Every year on April 28 on Workers Memorial Day, Unite joins workers across the world to pay tribute to those who have tragically died at work – many under unsafe working conditions.
Today we hear from Unite regional officer Mark Soave, who previously served as a regional organiser for UCATT and before that as a UCATT member and activist.
Mark recounts his story from more than four decades ago, when he was only 11. It was a day that would change his life forever.
My story starts in 1973. I was an eleven year old school boy. My dad’s name was George Soave — he was Italian. He came here to this country in 1929 to escape poverty near Monte Cassino in southern Italy. The family came over and went into the ice cream business but the business couldn’t support all the family. So my dad trained as a joiner and became a member of the newly formed UCATT.
He wasn’t an activist but was an active member. He was active in the local Labour Party. We lived in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, where I still live today. At the outbreak of war my grandparents were interned under national security. My dad’s sister and brother were evacuated to Devon and lived on a farm. I don’t think they wanted to come back.
It was December 1973 — just before Christmas. I had a younger brother who was three at the time, and an older sister who was 15. We’d finished school for the holidays. Like any 11-year-old, I was wound up at the prospect of Christmas. We’d had our school party and watched the Carry On films, as you did in those days. My mother and her sister-in-law were the last two to run the family café. My job, when I came home, was to look after my younger brother in the flat above the café.
Normally my dad would come home about six o’clock. I’d always know he would be home because he had a white Fiat and you would see his reversing lights come round the corner. But that day I figured he was running late. It was the end of the three-day week. Everyone was going back to work to catch up and earn some extra money for Christmas. He must be late, I thought.
Then I could hear voices downstairs, and I went downstairs to the kitchen area of the café and mum was crying, as was my sister, who had come home from school. And there was my dad’s friend, Fred Reid. I remember saying: ‘What’s wrong? Where’s my dad?’ Fred just said: ‘Your dad’s had an accident, Mark. He’s in hospital.’ Someone stayed with us while my mum went to intensive care.
My dad had fallen from height and hit his head. He’d suffered a fractured skull and suspected severe brain damage. He was taken to hospital with a police escort in an old Bedford ambulance. It’s about a 20 mile trek to the Medway towns. It’s now called the Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham.
You hear people saying ‘he’s not going to pull through’ but as a child you believe a miracle is going to happen. People go into hospital and they get better, right? My dad was only 47. On the Saturday I begged everyone to go and see my dad, and my cousin who was home from the Royal Marines took me to see him. There were various members of the family round his bed. The matron said I just want to warn you about what you’re going to see. He’s got lots of tubes coming out of him.
My first thought was that he was unshaven. I’d never seen my dad unshaven before. He had these purple eyelids; it was really horrible. I must have started crying and they took me out.
The next day was the Sunday. It was his birthday. He was 47. The next thing I remember it was Christmas Eve, about 1pm and we got a phone call to say he’d died. He’d given up his fight for life. My mum just went to pieces. She was on Valium. But you know what? Two weeks later she was back at work. She had three kids to support.
I found out later how exactly he died.
He was a joiner at a factory employing about 50 or 60 people. The men would clear the site at the end of the day. Two of them would climb up into this skip, which was about six foot high, place a plank across the skip, then stand on the plank and a forklift would lift a box up there and they would empty the box.
On that particularly day, my dad slipped. He fell back and hit his head and the impact squashed his brain. He died of severe brain damage and a fractured skull. The coroner gave a verdict of accidental death. The union took the case up with a barrister and got an out-of-court settlement. There was no pension fund. The small amount of compensation we received paid the small mortgage that my mum and dad had taken out on the house.
They said we’d have got more if he’d fallen from a greater height. My dad’s colleagues were really good. They had a massive collection for my mum and us kids. For an 11 year old, it was just devastating. I went to a religious school and you always thought God would look after good people and I always thought that my dad was a good person. What was terrible for everyone in the family was that it happened at Christmas.
When I interviewed for my job years ago as a regional organiser for UCATT, a predecessor union of Unite, my mum said to me: ‘Don’t you forget to tell them UCATT would always sent a £10 cheque at Christmas, it was for you children.’ My mum never forgot that. She would always tell that story — that the union looked after her by sending £10 every Christmas.
My dad’s death at work could possibly be why I’ve become a union activist today, interested in safety. I used to work in a pre-cast concrete plant where I first became an organiser. I got this job at the age of 45. I thought my chance had gone. In my dad’s era there was no health and safety. His death made me more safety conscious.
I never got to drink my first pint with my dad. When I bought my first moped he wasn’t there to teach me to ride it. My poor brother never knew him because he was too young. My dad never got to walk my sister down the aisle or meet his granddaughters. I didn’t get any fatherly advice as I grew up. I lost all that. These are the effects on people of a death at work. My mum never remarried. She grew up in the war – – she had that stiff upper lip. I don’t know how she did it.
Find out more about Workers Memorial Day and Unite events marking the day near you on Unite’s web page.