Making health and safety a fundamental workers' right
By BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson ansd BWI Vice President Gail Cartmail
*First published by Hazards Magazine
The struggles for healthy and safe work environments are central to the work of trade unions. Given the importance of the right to safe and healthy work, many trade unionists assume that health and safety on the job is among the fundamental rights at work recognised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
They are surprised to learn that it is not.
“Safe and healthy working conditions” is among the human rights contained in the worker rights article of UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
However, in the ILO, the body responsible in the UN system for defining and supervising worker rights, health and safety is not part of the rights in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, often considered to be the ILO’s labour standards on human rights.
A healthy and safe work environment is a daily concern of workers on the job and intrinsic to how workers conceptualise values of dignity, fairness, equality and respect in the workplace. Trade unions have fought for occupational health and safety (OHS) to be defined be these values, protected by national legislation and covered by international standards.
A human right
There are over a dozen ILO conventions that deal completely or partially with healthy and safe working conditions and also inform human rights due diligence. For workers in construction, one of the most hazardous sectors, Convention 167 (1988) on Safety and Health in Construction as well as Recommendation 175 and the Code of Practice, have been very important instruments for unions in their struggle to improve OHS in their countries. But the number of countries that have ratified this and other conventions relating to OHS is not very high. Many countries do not have comprehensive national laws covering health and safety that meet international standards or have poor enforcement of their laws. Unhealthy and unsafe working conditions are still commonly found in many workplaces around the world. There are many preventable illnesses and accidents every year as a consequence.
In September 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and ILO released a report providing Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury, 2000-2016. The report estimates there are about 2 million deaths annually as a result of work-related diseases and injuries.
About 20 per cent of the deaths in this analysis are caused by occupational injuries. The rest are the result of non-communicable diseases, which emphasises the need to pay attention to occupational health. Ties between safety and health and decent work are again proved by this study – it found the top risk was exposure to long working hours, linked to approximately 750,000 deaths per year.
Great strides can be made to address legislative and enforcement deficits in health and safety globally by adding a healthy and safe work environment to ILO’s fundamental principles and rights. Even if nations have not ratified the relevant conventions, they are expected, by virtue of their membership in the ILO, to honour these principles and rights in the 1998 Declaration.
The ILO Centenary Declaration adopted in 2019 at the International Labour Conference (ILC) states that “safe and healthy working conditions are fundamental to decent work.” At the conference, ILO adopted a resolution requesting its Governing Body “consider, as soon as possible, proposals for including safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work.”
The ILO Governing Body in 2019 approved a road map towards this for their discussion in 2020, but most of the substantive questions to determine the road ahead remain unanswered.
The need for a healthy and safe working environment as a fundamental right became a rallying call during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many workers continued to work even during the peak of the pandemic waves, including construction workers, often under stressful conditions where they had little understanding of the risk of exposure and mitigation strategies that should be in place.
Noting the lack of progress on the 2019 ILO resolution, the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), together with the European Federation of Building and Wood Workers (EFBWW), launched a Healthy and Safe Workplaces Campaign at the start of April 2021.
Mobilising ahead of International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2021, trade union affiliates of the BWI were encouraged to approach employers to sign joint declarations supporting the call to the ILO to recognise healthy and safe workplaces as a fundamental worker right.
Within two months, BWI affiliates had taken up the campaign in 74 countries where 102 unions had signed joint declarations with more than 330 national employer associations or individual employers. Amongst these are the national employer associations in Belgium, Netherlands, South Africa, Romania, Ukraine and Russia.
In the UK, Unite signed a declaration with HPC NNB, the biggest construction project in Europe, recognising occupational health and safety as a fundamental right.
BWI signed declarations with 10 multinationals with which it has International Framework Agreements. EFBWW signed joint declarations with the European Construction Industry Federation FIEC, the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries CEI-Bois, the European Furniture Industries Confederation EFIC and the European Panel Federation EPF.
By the end of September 2021, there were 350 signed declarations covering an estimated 18 million workers in 480,000 workplaces and more than 300,000 employers. BWI is championing the struggle by organised labour from the local to global level as well as calls from other development and health institutions and agencies, that a healthy and safe working environment must be included as the fifth fundamental right.
The four ILO fundamental rights – freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation – are contained in the 1998 declaration of the ILO on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
That declaration can and should be amended to include a healthy and safe working environment.
It would provide equal status to the right to a healthy and safe working environment as the established four fundamental rights.
ILO conventions organised labour would like included as core to the fundamental principle and right to a healthy and safe working environment are Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health (1981) and Convention 161 on Occupational Health Services (1985).
For trade unions health and safety is not up for negotiation, but it is important to understand these conventions and what rights they would give to workers if they were attached as core conventions in the amendment of the 1998 declaration.
Whilst there should be support for the inclusion of safe and healthy working conditions as a fundamental principle and right at the ILC in June 2022, such a change would benefit from maximum tripartite support, as was the case for the original declaration.
IOE, the employers’ group at the ILO, at this point seems be less supportive of the addition of this fundamental right than governments, despite seemingly extensive support by individual employers.
The results so far of the joint BWI and EFBWW campaign show that employers easily agreed with the notion that healthy and safe workplaces should be a fundamental right.
Whilst there is growing consensus amongst workers and employers in the building and construction sector and wood and forestry sector that health and safety should have the status at the ILO as a fundamental right, we call on employers and trade unions in other sectors to pledge their support to establish a healthy and safe working environment as a fundamental principle and right.
Now’s our time
There are no easy victories, and we can only win if we keep campaigning for the recognition of this inherent human right. Crucial to our position as organised labour should be our firm stand that a healthy and safe working environment is not something we are willing to engage social partners on in negotiations.
Given the role of trade unions globally in defending workers in their workplaces and working with employers, when possible, to combat Covid-19 and to make workplaces safer during the pandemic, if now is not the time to recognise a healthy and safe working environment as a fundamental right, will there ever be a right time?
Workers and their unions need the ILO to take a strong stand on health and safety, finally recognising this fundamental right will progress the decent work agenda as well as centralising human dignity in international labour standards.
But there can be no negotiation on this fundamental right. It is quite simply all or nothing.