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An injury to one...

Copyright © Rory O'Neill 2000

May 2000
by Rory O'Neill

In September 1999 a ranking of the US labour movement's 10 greatest accomplishments on the 20th century, compiled by a group of the top labour academics and historians, was published.

Only two of the US movement's achievements post-dated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One was "public sector organising". The other was the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, with its enforceable, legal duties on employers to protect the health of their workers.

Health and safety has always been a major area of trade union activity in industrial and industrialising nations. And concern for health and safety remains, surveys suggest, one of the principle reasons workers value and join unions.

One clear product of labour struggles for safer workplaces, shorter hours and greater dignity at work has been the development of national health and safety laws and the creation of enforcement regimes to make sure the laws are applied.

But laws have failed to make workplaces safe places. Working conditions remain a major cause of injury, ill-health and premature deaths.

1 million deaths

In June 1999 the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated 1 million workers die work-related deaths worldwide each year and hundreds of millions more are harmed by their jobs (1).

Globally, over one-third of cancer deaths (34 per cent), a quarter of accident deaths (25 per cent), a fifth of chronic respiratory disease deaths (21 per cent)and one-in-seven cardiovascular disease deaths (15 per cent) are work-related.

WHO/ILO warn that the evolving nature of work is generating new occupational hazards, including musculoskeletal problems, stress and mental problems, asthmatic and allergic reactions and problems caused by exposure to hazardous and carcinogenic agents, such as asbestos, radiation and chemicals.

The long-standing expectation of incrementally improving health and safety standards at work, codified and enforceable in law, has been undermined by this evolution in work practice.


The rise of the transnational corporations, the increased mobility of jobs and capital and a switch from secure to contingent labour - has created a world where the effectiveness of health and safety initiatives in one nation - legislative or trade union - is being eroded.

One indication of this can be found in European Union-wide European Foundation surveys of working conditions conducted in the 1990s.

Sandwiched between the 1991 and 1996 surveys was the introduction in 1993 of a package of extensive new Europe-wide health and safety laws. Despite more extensive legal rights to a safer workplace at the time of the later survey, the researchers reported a deterioration in working conditions.

They concluded that while "traditional risk factors still affect a very high proportion of workers and are not decreasing... new risk factors linked to organisational developments are increasing. Work is getting more intense and working patterns more irregular." Workers were losing control over the volume, nature and pace of their work. The Foundation added the less secure the worker, the greater the risks.

There is a marked union effect on safety - organised workplaces are safer workplaces - so if union influence is reduced, workplace health and safety is likely to be compromised (2, 3).

Reduced union density and power, whether incidental to or a design feature of globalisation - one of the defining features of "export processing zones", "free trade zones" and "industrial zones" is that they are resolutely union-free - has left workers more physically and economically vulnerable (4).

The effect extends to the industrialised world. Transnational corporations, making up over half of the world's top 100 economies, may now exert more power on working conditions than many national governments.

Denmark and Finland, both nations with a tradition of strong, protective health, safety and labour law, are smaller economies than General Motors. Exxon and Ford are bigger than some "Asian Tigers". The better known microelectronics, software and petrochemical multinationals have more economic clout than all but the largest industrial nations.

There is an increasing sense that these companies are not multinationals, but supranationals, above national laws, including health and safety statutes. Even when they obey the law, they can cherry pick which laws they obey and where.

When chemical multinational DuPont undertook to develop a new pesticides plant it sought to direct operations from and bank profits in the US, have its production facility in Goa and its legal liabilities in the UK, where environmental law would be more accommodating than in the US or India in the event of a Bhopal-style incident (5).

The emergence of formalised continental trade blocs and, since 1994, the World Trade Organisation, has made the process more visible and has provided a business-friendly route for the multinationals to protect their interests at the expense of workers' health and the environment.

US multinational Ethyl Corporation found the threat of action under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rules was enough to keep its toxic exports safe.

A Canadian ban on imports of the fuel additive MMT, a neurotoxin linked to Parkinsonism and other health effects, was withdrawn after the company threatened to sue for "potential" lost profits. The company argued that the restriction on sales was a breach of free trade rules, and demanded and won millions in damages courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer (6).

The Canadian government, acting on behalf of Canada's asbestos multinationals, is in on the act. It is using the World Trade Organisation's dispute settlement procedure - an unaccountable free trade "court" - to challenge a ban on asbestos introduced in France.

