'A lifetime's mission'
International Workers' Memorial Day: Unite members gather in Liverpool at historic Hod Carrier statue to honour the dead and fight for the living
Scores of Unite members gathered in Liverpool at the Hod Carrier statue, the UK’s first ever worker’s memorial, to pay tribute to fallen workers on International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) this week (Thursday April 28).
The statue, known affectionately as Harry the Hod, has stood proudly since 2001 as a memorial to construction workers killed or seriously injured at work, and has been the focal point for IWMD commemorations in Liverpool for over 20 years.
Its history, however, stretches back even further than that, when the original statute, after which the present Hod Carrier statue was modelled, was first built in the 1930s on the same site.
Now, this year’s IWMD marked another chapter in Harry the Hod’s history after Unite unveiled a new plaque on the plinth of the statue, in honour of all workers who, “in an effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, sacrificed their lives in order to save others”.
Unite North West regional secretary Ritchie James, who spoke at the memorial event, highlighted how the pandemic exposed huge gaps in occupational health and safety, as key workers – from those in health to care, construction to logistics and more – struggled to secure adequate protective equipment to keep themselves safe.
“In the first year of the pandemic 931 health workers lost their lives – that is an incredible amount of people,” he said. “These people were screaming out for the equipment to protect them and others while they were caring for people in the most tragic circumstances.
“What they got was a clattering of pans, a clapping of hands, and they got paid back with more outsourcing, more deregulation in the health sector and a pittance of a pay offer. Let’s remember that.”
James (pictured below) called on all trade unionists to ensure that the driving force behind International Workers’ Memorial Day isn’t confined to just one day.
“Although today marks International Workers’ Memorial Day, when we remember the dead and campaign for the living, this theme should be a lifetime’s mission – not just theme of the day,” he said. “Health, safety and welfare at work is a fundamental right – and not a privilege.”
James went on to note the vital importance that unionised workplaces play in ensuring health and safety. He spoke too of how health and safety is not only a workplace issue, but must be seen as a wider community issue as well.
Labour MP Kim Johnson, who was unable to attend the event but sent a statement of solidarity, likewise highlighted how health and safety is a community issue, noting how social inequalities played a huge role in the high number of Covid deaths in disadvantaged communities.
She slammed the government for presiding over a country with one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.
“The lack of personal protective equipment was outrageous and shameful,” she said. “150,000 deaths – this from a nation that is rich in resources and should have responded a damn sight quicker.
“In each and every single one of their names we stand here today, and we must make sure that the lessons from the pandemic are learned,” Johnson added. “We must answer the questions that are still yet unanswered by those who bore responsibility for leaving workers unprotected as they served our country in our hour of need.”
Unite member and NHS worker Jane Forshaw, a surgical first assistant who was redeployed to intensive care at the beginning of the pandemic, told of the horrors she and her colleagues in ITU faced.
She recounted how ITU staff were “scared of the unknown, and not knowing how long this nightmare would last”.
“There was no sign of the vaccine and we simply had to face each day at a time as the ITU filled up with desperately ill patients fighting for their lives,” she said. “I saw colleagues going above and beyond to help those in desperate need. Too many paid the ultimate price. We lost colleagues, family, friends and union members. Our communities have been decimated by the pandemic, and our workplaces have been too.”
Forshaw paid tribute to all who have died in work.
“They didn’t choose to die at work – not one of them,” she said. “Most people who have died in work died because an employer didn’t consider their health and safety enough, or profit was prioritised over people. Either way, this is an unacceptable.”
After the plaque for Covid frontline workers was unveiled, several wreaths were placed at the foot of the Hod Carrier statue. A book produced by Unite detailing the fascinating history of Harry the Hod was distributed to those who attended.
Unite North West construction sector chair Billy Parry hailed the book, saying the story of Harry the Hod is “told brilliantly” as he thanked author Tommy Allen for “his painstaking work” in bringing the Hod Carrier’s history to life.
For Unite highways convenor Jamie Bramwell, this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day was particularly emotional.
“I’ve been coming to the statue for International Workers’ Memorial Day since 2010,” Bramwell told UniteLive. “But this year was especially important for me because we lost one of our comrades Ian to Covid, which he caught at work. He was only forty-eight years old.
“I know we aren’t nurses or paramedics but as highway workers we were on the frontline of the pandemic too, ensuring roads were kept safe so that hauliers and other key workers could get from A to B. It’s very poignant for us to remember Ian and all workers that we lost throughout the pandemic.”
Jimmy Woods, retired officer for construction union UCATT, which later merged with Unite, told UniteLive that this year’s IWMD “has been particularly poignant because we’ve unveiled a new plaque dedicated to frontline workers, whether it be teachers, firemen, care workers, NHS workers and others”.
Woods, who played an integral role in establishing the Hod Carrier statue as the UK’s first workers’ memorial, said the fight for safe workplaces is a continuous battle. He noted how even though asbestos has been banned for more than two decades, people are still to this day dying from mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
“You’ve only got to look at the statistics for fatalities at work — regionally, nationally and indeed globally – to understand why our work is never done.” he added. “It’s a damning indictment of society when people go to work and come back in a body bag. It can’t be right in any civilized society.”
You can catch film highlights from the International Workers’ Memorial Day event in Liverpool on Unite North West’s Facebook page here.
By Hajera Blagg