The International Labour Organization (ILO) voted in 2022 to declare safety and health a fundamental right at work. What does it mean in the context of a turbulent world to declare that the health and safety of workers is a fundamental human right? Occupational safety and health in law and policy often focuses exclusively on the administrative or technical control of dangers faced by workers. A realist approach is also needed to respond to risks in our increasingly unsettled world. This means refocusing state policy on the economic preconditions that are necessary to achieve the effective protection of workers against hazardous work now and in the future. In this article, this situation will be analyzed for the Centre for Policy, Innovation, Design and Progress, Ankara, Türkiye.
How Do We Protect Worker Health in A Turbulent World?
What does it mean—in the context of a turbulent world—to declare that the health and safety of workers is a fundamental human right? Last summer, the International Labour Conference resolved that “a safe and healthy working environment” be listed in the International Labour Organization (ILO) framework of fundamental principles and rights at work. Safety and health at work had been recognized internationally as a human right in 1966 with the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The immense challenges facing global society created by war, economic turmoil, and the Covid-19 pandemic reinforced calls for the ILO to adopt a new resolution elevating again the status of safety and health at work. The new declaration is justified by ongoing and current events. On a substantive level, however, there must be more discussion and debate about what essential changes such a declaration implies.
The turbulence justifying the ILO’s new declaration were reported with clarity by the Human Development Report of 2022 (UNDP, 2022). While not the only reason for a renewed focus on safety and health, the United Nations (UN) report describes economic insecurity across human society. It gives a detailed and sobering account of “a new reality” facing human societies based upon a “new uncertainty complex” that has caused declines in human development for two consecutive years. Economic uncertainties and declines in human development have led to a more turbulent world. Such widespread social uncertainty and insecurity raise important questions about the strategies that follow a declaration that health and safety at work are fundamental human rights.
According to the UN Human Development Report, global society’s new complex of uncertainty includes “the layering and interactions of multidimensional risks” and “overlapping of threats” that “give rise to new dimensions of uncertainty” in a global context of “weakened socioecological systems.” Pressures on the planet, digitalization, economic insecurity, violence, and discrimination, are giving rise to a society where “mental wellbeing is under assault.” The addition of safety and health to the ILO framework of fundamental principles and rights at work is a welcome development. As a fundamental right, the ILO considers this fifth category of rights to be a constitutional obligation (the other four fundamental rights are the right to be free from child labour, freedom from forced labour, the freedom of association with trade union rights, and the right to be free from discrimination in employment and profession). ILO member states agree to accept the ILO constitution as an obligation of ILO membership. Elevating safety and health at work to a fundamental right means member states accept it as an ILO constitutional obligation.
International labour conventions that have been adopted by the ILO International Labour Conference require the ratification of individual ILO member states. Ratification means that the state accepts the provisions of the convention and accepts to change national law and practice to be in conformity with the convention. The regular process of supervision of the application of conventions, however, requires that a member state ratify the instrument. Some ILO conventions have few ratifications. This voluntary system dates to the origin of the ILO in 1919. With the rise of the modern international human rights era since the adoption of the UN Charter, however, the principle of sovereign equality has been accompanied by concern about protecting human rights. The original, purely voluntarist system of ILO international labour standards has now slowly been supplemented with ongoing discussions of fundamental rights and constitutional principles.
Each of the five categories of fundamental rights mentioned above have been coupled with two international labour conventions. On the question of safety and health at work, these are the Occupational Safety and Health Convention of 1981 (No. 155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention of 2006 (No. 187). Both conventions were adopted previously and have been open to ratification for several years. Together they have been reclassified as fundamental conventions under the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, as amended in 2022. The specific provisions of these two conventions have therefore been elevated to constitutional obligations for ILO member states (ILO, 2022). This is likely to lead to a rise in their ratification and regular supervision by the ILO. Given the elevated status as fundamental rights, a separate process now exists requiring member states to report on the implementation of these two conventions within their respective country’s law and practice.
The topics covered in ILO conventions 155 and 187 involve questions of developing a coherent national occupational safety and health policy, ensuring that there is an adequate and appropriate system of labour inspection, education and training, worker rights and participation, and promotion and development of a national preventative safety and health culture. On paper many of these now fundamental obligations appear well-defined. In reality, however, there is a significant need for more dialogue about what these provisions actually mean in practice. Each society has a variety of economic sectors that are structured in many different ways. Economic philosophies translated into government policies and practices have significant impacts upon the realization of safety and health in society. These governance philosophies lead to rules, patterns and practices but can be rather static even where society is dynamic and undergoing change.
