Global chemicals safety agreement: big wins for workers, big challenges for the ILO

photo: Unsplash / MUS LIHAT

The fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) has concluded with agreement on a new Global Framework on Chemicals – for a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste.

The global trade union delegation from Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, Mauritius, Romania, Singapore and the USA secured big wins for workers concerning the extraction, production, use, distribution and disposal of chemicals.

Workers currently face risks that cause around one million work-related deaths worldwide every year, in an industry that is expected to double in size between 2017 and 2030.

The agreement sets the agenda for the UN, governments, industry, and in particular the ILO, which will consider a Biological Hazards Convention and a tough new chemicals safety legal instrument between 2024 and 2027.

Safe and healthy workplaces

Explicitly referencing the recognition last year by the ILO that a safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental workers’ right, the High-Level Declaration adopted at the end of the conference stresses that pollution is the world’s largest risk factor for disease and premature death.

It commits the global community to a human rights-based approach, promoting decent, safe, healthy and sustainable work throughout value and supply chains, preventing exposure to harmful chemicals and phasing out the most harmful during the course of a just transition that leaves no one behind.

ITUC Deputy General Secretary Owen Tudor led the union delegation: “Workers are on the frontline of chemical exposure in many industries, including in agriculture, cleaning, factories, logistics and waste disposal. They live in communities that are often exposed to pollution without the resources to protect themselves.

“This groundbreaking agreement gives unions the opportunity to push for safer, healthier work in collective bargaining at the workplace and sectorally, in national and international laws, in public and private investment decisions, in public procurement and in trade, with due diligence at the heart of decision-making.

“In particular, it cements the role of the ILO as the world’s leading body on safe and healthy working environments. We can create a cleaner, greener future for everyone.”

The Global Framework brings together governments, multilateral institutions, businesses, unions and NGOs. The ICCM5 saw unions working with progressive governments as well as environment and health NGOs. The ITUC adviser on health and safety, Rory O’Neill, was elected to the Framework’s bureau at the end of the conference, cementing trade unions’ role in global decision-making on chemicals health and safety.