Two years ago, the centennial International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference agreed that occupational health and safety should become a fundamental right at work. The death toll of work – five people every minute of every hour of every day around the world – was so tragic that action was needed.
The centennial conference was held nearly a year before the COVID19 pandemic struck, and changed the working world. The pandemic has only reinforced the case for health and safety at work to be given a higher profile and a higher priority.
But it still hasn’t happened.
This month, workers’ representatives on the ILO Governing Body will be arguing that the final steps that need to be taken to give effect to that centennial conference decision should be scheduled for this year’s ILO conference in June. If we can’t secure agreement, we will be demanding that at the very least, the next Governing Body meeting this November should complete the preparations, so that the final decision can be taken without further delay, in June 2022.
We are urging the governments and national employer bodies that sit with workers’ representatives on the Governing Body to agree with us, and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) letter to the ILO Director General and the Secretary General of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) is a vital element of the argument.
We want to see more employers doing what ETI’s members have done, and come out publicly to support the speedy recognition of occupational health and safety as a fundamental right at work.
Of course, even before the pandemic, the case for this was overwhelming. Prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses was one of the objectives of the ILO from its very foundation in 1919. Health is described as a fundamental right in the constitution of the World Health Organisation. And the ETI included occupational health and safety in its Base Code from the very beginning.
Taking this step would have several implications which are greatly to be desired. It would raise the status of occupational health and safety to the same level as freedom from forced and child labour, freedom from discrimination at the workplace, freedom to join a union and bargain collectively. It would encourage more countries to ratify and implement the key health and safety Conventions of the ILO, especially No 155 on establishing national systems – with the involvement of employers and unions - to prevent injuries and illnesses arising from work.
And it would include health and safety requirements in trade agreements and global supply chains – exactly as the Base Code already does for those employers who have volunteered to join ETI.
Above all, making occupational health and safety a fundamental right at work would reduce the toll of death, injury and illness for workers, businesses, families and communities.
It would save lives at work. We must do it now.