I work in a textile factory that employs around 30 workers. We have complained to management about low temperatures, the lack of heating and poor ventilation but they ignore us and have threatened to victimise some workers. Some of us are members of a union, but there is no recognition. What are our options?
Whether you are in a recognised union or not, the first step for dealing with a health and safety issue is to establish what the problem is and how it is affecting workers. The best way to do this is for as many workers as possible to meet together to talk about the problems. The boss may immediately try and victimise any workers involved. Decide what, where and how to meet to get organised. Consider what contact you want with the union, if any.
In law, you are protected from dismissal for Health and Safety issues. But this can be difficult to prove in an industrial tribunal (and will realistically only get you financial compensation, and not get you your job back). So your only real protection is for workers to all stick together in what you agree to do. Also, document everything for use in a future tribunal, if necessary.
If workers lack confidence to get together, you could sort out some relevant health and safety information, with some suggestions about actions workers could take, and circulate a few copies anonymously (the Solidarity Federation's new pamphlet “Health and Safety at Work” has info to help with this - available from Catalyst for £1.50). This will probably get people talking. Once the first few people are interested, others may get a bit more confidence to come forward and speak up. And then you can start looking at what action you can take.
Health and safety information can also be documented through questionnaire, inspection, or “unofficial” documentation by means of a diary or record book, depending on your situation. You can get model questionnaires or suggested checklists for inspections from most unions. Your own union (I would guess you are in the Transport and General Workers Union) will have information on this, plus staff who can advise on health and safety issues. Or you can devise your own. Inspections don't have to be just going round ticking a clipboard - they could involve simply taking statements from workers about a particular problem, and how it is affecting them.
The next step is to find out what your boss should be doing about it. The Labour Research Department (78 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HF; tel: 020 7928 3649) is a vital source of information. They produce a monthly magazine and regular pamphlets on health and safety, etc. They also have a list of local resources/hazard centres up and down the country. Your local SolFed group can also help (contact Catalyst or write to SF, PO Box 1681, London N8 7DN).
It's workers that are the experts about what is unsafe or unhealthy, and we can collectively force the boss to implement health and safety improvements - by well-chosen direct action.
Write to catalyst for a full & frank answer to a problem at work. Or contact the ansaphone helpline for advice - 0161 232 7889
-Feel free to send your snippets, news and views to Catalyst
-Write to make contact with others in your type of work, and for details of doing local actions with like-minded people
Catalyst, SF, PO Box 29, SW PDO, Manchester M15 5HW