UN Special Rapporteur

This article was first published at IUFs website www.iuf.org

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak has presented a powerful report to the Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of the exposure to toxic substances in the workplace which sicken and kill millions of workers each year. The report maps the multiple human rights violations which underpin this massive threat to workers’ lives and health. It highlights the general retreat of governments from their international commitments to ensuring a safe work environment, often under organized corporate pressure. It exposes the rights violation at the foundation of the increasingly dominant ‘behavior based safety’ regime that assigns responsibility for workplace safety to workers rather than employers. And it offers a series of rights-based principles around which unions can organize and fight.

“Everyone has the right to just and favourable conditions of work”, a right affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) and further elaborated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, instruments ratified by the vast majority of the world’s governments.This includes the right of all workers to a safe and healthy workplace.

The right to safe and healthy work, the report emphasizes, is a right in itself, but also a right which encompasses other, interrelated rights, because human rights are indivisible. These include all workers’ right to full information about the impact of workplace exposure to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances, and their right to refuse to perform hazardous work without their prior, informed consent. The report stresses that “the right to safe and healthy work is inseparable from freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining”, which are indispensable for worker self-defense.

Respecting, protecting and advancing these rights brings with it corresponding obligations on the part of both governments and employers. The widespread failure of governments to fulfil their obligations is expressed in the figures: globally, a worker dies every 15 seconds as a result of exposure to toxic substances at the workplace. The official global death toll, which undoubtedly underestimates the real impact due to the lack of comprehensive data (another government failure) numbers over 2.7 million worker lives annually. Governments have likewise retreated from effectively monitoring the growing number of toxic substances which invade our workplaces and violate our fundamental rights, just as they have retreated from enforcing worker protections and ensuring basic trade union rights, including the rights to information, freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The report advances a set of 15 principles, referenced to the United Nations human rights framework, as a foundation on which governments and enterprises are currently obliged, on the basis of already existing international human rights instruments which have been widely ratified, to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of workers that have been violated by their occupational exposure to toxic substances. These imply, among other measures, the need for effective remedy for workers, their families and communities from the time of exposure; an end to business ‘confidentiality’ as a basis for refusing to make available information on known and potential hazards; and strict enforcement of criminal liability, including liability for extraterritorial exposure to toxic materials as a result of companies’ outsourcing or relocating dangerous and toxic work to countries with less effective protection. The report upholds the hierarchy of hazard controls as the international standard; priority in all cases should be to eliminate the hazard.

“The exposure of workers to toxic substances”, concludes the report, “can and should be considered a form of exploitation”, and it highlights the heightened risks of exploitation of vulnerable groups of workers: migrants, women, workers in sectors like agriculture, where child labour and toxic chemicals abound, precarious workers and workers in the informal economy.

Despite a number of excellent ILO Conventions on health and safety (insufficiently ratified and applied, notes the report), it is symptomatic of the generalized retreat that the right to a safe and healthy workplace does not figure among the fundamental rights set out by the ILO in its 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Exposure to toxic substances is absent from the ILO’s Decent Work Indicators, which reference occupational injuries but explicitly exclude occupational diseases resulting from toxic exposure.

Urgent times call for urgent action; workers face a massive public health crisis as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals and other hazardous substances at their workplaces.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes has produced a call to action. The IUF contributed to the report and will work for its diffusion, adoption and implementation.

The report is concise, accessible and available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian
and Spanish in addition to English. Unions should make maximum use of this important new resource.

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