Friday, 13 September 2019

Celebrating Women : Women and Ethical Employment

Catherine Best
Queen’s Nurse
Chair RCN Yorkshire and Humber Regional Board 

In contemporary society much is spoken about the travesty of unethical employment. In the destructive life of a mardi gras bead, David Redmon cites the hidden dangers associated with the colourful beads, mostly associated with mardi gras. Combined with the risks posed to human health, linked to poor working conditions, exposure to neurotoxic chemicals such as lead poisoning, as well as the impact on the global environment this trinket, has a lot to answer for. Many of these workers are children whose lives are controlled not by what time they need to get up for school, but by the number of beads they can make and the wages they can earn to feed their families.

Historically women and children have borne the brunt of patriarchal intentions made all the more intolerable by the cruel vagaries of Victorian England and the often-unendurable conditions in which women and children lived, worked and died. Such conditions such as those associated with the plight of the matchstick girls, the Cradley Heath Women Chain makers and the New Jersey radium girls are recorded in the annals of history as a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring ethical employment is high on the agenda of all governments.

Such accounts continue to tell the stories of the many actions undertaken by women that would see them challenge the paternalistic world in which they lived and worked and for many ultimately win. This is perhaps no more evident than the matchstick girls strike of 1888 when 141 women and girls came on strike following a resounding call to action. The narrative of those who worked in the Radium Industry a poison which significantly contributed to the early deaths of many women who worked within its walls, caused teeth to fall out, jaws to necrose and flesh to ulcerate. And to the Cradley Heath Chain makers whose miserable wages and impoverished lives led to the strike of 1910 when women downed tools as a result of the starvation wages and strict regimes imposed.

In Victorian England nursing was also considered sweated labour, but was it really necessary that ‘to help a million sick, you must kill a few nurses’? For nurses too were subject to the horrors of employment and with blood poisoning from sewer gas, TB and other infectious diseases, including cholera and typhoid, rife in the hospital setting, along with many others, nurses paid the ultimate price; they were dying as a result of caring for the sick.

Today, the World Health Organisation’s response to workplace wellbeing is clear, that the health of the worker should be protected, whilst the World Employment Confederation presents a strong business case for ethical employment.

In their quest to ensure fair work for all, the government of Wales has released a Code of Practice , which seeks to ensure good employment practices for the millions of workers at every stage of the supply chain. Although the Welsh Government has moved forward with a code of ethics, there is still much work to be done before this is enshrined in legislation

The NHS too is playing its part.  All healthcare practitioners have a role to play in ensuring ethical employment and reducing the risks associated with the environment. In 2018 Great Ormond Street Hospital launched ‘the gloves are off campaign’ the aim of which is to reduce the associated risks of dermatitis, due to overuse, improve hand hygiene compliance and improve the environmental impact as well as reduce the risk of hospital acquired infections.

Nursing continues to remain a gendered specific profession. We may no longer be killing nurses, with blood poisoning from sewer gas, TB and other infectious diseases but are we not killing their passion, spirit and willingness to nurse.

All of these scenarios have one thing in common; they are all associated with product development and service delivery. It is the responsibility of each and every organisation involved in the supply chain to ensure ethical employment practices are adhered to. We have a long way to go.

Different times, same issues

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