Keeping people safe in their workplace needs two things: strong laws and effective action to make those laws a reality. That is why trade unions play such a vital role in health and safety at work.

Today, millions of working people around the world will be celebrating the vital role that trade unions have and do play in making workplaces safer. International Workers’ Memorial Day is one the most important days in the Labour movement’s calendar, and rightly so.

Union safety reps have a dramatic, positive impact on safety at work – and the more training they get, the safer the workplace. That is the evidence gathered by the Trades Union Congress which demonstrates the critical roles of unions. The fact is that workplaces with union safety reps and joint union-management safety committees have major injury rates less than half of those without.

It is not just workers but their employers who gain from a strong health and safety culture. Safe workplaces are more productive workplaces. This is the message to employers from the Health and Safety Executive:

Improving health and safety helps you improve morale and productivity in your business. Your workers can do their work with less difficulty and less danger. They will appreciate improvements you make to their working environment. This can save you money and add to your profitability in the long run.

The HSE also warns about the damage that can be done to a company by failing to tackle health and safety issues. It highlights that stress and accidents at work are two of the biggest causes of absence from work today.

Whether they cause short, unscheduled absences or long-term illness, they can have a serious impact on your productivity and profits. If workers have to cover for an absent colleague it can put additional pressures on them, contributing to increased absence in the longer term.

Anything that might improve Britain’s terrible productivity record under David Cameron and George Osborne has to be worth considering. Growth in the economy since the recession – particularly since early 2013 – has been due to increases in the number of hours worked rather than increases in productivity.

Stronger productivity growth leads to stronger GDP growth. This, in turn, increases tax revenues and lowers government budget deficits. Of course, lower productivity growth results in the opposite: lower GDP growth and higher budget deficits.

Yet we have a government which demonises trade unions and characterises the health and safety regulations which protect working people as ‘red tape’.

The truth is that unions are not the problem – they are a major part of the solution to Britain’s serious productivity problem.


Seema Malhotra MP is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. She tweets @SeemaMalhotra1