that are not injurious to health. This doesn't come about by accident. Nor are standards maintained by accident.

We can all see that in this time of economic recession, there is pressure on jobs and that, in turn, this creates pressure on the conditions in which people do their jobs. In FLAC, the volunteer advisors in our clinics and the people who staff our phone lines hear people speaking of that pressure. It's the pressure of long hours for reduced pay. People are taking jobs that they know they shouldn't, because they are so anxious to get work. Workers are being intimidated in a way that their health and safety is being threatened but they are afraid to complain. People are working in black market conditions because they have to, because they have no choice. All of these people are particularly vulnerable to workplace injury and illness. It is then that I am reminded of how necessary it is to guard, to maintain and to improve the system which sets up rules to protect health and safety.

That system is a system of laws, regulations, monitoring and tribunals which - for workers in Ireland and in the northern world - have made a huge change for the vast majority of workers. But they were earned over years of struggle by labour activists in Ireland and across the world. Often they were earned and learned as hard lessons following the death or serious illness of a worker, shocking a community into action. That is however not a good way to improve the law and it is necessary that all those who defend workers rights remain vigilant in spite of the additional stresses.

That system of laws must be enforced, and must be accessible. It would be catastrophic if a reduction in the number of inspection or inspectors brought about a situation where someone was hurt or suffered serious illness or death as a result of the failure to monitor and ensure compliance with the rules that are there. Reducing resources for monitoring also constitutes an inequality between those who seek to maintain and uphold the law and those who don't. Those who do their best to maintain fair conditions are then disadvantaged by those who can take short cuts.

Equally important is the need to remember that to enforce the law, people need to have access to it. Human rights, fundamental rights, guarantee us equality of access to the law, but that doesn't work out as well in practice as in theory. Many remedies particularly in labour law require access to specialised tribunals - but workers aren't entitled to legal aid for representation before these tribunals. Many workers clearly don't have access to advocates from trades unions or from other support agencies such as the Citizens Information Centres. These tribunals actually look like institutions where people shouldn't need lawyers and legal representation and in theory, it seems both parties are equal. In reality, the poorer more vulnerable person seeking to assert a right against a more powerful person is disadvantaged. They will not be as well advised in advanced, or as well resourced at the hearing. No matter how fair the tribunal is, the lack of access to advocacy and support services is a denial of access of equality to the most vulnerable.

Many of course have no access because of the nature of their work. Particularly vulnerable are those working outside the normal legal structures. Those who are sex trade workers or who are undocumented migrants in Ireland - and some will suffer from both stigma - will often fail to register or access any support or services at all. For those who work in this difficult and dangerous grey and black area, I would like to acknowledge the deaths and injuries that happen but that aren't even recorded as a death or injury as a result of the workplace.

I've focused in this reflection on the situation in Ireland - recognising that some do better from that protection than other and must be able to access it.

But on this International Workers Memorial Day, I also want to acknowledge the need to protect and promote the rights of workers at huge risk with minimal protection in many areas of the world. The countries where children risk life and limb and their families encourage it because they are too poor to do anything else. The miners in dangerous mines who used to be farmers on the land on the top of the mines until their farms were taken from them. The domestic workers who are held in conditions of virtual slavery. The many whose basic rights are denied to them and to recognise that the struggle for workers rights is part of the struggle for all human rights.

I started with a quote from one American - though of Irish extraction, and I'll end with another American woman - Eleanor Roosevelt, who said:
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Let's hope we can make a better, safer world for workers and for people everywhere.