23 April 2015
28 April is Workers Memorial Day. We must remember the dead and fight for the living.
According to the the International Labour Organisation, there are 2.3 million occupational deaths a year worldwide, with 2 million from occupational diseases; cancers, circulatory disorders, lung diseases. It places the occupational cancer toll at over 600,000 lives a year. These are truly terrifying statistics.
But the industries that benefit from the use of toxic products have been incredibly successful in covering up the true scale of the problem. The ITUC points out that the biggest names in petrochemicals – British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell Chemical – contributed to funding a major study intended to counter cancer compensation claims and industry regulation, a phenomenon that mirrors the climate-change denial movement, and is far from unusual.
ITUC general secretary Sharon Burrow said; “Let me put it like this. Some of the world’s most profitable companies are not just defending their toxic products, they are defending weak exposure standards that mean they profit and you pay. It is not ethical, it is not healthy and it is not what we bargained for. We make this pledge – if they expose us, we will expose them.”
A lack of occupational health and safety regulation is an international problem, and must be considered as such. Developing countries with poor health and safety regulations are producing the world’s low-cost goods at the cost of the wellbeing of their workers. We must not accept entrenched poverty and hazardous working conditions as the norm for workers of multinationals, while the profits of the companies and the wages of their executives soar. Tragedies like Rana Plaza will become more common, and occupational diseases will take more and more lives.
Commenting on the lack of improvement in Bangladeshi working conditions since Rana Plaza in the Guardian today (23 April), Sam Maher is worth quoting at length; “Bangladesh is not a reminder of our past but a vision of our future. When our governments promote neoliberal, free market capitalism as the only game in town, they are aiming for a reorganisation of society exactly like that being delivered in Bangladesh. This envisages an almost non-existent state whose role is largely limited to providing the security forces required to subdue a dissatisfied population. It also anticipates a total lack of any “barriers” to the rapid accumulation of profit – no taxes, no trade unions, no “red tape” of regulation.”
He points out; “Safe working conditions, the elimination of child labour, the five-day week, the provision of education, healthcare and social security did not simply evolve as a result of industrialisation. They were fought for bravely over generations by workers”.
The ITUC has published a briefing Toxic Work: Stop deadly exposures today explaining why trade unions must mobilise for protecting workers from hazardous substances, with key facts and figures. There is also a workplace cancer website, http://cancerhazards.org/ to update Union reps on the latest news and developments on occupational cancer; new scientific evidence, news stories, and union initiatives.
The IER is holding an event in London on 10 June, Workplace issues; Taking up the issues with the new government in which health and safety will be a point of focus. Find out more about the event, and book your place here.