Given the reality of global uncertainty, weakened socioecological systems, increasingly turbulent societies, and layered risks, how effective are traditional protections for occupational safety and health? How might our current uncertainty complex transform the obligations, rights, and policy benchmarks so commonly associated with occupational safety and health? There is no easy answer to this question. Insights can be gained, however, with a reflection upon the array of different policy strategies pursued historically in the protection of safety and health at work. No easy classification is possible for such a complex policy area, but one particular division emerges from this reflection. Occupational safety and health is often considered as a technical-managerial function aided by specialist consultants or labour inspectorates. In this view, risks at work arise simply from imperfect work processes that can be corrected by interventions of technical control. The control of risks is studied with scientific precision and lives are saved with effective action.
Occupational safety and health can also be viewed through a broader lens. This view encompasses the technical science but also gives attention to social relations and the political economy. Historical resolutions of the ILO International Labour Conference, for example, made a point of emphasizing that the protection of occupational safety and health obligated states to adopt a realist analytic lens that extended to all domains of state and industrial policy planning. In the wake of the UN adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966, for example, the ILO launched a technical assistance program for member states to integrate worker safety and health concerns broadly into all state economic policy planning. Human rights during the détente era, including the right to safety and health, were recognized as constituting a “sanitary cordon” to subordinate “economic laws” of “free play” to social justice. Occupational safety and health from this realist viewpoint were not understood as being isolated protections for the individual as if grounded within liberal market philosophies and values. The protection of safety and health was instead to be rooted in an analysis of the political economic reality. Policy was thus held to a higher standard of planning and action in the economic sphere.
One ILO resolution, Resolution on Working Conditions and Environment (1976), for example, noted “an essential condition of improving working conditions and environment is the free exercise of human rights including the right to organise” and states should seek “extension of industrial democracy”. A “coherent policy” was required to eliminate or control work hazards. In 1975, the ILO “solemnly reaffirmed” the improvement of working conditions was “the first and permanent mission of the ILO” and advocated “an international programme for the improvement of working conditions and environment” with a broad analysis based in realism. History shows us that when attention has been paid to worker safety and health as a fundamental and international human right, a certain realist logic necessarily follows, giving attention to not only the technical control of risks but also the systemic and structural causes of degrading work. What appears as an “inherent” hazard at work needing technical controls may in fact be the result of broader sectoral dynamics, including competitive constraints, as the true cause of unsafe work.
When we ignore political economic analyses, we presume existing economic models. If worker health is threatened due to broader trends in society or economy, any fundamental rights analysis should necessarily critique those trends and mobilize society and the state in response. A realist approach offers a depth of attention to health and safety problems that can be absent from technical discussions about the protection of safety and health at work. The governments of ILO member states are now obligated to draft and implement coherent national occupational safety and health policies. Given the renewed status of occupational safety and health as a fundamental human right, attention should be paid to how states assume these new obligations of coherence in national occupational safety and health policy, especially in the context of a turbulent world.
Coherent national occupational safety and health (OSH) policies should recognize how social relations and the political economy are interwoven with health and safety protections in the working environment. Policy should empower people and groups to supplement generalized rules with specific local action and should go beyond the basic values of prevention to incorporate the values of precaution. The nature of trade union rights and of collective representation must be deepened and expanded to protect safety and health. Safety and health as a fundamental right cannot be seen as merely one technical appendage in a context of war, peace, global trade, and the multilateral system. Safety and health at work should be the starting point for all state policy and all global policy action. In the turbulent world of risks in a new uncertainty complex, such approaches will be indispensable if the world is serious about protecting worker safety and health as a fundamental human right.
The UN Charter of 1945 established the sovereign equality of states with human rights in society as the foundation of the postwar multilateral system. Through the years, the recognition developed that economic security is among the most important human rights. Economic security as a human right is not only indispensable for the individual, but also is an indispensable element for a truly healthy and sustainable economy and thus ultimately a peaceful society. As societies adjust and transform in response to a more turbulent world, our understanding of the role of the state in the protection of occupational safety and health must also undergo a sea change. Concern about the safety and health of workers must encompass the concern about managing economic sectors, philosophies of governance, and the limits of narrow ideas about cultures of prevention. Protecting workers and communities in the future will require developing a deeper concern about the organization of work by society. This will require both abandoning static understandings of human rights while developing new fundamental principles for economic security in the future.
ILO. (1975). Resolution concerning future action of the International Labour Organisation in the field of working conditions and environment. International Labour Conference. 60th Session. Geneva: International Labour Office. Retrieved 2022-05-09.
ILO. (1976). Resolution on Working Conditions and Environment. Resolutions Adopted by the International Labour Conference. 61st Session. Geneva: International Labour Office. Retrieved 2022-05-09.
ILO. (2022). Proposed resolution submitted to the Conference for adoption. Second Report of the General Affairs Committee. Record of Proceedings. International Labour Conference. 110th Session. ILC.110/Record No.1C. Geneva: International Labour Office. 6 pages. Retrieved 2022-06-10.
UNDP. (2022). Human Development Report 2021/2022. Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World. New York: United Nations Development Program. 300 pages. Retrieved 2022-09-09.