History lesson for safety deregulators


History lesson for safety deregulators

Prospect has welcomed a debate in the House of Commons commemorating the 125th anniversary of the ‘matchgirls’ strike at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, east London.

It was in July 1888 when around 1,400 women downed tools for two weeks in protest against inhumane and dangerous working conditions.

Opening the debate, Lyn Brown MP, who grew up within walking distance of the former factory site, said:

“Unarguably, those match women did something amazing: they brought to account a great power of industry, established greater control over their working lives and made a huge contribution to the development of the organised labour movement.”

At the time, Bryant & May was a household name and the largest employer in Britain of match workers; they were also the largest employer of female casual labour in London’s east end.

The women worked with white phosphorus, a toxic chemical that was subsequently banned because it rotted their gums and mouth - a condition known as ‘phossy jaw’ - and ultimately led to brain damage and death.

The appalling conditions, low pay, long hours, arbitrary fines and physical abuse were exposed in an article by the social activist and writer, Annie Besant called ‘White Slavery in London.’

As a result, Bryant & May instigated a witch-hunt among the workforce to find out who had spoken to Besant. The final straw came when one worker was sacked for being the ‘mole’. 

This provoked the women to walk out en masse, form a picket line and demand better working conditions, such as the right to eat their food in a separate room away from the toxic fumes on the factory floor.

Their brave and principled actions attracted widespread press coverage and, after two weeks, Bryant & May were forced to settle the dispute.

“The women’s victory was a touchstone - a landmark in the history of the labour movement - and it should be recognised as such in our conversations, our considerations and our curriculum,” Brown said in her Parliamentary speech.

The West Ham MP also noted that ‘women are as pivotal to the modern trade union movement as they were in the fight for rights in the 1880s.’ 

For the first time the TUC is led by a woman, Frances O’Grady. 

Sarah Page, Prospect’s health and safety officer said the women’s remarkable story still reverberated today, at home and overseas. 

“When some businesses and Government ministers bemoan health and safety, they ignore the suffering and hard fought battles by the likes of these women that ensure we enjoy safer working environments today.

“They should value rather than condemn our regulatory standards, the benefits of which they only seem to consider in the context of tragedies such as those in Bangladeshi clothing factories and Qatar construction sites.  

“Health and Safety saves lives and it’s different, but as vital today as in 1888.”

Read a transcript of the full Parliamentary debate here.