In December, as part of my Members’ Bill campaign to establish a new Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council, I asked the First Minister whether Covid-19 should be classified as an in industrial disease.
The response was optimistic – and rightly so. Because the research from the University of Glasgow and Public Health Scotland that I raised with the First Minister confirmed what many keyworkers already know: healthcare workers on the frontline are three times more likely to end up in hospital themselves and their families make up 1 in 6 hospitalised too. Other keyworkers have higher risk as well: social care and transport workers are both twice as likely to have had Covid-19 severely. We know that the more serious disease, the more likely that person will suffer long-Covid, the crippling syndrome with a multitude of symptoms ranging from extreme fatigue and breathlessness, neuralgia and brain fog.
Covid-19 has become and remains one of the most dangerous workplace illnesses we face. It has upturned working life across the globe, with substantial numbers of workers across Scotland contracting the virus while doing their job. But as we learn more about the virus, so too we are learning who is catching it and where. It has divided the workforce in Scotland in the process: while many thousands have been working from home for months, NHS and social care staff have been on the frontline in dealing with the human cost of the pandemic, and so too have shop workers, transport, and logistics workers have been keeping us fed and clothed.
The question I put to the First Minister, is the same question I have posed to trade unions, academics and workers since the start of last summer: should we be using our newly devolved powers over Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (what the Scottish Government will call employment injuries assistance) to make sure that those who are disabled as a result of the disease can have access to the no-fault compensation scheme that has supported industrial workers for much of the past century.
Their feedback has significantly informed my proposal for a Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill, and the consultation which has been underway since November. In our discussions, stakeholders agreed: Covid-19 is an industrial disease, and should they suffer disability as a result of a disease they contracted in the workplace, they should have entitlement under the benefit scheme and be compensated. Critically, we explored in greater detail the wider concerns with the current scheme and the UK Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) that should be addressed too. How and why many conditions and workplaces, particularly those where women predominate, which have been systematically overlooked by the current scheme, have their roots in the setup of the existing scheme and Council are structured.
First, a disease must be prescribed on a closed list. To get to that position IIAC is required to demonstrate there is twice the level of risk of disease or injury in a specified occupation, setting a high bar of proof. Second, the IIAC does not have power to commission its own research, it can only call in evidence. As a result, whole sectors and diseases go overlooked if the research hasn’t been funded or conducted to the level that can meet the evidence requirements IIAC operate under. As one academic put it to me, in the case of women, their work and disease has been “ignored”. Third, because the closed system has such high evidence requirements, it has to rely on long term data which is best reflected in the roles that were “jobs for life”, so in a world of multiple career changes and breaks, its easy to see why change might not easily occur.
We do now have powers to correct this in Scotland, of course. In fact, these became fully devolved to Scotland at the same time we were entering the spring lockdown (albeit with delivery outsourced back to the DWP). Broadly maintaining or renaming the current scheme we already have, actively establishing an employment injuries assistance scheme that excludes many women and the illnesses they face, would be a damning failure of Holyrood to use its powers.
So that is why my Bill proposal goes further and looks to lay the framework for new independent, statutory non-departmental public body which could substantially shape industrial injures to make it fit for the 21st century; it would have substantial authority to put forward shape and remodel industrial injury benefits, aided by new powers to commission research into the hazards and workplaces where data gaps exist, and put workers and their trade unions, whose experience of workplace and injury and disease is substantial, at the centre of the decision making process.
And though I am hopeful that we can recognise Covid-19 is an industrial disease, aim to better reflect modern workplaces, and close the enormously shameful 6:1 gender gap in applications to the scheme, I am cognisant of the fact it will take time to realise change.
Over the past few decades, the world of work has changed drastically. With the collapse of much of the manual and manufacturing industry that sustained the Scottish economy for the 20th century, a new economy, centred on hospitality, services and office work has emerged. Not only have tool belts and shipyards been replaced by laptops and office blocks, but the demographic of the working population has changed too, with women now accounting for nearly half of the workforce.
From the first Labour government of the 1920s through to the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour Party has sought to ensure that workers are protected from industrial injury and that workers who fall ill due through work are properly supported.
The scheme has never been perfect, of course. Scientific research and data gaps have frequently been the cause of the omissions that see few female workers receive the support they need, and there have been perverse results for workers in Scotland. Ship workers with osteoarthritis, care workers with cervical or lumbar spondylosis, or local authority gardeners affected by hand arm vibration syndrome all fail to have their conditions or roles prescribed. IIDB and IIAC still hasn’t recognised breast cancer caused by shift work as the top occupational cancer in women, while cleaners and care workers with suffer of respiratory and skin diseases. Even asbestos related ovarian cancer, the most common gynaecological cancer in UK women, is missing from the scheme.
It is clear these failings must be overcome if we want to provide the people of Scotland with an employment injuries benefit for the 21st century that is dynamic and reflects modern work. I want to ensure that the next century of workers who become injured or ill in the line of work can turn to a no-blame social security scheme that is retained and strengthened.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has shone a light on all of our working lives, exposing ingrained inequalities and the risks we can face in our workplaces.
The horrific experiences of Covid-19 have been countless. The office worker who contracted the virus and returned to find little has changed in the way of regular cleaning or social distancing in the office, or the careworkers facing dismissal as long-Covid, which they contracted at work, leaves them unable to fulfil their duties caring for our most vulnerable. We have heard of transport and retail workers berated by members of the public and even spat on for doing their job. With the pandemic showing no signs of abating, it is vital Covid-19 is approached as the workplace illness as a starting point for reform, and those suffering from “long Covid” given the support they need.
Risking their own health, keyworkers strived to save the ill and to shield our elderly, keep food on supermarket shelves and deliver the supplies for those fortunate to have the safety of staying at home. They faced risks no-one could have imagined just a year ago. With the arrival of the new powers, we have the opportunity to overhaul the industrial injuries benefit to both meet the challenges posed by the pandemic, and to meet the needs of our changing working patterns and demographics. If we are to ensure the workers who have kept us fed, clothed and safe over the past few months are treated with the respect they deserve, we must bring about a drastic modernisation of the current industrial injuries system. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to inequality in the workplace any more.
The Proposed Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill consultation is open for responses until 23.59 on Monday, 1 February. The consultation document and survey can be found at https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/116429.aspx..
Ahead of the consultation closing, Mark will be holding a drop-in Q&A session on zoom. Please email mark.griffin.msp@parliament.
Mark Griffin is a Labour MSP for Central Scotland.