A matter of strife and death

December 11, 1998

Charles Woolfson's concern for workers' rights has made him the bane of corporate business, writes Alison Utley.

Charles Woolfson is accustomed to receiving anonymous brown envelopes, and this morning is no exception. "There are people out there who feel I am a useful conduit," he explains. Today's package contains confidential minutes of a local authority debriefing following what he terms a "disastrous" attempt to impose working conditions. Woolfson, an industrial sociologist, takes up causes as if his life depended on them. But it is not his life he is interested in, as he is at pains to point out. "This is not about me," he says frequently. Rather it is about the Clydeside shipyard workers, the Caterpillar engineers, the dock workers and the offshore oil workers. Or anyone else who has come to blows with their employer. For the role of conflict in shaping industrial relations is his core subject. Woolfson's exploration of the political impact of the major industrial struggles of the 1980s and 1990s has led him to a deepening interest in occupational health and safety. In this role, he has upset a lot of companies, been "grey listed" by the Health and Safety Executive as a persistent enquirer, and become a thorn in the side of the Scottish oil industry. His report earlier this year, Piper Alpha ten years after, made serious criticisms of the industry for allegedly failing to learn the lessons of the platform disaster in which 167 died. His mission, in his words, is to hurt the bad guys.

Flicking through his corporate killing file - a record of reported deaths at work - he reads out some headlines: "'Sloppy management led to worker's death', 'Worker killed on first day at work', 'Firm fined over accident'. They usually get a column inch or so," he says. "But I have never seen the HSE as the problem. Government policy and financial constraints are the key hurdles."

Some cases, he claims, are prima-facie candidates for criminal prosecution. But new Labour's vociferous commitment to getting a criminal law covering corporate killing on to the statute books has, he says, like so many other issues, slipped off the agenda. Consequently there is still no effective deterrent to causing death at work. Fines tend to be about the Pounds 4,000 mark, "about the cost of a second-hand car. Either we can continue to try to persuade corporations to behave themselves or we can criminalise employers who violate existing statutory laws," Woolfson says.

Determined that the issue should not perish, he has asked permission from the Crown Office for court records so he can examine every instance of workplace death in Scotland in the past three years. He already knows that the rate of fatal accidents in Scotland is greater than that in England. He wants to know how many were recommended for prosecution and the outcomes. "I would say there is an institutionalised, official tolerance of corporate homicides and it is time to blow the whistle."

Inevitably Woolfson has been accused of political motivation. An orthodox Marxist who sneers at his colleagues "strutting their stuff" in Marxism Today, he believes Marxism as an intellectual system has as much penetrative power today as ever. In fact it is more relevant, he says, during the maturing crisis of global capitalism and there is still some fine Marxist scholarship going on.

While Woolfson never makes a secret of his politics, neither does he vigorously parade them. He is not an in-your-face Marxist and his views have not perturbed the Scottish police force, which recently invited Woolfson to give a presentation to senior officers on the role of ethics in policing.

Now director of the graduate school in the faculty of social sciences, he has spent his entire career at Glasgow University, after graduating in 1971 from Strathclyde University with first-class honours in sociology and politics. His pride in the institution brims over, for no matter how controversial his work, Glasgow has never once sought to damp him down. "Before my North Sea oil work came out I felt obliged to warn the university that some lucrative industrial grants might be in jeopardy and their reaction was that as long as the work was supported by good research, there was no problem."

His work could easily become gloomy, yet Woolfson is not in the least dour and apologises after our interview, saying he usually tries to get in more laughs. But it is his integrity, his solid body of research, prolific publications, and dedication to the lives of ordinary people that set him apart. Elsewhere, he says, the business-friendly approach of many universities has led to pressures on academics to which many have only too readily responded. "Most Scottish academics seem to spend their time scrabbling for contracts and consultancy from industry," he says. "No other country is so ready to accept the official versions of the industry spin doctors. That is not what I'm in academia to do."

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