Unions put health and safety on the global agenda

Unions don’t just protect your livelihood, they protect your life. ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow explains why health and safety at work is always on the union agenda.

Unions don’t just protect your livelihood, they protect your life. ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow explains why health and safety at work is always on the union agenda.
When eight major High Street fashion retailers announced in September they were prepared to pay more for clothes made in Cambodia, it wasn’t a random act of kindness. It followed a 17 September global day of action by unions in support of garment workers’ demands for a higher wage.

The campaign - which involved Cambodian unions, the ITUC, global unions IndustriALL and UNI and an extensive network of supporters worldwide - gathered momentum after repeated reports of workers collapsing and sometimes dying at work as a consequence of poor working conditions and malnutrition.

A week earlier in Melbourne, Australia, global union influence was being wielded in a very different setting. Labour and employment ministers from the G20 nations agreed a declaration backed up by a 10-point health and safety action plan. In addition to emphasising the need to combat unemployment and create better jobs, the document stressed that workplace health and safety was “an urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth.”

Again, this development was not a matter of chance. Two months earlier unions had pulled together their own wish list for the G20, large parts of which made their way into the final statement. It wasn’t all there, but in a general climate of hostility to regulation and workplace rights, support for stronger health and safety laws and promotion of “responsible business practices and effective supply chain engagement” to improve occupational health and safety is a big deal. So is a commitment to promote international workplace safety guidelines and standards that include workforce participation.

The price for ignore these union messages can be high. Corner cutting and deregulation led to the deadly coal mine fire in Turkey in May this year, in which 301 workers died. And, despite the usual hasty attempt to blame the workers, it was the same factors an official report found to be responsible for the runaway oil train which last year ploughed into a town in Quebec, Canada, killing 47.

Unions can make sure lessons are learned. A year after the 24 April 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that claimed more than 1,100 lives, a union-brokered compensation fund had made its first payments to the bereaved and injured. Garment factories in the country had also faced their first independent safety audits. They were required by a safety deal proposed by unions, the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Making work better is never a done deal – it will always be work in progress, and that is why there will always be a need for an active and empowered workplace voice. Despite the Bangladesh deaths, the country’s government still gets a failing grade on workers’ rights. Governments and employers need to be convinced to take responsibility. To achieve that, unions need to further improve their organisation and capacity.

There is a lot of work to do. Firms continue to cut staff and cut corners. Workplace maladies known since antiquity still kill miners. Workers still die from the occupational diseases observed two millennia ago by Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. Falls from height remain a top workplace killer, despite there being no mystery about their prevention or the effects of gravity. Global asbestos production increased again last year. Even the world’s biggest ever industrial killer hasn’t gone away.

And a series of technological ‘miracles’ spawn new generations of hazards. Apple may have been named the ‘coolest’ brand on the planet for the third consecutive year, but down the supply chain the factories producing its products can be hot, dirty and deadly. The global microelectronics giant, with net profits in the last quarter of US$7.7 billion, has only just agreed to phase out the use of cancer-causing benzene and the potent nerve poison n-hexane by its subcontractors. Even then, the commitment doesn’t apply to its entire production process.

While industry worldwide clings on to ancient hazards like asbestos and supplements them with new favourites like nanomaterials, it is evident this health and safety deficit is not an issue of knowledge, it is an issue of priorities and power. It doesn’t even make business sense. As the G20 labour employment ministers admit, “safer workplaces are an essential element of strong, sustainable, and inclusive growth.”
Each year, by the International Labour Organisation’s estimate, 2.3 million people worldwide die as a result of occupational illnesses and injuries. The global labour standards body puts the annual direct or indirect cost of occupational illness and injuries at US$2.8 trillion worldwide.

The gulf between good intentions and good outcomes is one that will remain while firms are allowed to put profits before people. That’s why unions are so crucial in delivering better pay, greater equity and healthier places to work. And it is why there is such a marked ‘union safety effect’, with studies showing unionised workplaces not only protect your pay packet, they protect your health.

Unions know their ability to defend and improve health and safety standards is valued and helps them recruit and retain members. It’s one reason ITUC has made it a core organising priority, at local, national and international levels. ITUC’s new health and safety news pages are part of a union toolbox intended to share knowledge on safety problems across the globe and the creative organising strategies that deliver safety solutions.

Workers shouldn’t pay the price of production. Work shouldn’t be hell, it shouldn’t hurt and it certainly shouldn’t kill. Work should be fulfilling, safe and worthwhile. Union organisation can make this happen. Working together, we make work healthier and we make work better.