Canada's intention is to use free trade rules to protect global markets in asbestos, the best known and most potent industrial killer in history, from democratically agreed measures to ban the fibre on public health grounds. On 24 November 1999, Britain became the tenth European Union country to ban asbestos; the remaining member states are to introduce bans before 2005. The outcome of the WTO case, already delayed from the original March deadline, is now expected in July 2000.


Unions are awake to the threat posed to workplace and environmental health by structures designed to lubricate global trade. Robert Wages of US chemical and paper union PACE warned in 1997 of a drift towards a global "toxic economy".

And the International Confederation of Free Trade Union's (ICFTU) "New strategy for trade and development", a position paper for the 1999 WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, included arguments that "adequate occupational health and safety standards" should be built into every aspect of WTO's work together with "formal recognition of the importance of the precautionary principle in environmental and health-related trade questions, preventing hazards at work" (7).

Union practice has also changed to meet the challenge of globalisation. An ILO press release noted on the launch of the 1997/98 ILO World Labour Report that unions had retained their strength influence and had "managed to... develop new collective bargaining strategies, often on a global scale."

ICFTU now has annual meetings of a global union health, safety and environment panel, together with email-based information exchange and policy development, bringing together safety and environment specialists from national union centres and international trade union organisations.

ICFTU and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) work with environmental organisations and other non-governmental organisations to co-ordinate responses to global environmental and safety policy debates, including negotiations on global pollution problems, for example, representations on the Kyoto protocol and global warming, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and "prior informed consent" on the export of toxic substances.

Other more hands-on initiatives range from "cybercampaigns" like the international union attack on safety and labour abuses by the mining multinational RTZ (8), to lower tech but still highly effective campaigns by the International Transport Federation (ITF) on the dangers of flag-of-convenience ships and the ITF annual day of action against long working hours for professional drivers. This year, the European Trade Union Confederation has launched its first ever continent-wide health and safety campaign in a bid to combat an epidemic of work-related strain injuries (9).

Recently unions have developed global recognition agreements and international sector- or company-based union networks. All this adds to the more traditional solidarity action and international training initiatives.

The sector-based international trade secretariats (ITSs) have negotiated global recognition agreements including health and safety clauses. Recent agreements have been struck between the building workers' union federation IFBWW and Swedish-based multinational IKEA, the foodworkers' union federation IUF and French-based food giant Danone and between the chemical and energy unions' federation ICEM and Norwegian oil multinational Statoil.

Unions are also co-operating internationally outside of formal bipartite agreements. In March 1999, oil and gas unions from across the Americas, all affiliates of the chemical, energy and mining unions' umbrella organisation ICEM, formed a union solidarity network to address issues related to globalisation, including health and safety concerns.

Also March 1999, Goodyear tyre and rubber unions from 16 countries on five continents, again all ICEM affiliates, formed a global union network "for our mutual defence and advancement", with workplace health and safety as the group's top priority.

The unions agreed to create a database on Goodyear's operations and working conditions and to work co-operatively in collective bargaining negotiations, disputes and unionisation drives.

Introducing the new agreement, George Becker of the United Steelworkers of America, said: "Is a worker's life in Malaysia worth any less than a worker's life in the United States or the United Kingdom? Of course it is not, and we have to work together to ensure that Goodyear adheres to the highest possible standards no matter where it does business."

Unions are developing strategies to survive in a globalised economy, and this is a healthy development for all of us.


1. Occupational health: Ethically correct, economically sound. WHO factsheet No.84, revised June 1999.

2. Factors which support effective worker participation in health and safety. Journal of Public Health Policy, vol.19,no.3, 1998.

3. Unions, safety committees and workplace injuries. British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.33, no.2, 1995.

4. Public health then and now. Industrial workers' health and environmental pollution under the new international division of labour: The Taiwan experience. American Journal of Public Health, vol.87, no.7, 1997.

5. Migration of industrial hazards. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, vol.1, no.2, 1995.

6. Protecting free trade will hurt workers. Workers' Health International Newsletter, no.54, July-December 1998.

7. A new strategy for trade and development. ICFTU statement on the agenda for the third ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation, Seattle, USA, 30 November - 3 December 1999. Available on the ICFTU website.

8. RTZ cybercampaign. See ICEM website

9. Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders. ISBN 2-930003-29-4. 1999. European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety (TUTB). Details, posters and guidance. Web: or E-mail:

Rory O'Neill

Co-editor, Workers' Health International Newsletter (WHIN).
Editor, Hazards magazine, UK.
Health, safety and environment officer, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health Policy Research, De Montfort University, Leicester, England.
Research Scholar, Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program - Labor Center, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, USA.
c/o WHIN, PO Box 199, Sheffield, S1 4YL, England.