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Unions address key challenges in chemical and pharmaceutical industries

28 September, 2023IndustriALL concluded global meetings for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, which took place in Istanbul, Turkey from 25-27 September. The event brought together 180 participants from 46 unions across 36 countries to discuss pressing issues in these fast-evolving sectors.

Key topics were tackled, from championing women, diversity, and inclusion to navigating due diligence mechanisms and union responses, exploring opportunities in the battery supply chain, to, ensuring health, safety, and sustainability. Discussions echoed a collective commitment to empower workers and strengthen workers’ rights.

The conference was hosted by IndustriALL affiliate Petrol-Is, in his opening address president Süleyman Akyüz said:

“We must address the challenges in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. I am concerned about the erosion of worker rights worldwide and the increasing investment in low-cost labour, I urge us all as unions to mobilize on a global scale to protect these fundamental rights.” 

A particular focus was put on gender equality in the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors. Lucineide Varjão from CNQ-CUT, Brazil, emphasized the importance of embedding gender equality across these industries. She noted the challenges women face, including unequal pay, underrepresentation in decision-making roles, and the burden of unpaid domestic labour. Participants called for collective action to address these disparities and support marginalized groups, including transgender individuals, youth, LGBTQI+, and racialized people.

Discussions on due diligence highlighted the importance of legislation governing human rights and environmental violations in supply chains. Sector co-chair, Sandra Bränzel from IGBCE, Germany, spoke about their focus on these developments. They've crafted a standard for companies affected by this legislation, with a particular emphasis on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) which are not yet impacted by the new German legislation. Their aim is to provide guidance for all companies, irrespective of size, recognizing that human rights violations can happen everywhere.

Alexander Bercht from IGBCE, Germany, shared some of the key challenges in the chemical industry, including demand reduction, energy price spikes, and the need for a transition to clean energy. He emphasized the role of unions in actively organizing the industry.

“In this global landscape, we'll ensure our members aren't negatively impacted by supply chain restructuring. Solidarity and collaborative action are essential to reshape our sector. Let's use all available tools and stand together!”

said Bercht.

The sector introduced a fresh addition to the agenda. IndustriALL identified the battery supply chain as key, where the sector could potentially have influence. For now, there are still many violations occurring within it. The aim of the discussion was to pinpoint areas where unions can take a stand and address the issues head-on. 

“It's crucial not to overlook any opportunities for strengthening our efforts. In the battery supply chain, there lies a significant opportunity to exchange valuable information and insights. Let's seize it!”

said Tom Grinter, IndustriALL sector director.

Tamás Székely from VDSZ, Hungary, shared on Hungary's efforts to become a hub for battery-operated vehicles. The session explored opportunities to address violations in the EV battery supply chain.

In the session on health, safety, and sustainability participants highlighted the importance of prioritizing health and safety in the workplace. Mental health and decarbonization were also key topics of discussion. The session also highlighted the need for gender-responsive health and safety measures.

“An interesting topic that emerged is mental health for union representatives. Introducing tools to address this has become a massive undertaking for the union, incurring costs, but it's imperative to prioritize the well-being of our union members also,"

said Cliff Bowen, from Unite the Union, UK

Panelists acknowledged the need for decarbonization, but noted that it is a challenging conversation because there's often no clear plan for workers within decarbonization initiatives. 

Panelists from Indonesia, France, and Morocco discussed the challenges and transformations in the pharmaceutical sector. They acknowledged the industry's shift in product focus, production relocation, and the emergence of startups, posing challenges for unions.

During the 3-day event in Turkey, network meetings were organized, on BASF, Sanofi, and Takeda, gathering worker representatives from these corporations worldwide. This enabled unions to tackle company-specific issues in-depth, fostering a strengthened and more prominent union presence within each of these multinational giants.

The meetings concluded with a commitment to address challenges, including occupational health and safety, mental health, sustainability, and the rights of women and marginalized groups. Unions pledged to work collaboratively, share information, and advocate for workers' rights at the national and international levels.

Sandra Bränzel of IGBCE and Edson Dias Bicalho of Fequimfar were elected as sector co-chairs, concluding an ambitious three-day series of meetings. They expressed optimism about the future and the joint commitment to improving the lives of the working class.

In concluding the intensive 3-day meetings, Kemal Özkan, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriALL, said: 

"Today's challenges are tomorrow's opportunities. Together, as IndustriALL Global Union, we stand united to forge a path toward a future where worker rights, inclusivity, and sustainability prevail. Let our determination be the catalyst for transformative change in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and beyond."