Safe working conditions should be an inalienable right for all, as many governments and international bodies accept – if only on paper. What progress is being made towards making the avoidance of harm central to the world of work?
In 2019 Bascat Tuncak, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous waste, set out 15 principles for states and businesses to protect workers from exposure to toxic chemicals. He observed that, although most UN members had recognised safe working conditions as a fundamental human right since the 1970s, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 2.78 million workers were still dying every year from work-related injuries or diseases.
IOSH has long been concerned about this gap between long-stated commitments by governments and supranational bodies to make safe and healthy work a basic right and the continuing harm being done. The Institution has been advocating that states recognise workers’ safety and health as a material element in national and corporate prosperity for almost 20 years, arguing that basic compliance with national OSH laws should be only a starting point. It took the opportunity to restate the case for greater recognition of OSH as both a right and a driver of economic good in a recent submission to a UN review of its framework for improving business impacts on human rights.
UN framework review
The UN’s Guiding principles on business and human rights: implementing the United Nations ‘protect, respect and remedy’ framework (UNGP) aim to set a global standard for curbing the adverse impacts from business on human rights. The UNGP’s ‘responsibility to respect human rights’ lays out the duty of businesses to avoid infringing human rights through their own activities or through their supply chains. In 2015 the UN created a reporting framework to allow companies to measure themselves against the UNGP by stating which human rights were ‘salient’ to their business and how they were avoiding any infringements.
In preparation for the 10th anniversary of the UNGP this year, the UN issued a call for comments on the reporting framework. IOSH’s response acknowledged progress but also listed areas for improvement.
‘We said, let’s try to embed OSH further and continue to build on the foundations in place through this consultation and others,’ says IOSH head of health and safety Ruth Wilkinson. ‘By getting that acknowledgement that OSH is a fundamental right we can start to get some traction and movement to improve working conditions and treatment of workers worldwide.’
Among the developments that IOSH singled out as positive was the increasing number of organisations signing up to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include, in Goal 8, ‘full and productive employment and decent work for all’. IOSH also noted the spread of other voluntary management and reporting standards such as ISO 45001 and GRI 403, the EU’s initiatives to drive corporate social responsibility and decent work and the International Social Security Association’s Vision Zero campaign.
What is the ICESCR? Founding treaty
Safe and healthy working conditions have been accepted as a human right by most of the world’s nations for almost 50 years.
In 1966 the UN adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a multilateral treaty that came into force 10 years later. The ICESCR was intended to commit signatories to specific social, economic, health and political rights and, as such, took almost 20 years to draft as UN members disagreed on how far these rights should extend.
Article 6 of the covenant states the basic right to work. Article 7 extends the right to ‘the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work’ and ‘safe and healthy working conditions’.
The ICESCR, and this right to safety and health at work, would mean little, even as an official UN treaty, if few countries had signed up to it, but that’s not the case. In fact 171 of the 193 UN member states have signed and ratified the treaty, including Russia, China, the EU states and the UK. States that have never signed include Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore and a few African countries. The US signed in 1979 but has never ratified the covenant; according to conservative research organisation the Heritage Foundation it would oblige the government to introduce universal healthcare.
Article 2 of the ICESCR commits signatories to take steps ‘progressively’ towards full rights. The word ‘progressively’ acknowledges that states will not fulfil all the rights straight away.
Must do better
But IOSH says the high global accident and ill health toll reflects the need to do more and notes several areas for attention.
The UN has encouraged governments to draw up national action plans (NAPs) on business and human rights to ensure they have the policies and regulations to limit commerce’s encroachments on to human rights and allow citizens to have the chance to seek remedy where necessary. Twenty-seven countries have so far drawn up NAPs and another 32 have committed themselves to developing plans. But those represent less than a third of the 193 UN member states.
IOSH gives a thumbs-up to the NAPs but says it would like to see more of them and endorses a recommendation by the European Parliament that the UNGP should be translated into more languages to allow governments around the world easier access to the framework.
IOSH says that in the next 10 years of the UNGP the UN needs to strengthen the link between human rights and OSH standards that is clear in instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (see Founding treaty, below).
There are hopeful signs from other quarters. Pressure from institutional investors such as state and church pension funds for better environmental management and disclosure from corporations has expanded into a broader interest in those organisations’ employment policies, including health, safety and wellbeing measures as well as inclusion and diversity.
