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28 April - world day for safety and health at work

28 April, 2023Health and safety is a fundamental principle and right at work. IndustriALL Global Union is campaigning for the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention, amendments to the Rotterdam Convention and the ratification of ILO Convention 176.

It is estimated that more than 3 million workers die every year because of their work, and tens of millions are injured. 28 April is International Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remind us that health and safety at work is neither a perk to be bargained for nor a favour to be asked. It is our right. In the workplace.

While fatal accidents have fallen, the fatal frequency rate — the number of fatalities per million hours worked, is not evenly distributed across sectors and regions, with mining, shipbuilding and ship breaking, textiles, electronics, chemicals, showing disproportionate impacts. On the other hand, occupational diseases continue to kill more workers across sectors, also at disproportionate sector and country level, more than the fatality frequency rate.

In June last year, the International Labour Conference in Geneva added health and safety to the ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This means that ILO member states commit to respect and promote the fundamental right to a safe and health working environment, whether or not they have ratified the relevant ILO Conventions.

Shipbreaking is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. This year is crucial for improving safety, because Bangladesh has committed to ratifying the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (HKC). When the Convention enters into force, it will create a health and safety baseline that will drive up conditions and transform the lives of shipbreaking workers on the subcontinent and elsewhere.

When the floating tonnage of the world’s fleet reaches the end of its useful life, ships – and other ocean-based vessels, including oil rigs – need to be broken and recycled.

Most ships are broken in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, by migrant workers on precarious contracts with minimal training and safety equipment. The work is extremely tough, very dangerous, and with the partial exception of India, generally done by hand.

Ships are beached, and then dragged with chains by labourers to the breaking area. They are manually cut into blocks with torches and dismantled with sledgehammers. Fatal accidents are frequent: a common cause of death is falling from height with a recently cut sheet of steel. In Gadani in Pakistan in 2016, work commenced before fuel was removed from a ship, leading to an explosion that killed 28 workers.

Workers are exposed to carcinogens and other toxic substances, as well as environmental contamination. Housing and medical care are inadequate, as is access to clean water.

Alang shipyard, India

Alang shipyard, India

In India, the situation for shipbreaking workers is changing: the combination of a strong union, ASSRGWA, part of IndustriALL affiliate SMEFI, and the ratification by India of the HKC has meant that safety has dramatically improved. Instead of breaking ships on beaches, most yards now use impermeable floors. Blocks are moved by crane, and some yards have joint union-management health and safety committees and the right to refuse unsafe work.

And yet even in India, the accident rate remains unacceptably high, with eight fatal accidents in 2022. IndustriALL believes that only a joint health and safety committee that covers the whole port area that falls under the jurisdiction of the Gujarat Maritime Board will be sufficient to stamp out dangerous practices.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan, shipbreaking is still done by hand. And while India has ratified the HKC, it has not yet entered into force, meaning unscrupulous shipowners can recycle their ships cheaply in dangerous yards. All eyes are on Bangladesh, and the opportunity to use the HKC to transform the industry.

Pakistan's dangerous mines

A joint contender for most dangerous job in the world is coal mining in Pakistan, where miners die every week in primitive coal mines. In 2021-2022, more than 300 mining deaths were reported. Unions believe many deaths go unreported.

The deaths present a colossal failure on many levels: by mine owners and operators, by the state, and by a society that has come to accept the death toll as inevitable. Despite well-established mining safety protocols, preventable accidents happen almost every day. Pakistan’s Mines Act is 100 years old – and yet many mines fail to adhere to it. Pakistan lacks the ability and the will to enforce its laws, with inadequate safety and labour inspectorates.

Many mines are operated illegally, in tribal areas outside the effective jurisdiction of the government. Owners are often based offshore, paying local contractors to extract coal for use in the domestic industry. Workers – many of them migrants from Afghanistan – are employed as day labourers, with no rights and no safety equipment. Local militias provide security. When accidents happen, there is seldom an emergency response, and workers have to dig their colleagues out themselves. Unable to change the situation, local unions focus on reporting the growing death toll like a litany of destruction.

To change the situation, the fatalism that paralyses the government and society must be challenged. The government of Pakistan must ratify and implement ILO Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines. The government must develop – with the support of the ILO, IndustriALL, and other willing actors – a safety inspectorate that can tackle the crisis. And the government must assert its authority to close down and seize mines operate illegally or in contravention of safety standards.