Women’s Cancers and Work: what trade unions can do

Each year, there are over 55,000 new diagnoses of breast cancer in the UK, 3,000 new diagnoses of cervical cancer, over 7,000 of ovarian cancer, over 9,000 of uterine cancer, and over 1,000 of vulval cancer. Nearly 12,000 UK women die each year from breast cancer, over 4,000 from ovarian cancer, over 2,000 from uterine cancer, nearly 500 from vulval cancer, and nearly 900 from cervical cancer. 

1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Think of all the women you know: one in eight of them. Think of all the women in your workplace and in your trade union: one in eight of them.

Research has linked 4-5% of breast cancer cases to shift work, due to circadian (body clock) disruption and exposure to artificial light at night. Studies have shown that breast cancer risk is 21% higher in women who have ever experienced circadian disruption, mainly through night work, compared with those who have not. Exposure to certain substances at work also increases the risk of breast and other women’s cancers.

As if the health and emotional difficulties that cancer brings are not bad enough, women also experience loss of income as a result of cancer: Macmillan estimates that four out of five people lose £570 per month or more.

And adding insult to inury, Tory government austerity cuts have included withdrawing over 20 cancer treatments, reducing funding to public health funding, and cutting research funding. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) decided in December 2016 not to provide a medicine which can extend the lives of women with advance breast cancer.

So, what can trade unions do? This is not an add-on issue for unions: it is, literally, a life-and-death matter. Unions count health, safety and equalities among their core issues, so they can – and have a responsibility to – take up the battle against women’s cancers.

A trade union is not a substitute for the NHS or a cancer charity: its job is not to raise funds or (just) ‘awareness’: it is to fight for working conditions that minimise the risk of cancer and enable workers who do get cancer to access treatment and support without getting grief from work. As in other issues of workers’ welfare, they will come up against employers which prioritise ‘business interests’. It’s the bosses’ job to maximise profits; it is the unions’ job to fight for workers’ rights and stuff the profits.

One effective way to do this is to place concrete demands on employers – for example, that they:

  • conduct workplace risk assessments that include cancer risks to women, and take action to reduce these risk factors
  • carry out their legal duties regarding the health of night workers
  • pay full sick pay to women absent from work through cancer
  • release women from work with full pay to attend all cancer-related appointments
  • do not count cancer-related absence towards any disciplinary process under sickness absence policies

It can – it usually does – take a fight to turn demands into reality. So the union has to be ready for forceful collective bargaining, with members campaigning and ready to take action if required.

Women workers will be in a stronger position armed with knowledge of their rights, and with union reps who also have that knowledge. Trade unions can give members this ammunition through training and through producing ‘know your rights’ guides.

And unions – as part of a broader working-class movement that has a duty to defend working-class social interests – can provide major support and mobilisation for campaigns to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation. If they don’t, then they are not doing their job.

I am proposing a motion to next month’s RMT’s Women’s Conference for the union to take up this strategy. Watch this space to find out what happens.

Trade union resources on cancer:

* statistics from Cancer Research UK, Macmillan, and Breast Cancer Care.

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