In 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier was published, this was George Orwell’s vivid account of working class living conditions in Lancashire and Yorkshire prior to World War II. In one section Orwell sets out what happens to a miner if he becomes injured and is unable to work. Back then it was left up to the company that the miner worked for to pay the miner a disability pension, in recognition of the injury that he had sustained.
If the company went bust then that was the end of the pension.
Fast forward a few years to the post World War II Labour government which embarked upon an ambitious programme of social reform, to tackle what the Beveridge Report saw as the five giant evils facing Britain at the time Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness.
The key role Aneurin Bevan played in that government is well known and I’m sure that Bevan’s background in the pits of Tredegar played a part as that Labour government set about tackling Want by introducing a number of reforms, including an industrial injury benefit, as part of its 1946 National Insurance Act.
No longer would those injured at work be dependent on the vagaries of an employer funded injury benefit scheme.
Or, so you might think.
Fast forward again to now – April 2015 and Britain in the midst of one of the most unpredictable general election campaigns ever.
In March, The Guardian carried a story about a leaked report, which set out a range of welfare benefits potentially facing the axe should the Conservatives win in May.
One of the cuts mentioned is the scrapping of industrial injury benefits, in future the cost will be passed on to employers.
Those companies that don’t have an insurance policy will become members of a default scheme and pay a levy to fund it.
It was reported that getting rid of this scheme could save £1bn.
So, in 2015 we could be heading back to the scene Orwell described in 1937.
The most recent official figures show that 629,000 people are injured in the UK as a result of work.
As we approach another International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on the 28th April, the focus of the trade union movement turns to those who have lost their lives or been injured as a result of a workplace incident.
This year the theme is removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace and union health & safety reps will be highlighting risks relating to asbestos, occupational cancer and other risks linked to biological exposure.
Where I live in Musselburgh and Midlothian there was a long tradition of mine working,
I stay a few minutes walk from Prestongrange, now an open-air museum, but up until 1962 a working pit and in Midlothian at Newtongrange, there is the National Mining Museum, on the site of the Lady Victoria Colliery which closed in 1981.
The very nature of long hours spent working underground with exposure to coal dust, meant that there was a risk of developing Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) sometimes called ‘Black Lung’. This disease can take a long time to develop, up to 10 years from first exposure before someone shows symptoms and although the pits around me closed some years ago, in 2011 there were 265 newly assessed cases of CWP recognised under the Industrial Injuries and Disablement Benefit Scheme.
Other diseases linked to exposure to coal dust such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema are recognised as prescribed diseases for coal miners and some figures suggest that there could be around 4,000 occupational COPD deaths currently each year in Britain.
So, although the coal industry in this country is now largely in the past, we should not forget those affected today by their time spent working underground, nor the valuable role that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) continues to play in supporting and representing former miners in winning compensation.
Of course the daily struggle to improve working conditions in the mining industry continues around the globe.
Come the next IWMD, we’ll be nearly a year into the first term of the new government elected this May and my hope is that there won’t be a need for any latter day George Orwell’s to be writing a new version of On The Road to Wigan Pier, where a Tory government has been elected and is systematically dismantling what Nye Bevan helped to create all those years ago.
There are a number of events held throughout the UK on 28th April to commemorate IWMD including Edinburgh, Glasgow and the event I’ll be going along to in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian for a full list see here.