Sunday, December 18, 2005

Life and Labour Come Cheap in the Name of Global Competitiveness.

The best part of the annual American Public Health Association conference is always the Occupational Health Section Awards Luncheon which honors some of the outstanding leaders in the occupational safety and health area-- at home and globally. This year was not exception, with awards given the UAW Health and Safety Director Frank Mirer and MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, both of whom provided inspiring remarks.

The highlight of the luncheon, however, was from someone who wasn't even able to be there due to a leg injury. Fiona Murie, Director of Occupational Health and Safety in the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers, was the winner of the Section's International Award, which recognizes individuals with outstanding achievement in the field of occupational health and safety outside the United States. Her remarks were read by Garrett Brown, Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network
Dear friends and colleagues,

In the first place, please accept my apologies that I am unable to be with you today.

I would like to thank you most sincerely for your kind recognition of my work in the field of occupational health. This award is particularly meaningful since it comes from my peers in the US, for whom I have the greatest respect and affection. You are working in one of the most difficult countries in the world, in fact, where standards are constantly under attack and where labour rights that are taken for granted in many nations are still being fought for here.

I have spent most of my working life in the trade union movement, supporting the men and women who are the real heroes of the improvements in working and living conditions of their members. I refer, of course, to the workplace trade union representatives and organisers. As Director of Occupational Health and Safety in the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers, my role is to work with the 315 trade unions affiliated to us world wide, and with our team of staff working in our regional offices around the globe. I work with them to help them to improve their trade union structures on health and safety, to improve their legislative, policy and collective bargaining agenda to include health and safety, and to use health and safety as a central element of their organising strategy and services to their membership.

My mission is really to popularise health and safety, to demystify the technical aspects and to promote workers participation in prevention activities. This work includes a number of Global Campaigns, for example on the 28th of April, International Workers Memorial Day and the campaign to achieve a Global ban on the use of asbestos.

We have a very broad view of health and safety at work, believing it to be not so much a technical subject as a social, and indeed political, concern. We have a strong rights -based approach, using the Internationally recognised Labour Standards of the ILO as our baseline. This means defending the right to join a trade union, the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining. We need these fundamental principles and rights at work in order to guarantee all other labour rights, including the right to a safe and healthy working environment.

Trade Union rights are human rights. However, the need for employment is so desperate that many workers around the world have no choice but to accept dirty, dangerous and illegal working conditions if they are to be able to feed themselves and their families that day. Every day we see that hunger is the worst enemy of the law, as negligent employers evade their legal duties through the use of informal labour. Fair access to decently paid and safe work must form an important part of any poverty reduction strategy in any nation in the world, particularly when, for many people their principal or their only asset is their ability to carry out unskilled labouring work. The increasing numbers of deaths, injuries and cases of work related ill health is the most visible consequence of increasingly exploitative employment policies and labour practices. In my view, health and safety at work is our Trojan horse in the trade union movement.

Business and governments use "globalisation" as a cosh to beat down workers and working standards. The thinly veiled – in fact, increasingly explicit -agenda is that both life and labour must come cheap in the name of global competitiveness. Whether it is in brick kiln in India or a BP refinery in Texas City we can see a clear and deadly consequence.

The role of trade unions in identifying and preventing hazards at work has never been needed more and, paradoxically, has never been more difficult to achieve than in the current economic and political climate where the principal or sole criteria is that labour has to be at a bargain basement price and without any social responsibilities on the part of the employer. As a consequence, we are seeing more and more outright hostility towards organised labour. Employers continue to repress trade union rights, while governments do nothing to enforce them. Many governments, and multinational companies, seem determined to crush those who seek to defend such rights.

Death threats are the weapon of choice in this anti-union war. A total of 356 such threats were recorded in the year 2003 including 295 in Colombia alone. Such threats are to be taken seriously. Colombia is still the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist, with 184 murders in 2002; 90 trade unionists murdered in 2003 and 99 in 2004. Being a trade unionist is dangerous. In 2004, 145 people worldwide were killed due to their trade union activities, and there were over 700 violent attacks, and nearly 500 death threats.

Most of these murders take place during industrial disputes or collective bargaining negotiations. Trade unionists in many countries continue to face imprisonment, dismissal and discrimination, while legal obstacles to trade union organizing and collective bargaining are being used to deny millions of workers their rights.

Our job in the field of occupational health is to confront exploitation and to defend the most basic right of all – that is to leave home for work and to return home to our loved ones safe, sound and with our dignity intact. It takes our combined strength, locally, nationally and internationally to combat this profits before people approach, to combat the disposable worker approach - the denial of workplace risks, the denial of compensation, the denial of basic human rights in the workplace.

I believe that this award reflects the quality and quantity of shared achievements in this important area of trade union work and, believe me, this award will encourage me, and all of my colleagues, to redouble our efforts to improve working conditions in our sectors in the years to come.

Many thanks
Fiona Murie