how a groundbreaking UN decision on health and safety will actually affect workers


In what has been called the “biggest moment for workers’ rights in a quarter of a century”, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has adopted a safe and healthy work environment as one of its five fundamental principles and rights at work for all on its International June 2022 conference. This is the first extension of workers’ human rights in nearly 25 years and means that governments must now commit to respecting and promoting the right to a safe and healthy work environment.

Every year, nearly 3 million people die as a result of accidents and illnesses while trying to earn a living. Another 374 million workers are injured or ill as a result of their work. Overwork alone kills more than 745,000 people a year from an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. If occupational safety and health (OSH) had been given more attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of lives could have been saved.

The ILO’s decision could make a huge difference in preventing mine collapses, factory fires in the textile industry or ensuring that hundreds of workers are not lost building the stadiums for the next World Cup men’s football tournament. Making OSH a human right also recognizes the psychosocial risks in the workplace that many workers experience – stress, burnout and isolation – exacerbated by the pandemic.

Founded in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the ILO became a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1946, charged with adopting and overseeing international labor standards and the promotion of decent work. The 187-member membership includes 186 of the 193 members of the UN, plus the Cook Islands.

In the 1990s, as many sought a social dimension to the new world economic order after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a clarion call was made for a global charter of workers’ rights. The demise of the social clause – an attempt to link labor standards to trade liberalization – at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the 1990s put the ball firmly in the ILO’s court. Its unique tripartite structure of governments, unions and employers rose to the challenge of coming up with a response to globalization and its victims.

Fueled by its founding mandate that “Poverty threatens prosperity everywhere, everywhere”, the ILO adopted the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This obliges the 187 ILO member states, regardless of their level of economic development, to respect and promote principles and rights in four categories: child labour, forced labour, discrimination and freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Such safeguards remain vital. Although forced labor is illegal in most countries, it is still widespread in many parts of the world. Likewise, child labor is not yet illegal in all countries and remains a concern for governments, regulators and watchdogs in many countries.

Medical professional with clipboard, stethoscope, mask, outside hospital.
Many lives could have been saved if occupational safety and health had been given more attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fifth pillar of human rights

Recognition of OSH as the fifth pillar of human rights will have major implications for businesses, international trade agreements and governments. The 1998 Declaration is the reference point for many private and multi-stakeholder forms of labor regulation. This includes the UN Global Compact (a non-binding instrument with more than 16,000 corporate signatories), the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (which outline corporate responsibility to respect human rights), transnational corporate agreements and many codes of conduct of multinationals along global supply chains.

Most trade agreements also take the 1998 ILO Declaration as the basis for their labor rights provisions. The ILO has said the declaration should not inadvertently affect the rights and obligations of any of its members in relation to existing trade and investment agreements between states. But many new trade agreements may include a legally binding labor provision about a safe and healthy work environment.

So there is a lot of pressure on governments. While the 1998 declaration only asked member states to “respect, promote and realize” the fundamental principles, a huge wave of ratifications followed. For example, in 1997 the Minimum Age Convention had only been ratified by 58 countries. Today, that number has risen to 175. Other labor standards considered fundamental, such as the Forced Labor Convention, have now been ratified by 179 member states and the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention has been universally ratified by the 187 member states of the ILO. We will probably see the same reaction now that OSH is a fundamental principle, especially since even in the EU many countries have not ratified key OSH labor standards.

An essential first step

Recognizing a safe and healthy work environment as a human right is a first step, but not an end in itself. In an era when governments promote the use of cheap labor to compete for investment, states could implement these labor standards as a form of “social camouflage” to mitigate criticism from the international community while failing to actually implement their provisions. to enforce. Likewise, while OSH could become a pillar of private labor standards regulation, using this model solely to ensure a minimum level of labor standards has proved woefully inadequate in the past.

Therefore, coordinated action by the international community is needed. The ILO’s decision speaks volumes about its continued relevance. This move represents a strong commitment from workers, employers and governments to recognize that they can do much more to ensure occupational safety and health and help prevent the death and injury of millions of people around the world.