Saving lives at work

photo: Alexandros Michailidis/PSI/Shutterstock

Saving lives at work requires occupational health and safety to be recognised as a fundamental right.

COVID-19 has exposed the risk for workers and without safe workplaces, the risks to the community. With so many frontline workers in health and care, food production and transport, the emergency services and education putting their lives on the line to do vital work, you would think everyone would know that workplace health and safety is one of the key issues in the pandemic. And with so many people having lost their jobs, on forced leave or working from home the role of safe workplaces for a stable economy is obvious.

So you might be surprised to discover that many governments and employers don’t think that being protected should be a fundamental worker’s right.

The World Health Organisation says in its constitution that “the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being”. But the International Labour Organisation has still not been able to implement the decision of its centenary conference in 2019 to include “safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work”.

This year, trade unions around the world will be pressing governments and employers to agree to put that commitment into practice.

Every year, 2.6 million working people die because of something that happens at work. Hundreds of thousands go to work and don’t make it home in one piece.

A grim occupational disease like mesothelioma, the cancer of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos.

Being buried under tonnes of agricultural slurry because basic safety precautions were ignored to save money.

And now, fighting for breath because inadequate sick pay provision and social protection mean that workers in the informal sector — two-thirds of the people at work around the world today — are being asked to choose between scraping a living at risk of catching Covid-19 and not putting food on their family table.

Governments have left nurses, doctors, and hospital cleaners without suitable masks to protect them as they treat the dying, like in Brazil where tens of thousands of health workers have died.

Employers have forced migrant workers in Australia to work at punishing paces in freezing conditions, crammed together in meatpacking factories, an ideal breeding ground for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

And health and safety inspectors in the UK haven’t prosecuted a single employer for Covid-19 health and safety breaches in the whole year of the pandemic.

These failures are just the latest in the decades-long disgrace of inadequate occupational health and safety provision. In workplaces where people matter less than profit, where budget cuts put safety on the line, where complaints are punished rather than listened to.

Making occupational health and safety a fundamental right at work — on a par with the prohibition of child and forced labour, discrimination at work, and the right to join a union, bargain collectively and ultimately to take strike action — wouldn’t solve every problem at work.

But it would make employers and governments more accountable when they fall short and a working person suffers, often leaving grieving parents, children, wives or husbands.

It would signal that workers have the right to refuse to take unnecessary risks at work. It would strengthen the hand of inspectors and health and safety professionals. It would drive better health and safety standards along the world’s supply chains.

And it would reaffirm the right of working people to be informed and consulted by their employers about the hazards in their workplaces — benefitting not just workers but the people they care for. In New York nursing homes, 30% fewer residents died where there was a union present.

Health and safety worker representatives, joint management-union safety committees, stronger laws have all been proven, time and time again, to keep working people and the public safer and healthier.

We’re calling on Governments and employer representatives at the ILO Governing Body in March to set a firm date for inserting workplace health and safety in the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights, and then deliver on it. Workers and their unions trusted it would happen this year. It just needs leaders committed to saving lives.

People’s lives matter more than money. With the Covid-19 pandemic raging in workplaces across the world, the time is now. We can’t wait any longer.

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.

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