These efforts to probe and improve corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance have been taken up by the fund managers who allocate trillions of dollars of investment. These fund managers have a linked interest in human capital management – how businesses look after their staff and realise the value they bring – using it as an indicator of the soundness of their financial prospects. ‘You look after individuals and they benefit, the business benefits, and wider society benefits,’ Ruth observes.
She says this investor interest is very promising in ensuring better transparency and business treatment of OSH as a human right. ‘It’s why large organisations are already actioning and leading on sustainability and disclosure; however, the value and social impact for greater transparency on social responsibility, OSH and employee health and wellbeing is still an area to be fully addressed,’ she says. ‘The whole ethical practice piece can have such a large effect on big employers when considering working practices within the supply chain.’
A new mission: Help IOSH campaign for change
To continue and further enhance IOSH’s activity in support of a safer and healthier world of work, it will launch its campaign on human capital, sustainability and occupational safety and health later this year. This will draw on its vision, mission and strategic priorities, including collaborative work to recognise OSH as a fundamental human right.
Your involvement in this will help address issues including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, the socioeconomic effects of climate change, issues of equality, diversity, inclusion and social justice, and how safe, healthy work enables better business. More details will be communicated to members soon.
The requirements for corporations to verify labour conditions in their supply chains pre-dates investors’ recent interest in human capital. They were propelled by conspicuous failures to meet acceptable standards at the remote ends of big clothing brands’ supply lines – epitomised by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013. This intensified pressure on major organisations to monitor and maintain supplier OSH standards.
Extending and normalising the influence of large customers on small suppliers’ standards is a critical way to improve conditions in hard-to-reach small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). ‘If we can get the large organisations involved, through their supply chains we can get SMEs to ensure their own responsible approaches to business and truly start to embed better practices and due diligence throughout the supply chains in which they operate. This practice can also help tackle modern slavery,’ says Ruth.
But there are other ways to reach smaller businesses. The ILO runs programmes supporting governments in lower-wage economies to improve working conditions. Ruth notes that the current UN Global Compact strategy also concentrates on smaller organisations. ‘We need to think how you get this on the SMEs’ agenda when many don’t even have a dedicated health and safety person – it’s a chap on the shop floor or the responsibility of HR,’ she says.
And below the SMEs there is the often-unheard group of workers in the unregulated, informal sector, whose rights are even shakier and who make up a large proportion of the workforce in some low-wage states, and total 61% of workers worldwide.
‘There’s still a lot of work to do as unauthorised subcontracting, insufficient regulation and poor working conditions still exist in the informal economy,’ says Ruth.
A right for all: Coming together
- 2.78 m people die a year as a result of work-related accidents or illness
- 61% of the world’s employed people work in the informal economy
- 171 of 193 UN member states have signed up to a treaty recognising safe and healthy working conditions as a human right
- 59 countries have drawn up or committed themselves to create national action plans to limit infringements of human rights by business
Building back safer
Investor and public pressure for more responsible organisations is coalescing into the idea of a social licence to operate. These standards of behaviour include legal compliance but also a more refined sense of ethical responsibility and social purpose beyond increasing profits.
The sense that the COVID pandemic has intensified this pressure is reflected in IOSH’s policy brief Revitalising 2.0 – Building back better and healthier, which calls for OSH to be recognised as a right and written into trade agreements and public policy documents. ‘This is our chance to get good OSH management recognised, valued and embedded within business and recognised as a fundamental right at work,’ says Ruth.
‘The pandemic has put health and safety in the spotlight in workplaces recently. This, in addition to improvements over the decades in international standards, the drive to tackle modern slavery, and business recognition for corporate governance, is creating the momentum to help shape this agenda for the future.’
IOSH successfully lobbied for OSH provisions in international agreements to be included in UN–World Trade Organization guidance for trade negotiators and policy-makers in times of crisis and pandemic. It is also promoting the Revitalising 2.0 agenda in consultation with the European Commission which is carrying out a review of EU trade policy. More here.
There are so many influences and initiatives in progress within OSH and human rights. Does Ruth see one of them most likely to produce a positive result?
‘Everything needs to play its part: corporate transparency, multilateralism, legal frameworks, governmental work, policy-makers, corporate governance,’ she says. ‘It’s about addressing it from different angles, all towards that end goal that everyone is entitled to a safe and healthy work and work environments.’
She sees cause to be optimistic: ‘I think there is movement now: action against modern slavery, the gig economy, more voluntary reporting and disclosure, sustainability agendas. Now it needs this international action to address poor and unsafe practices and support all those at work.
‘We are heading in the right direction and IOSH is currently taking action to translate what this means for businesses, OSH, the OSH professional – and how we can all play a part.’