By Paul Hampton
Two million people are killed at work around the world every year according to the International Labour Organisation. This is greater than the numbers killed in wars, by AIDS or by alcohol and drugs.
Workers' Memorial Day, 28 April, is commemorated in nearly 100 countries, under the slogan: 'Remember the dead, and fight for the living.'
The theme for Workers' Memorial Day this year is corporate accountability. Why this theme?
There have a number of major disasters, resulting in death and injury to workers and members of the public, but none of the companies or their directors have been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter.
For example, P&O (European) Ferries and two directors were acquitted of manslaughter after 192 people died in the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in 1987. The judge stopped the prosecution because there was insufficient evidence to show that the risk of the ferry leaving port with its bow doors open was "obvious and serious".
A large number of people die in work-related incidents in Britain every year, even though the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says at least 70% of these deaths are preventable. Five workers and seven members of the public are killed every week in work-related incidents. Although most work-related deaths are investigated and some companies prosecuted for health and safety offences, few involve manslaughter charges. There is a widespread feeling from the families and friends of victims that "companies get away with murder".
For example, Simon Jones died in 1998 on his first day at work at Shoreham Docks when the jaws of a grab closed around his neck. In 2001, Euromin Ltd and James Martell, its managing director, were acquitted of the manslaughter.
The figures on work-related deaths should also include around 30 killed at sea on British registered ships and in British waters, around 1,000 in work-related road traffic accidents, 5,000 killed by asbestos-related diseases and more than 6,000 from other occupational illnesses.
Corporate criminals are treated differently from other law-breakers. Research by the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) has found that over the last fifteen years, manslaughter prosecutions were brought against directors or business owners in only 24 incidents, and only nine of these ended with a conviction. And of those nine, only and handful have received prison sentences.
A number of unions are demanding changes in the law. The focus has mainly been on persuading the Government to enact a new law of corporate killing, which would allow companies to be prosecuted without the need to prove a director was grossly negligent. The New Labour manifesto at the last election promised to introduce such a law, but the Government has failed to deliver. Another proposal is to impose duties on directors - making it easier to prosecute board members when a worker is killed.
The health and safety magazine Hazards is running a campaign on these issues, and is a valuable source of information. Its website is at: www.hazards.org. More detailed information is available from the Centre for Corporate Accountability.
International Workers' Memorial day, 28 April
Wreath laying at 12.30 at the Memorial tree in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
More details from Edinburgh TUC 0131 556 3006