The UN recognizes April 28 as World Day for Safety and Health at Work. For many of us, work can be a fulfilling activity that gives us pride and that helps define our identity. For others, work is simply a means of survival. Some of the most vulnerable workers are defined by the work they do -- work that may be dirty, difficult, or unnecessarily dangerous.
Protecting and promoting labor rights and improving working conditions of workers is central to my job as a Labor Officer at the U.S. Department of State, and I want to share the stories of individuals I've encountered in my work.
In Thailand, I met with union leaders who spent the last four years trying to help Burmese migrant workers injured in factories get access to compensation. Even permanent injury did not entitle these workers to justice from their employers.
On the other hand, there are stories that give you hope like the one told by a young trade unionist in Rangoon. Only a year after regulations went into effect allowing enterprise-level unions to form and register in the country, the young trade unionist stood on stage in front of more than a thousand people with his simple story: The boilers on the factory floor were close to the exits, which were narrow doors. At their midday break, workers filed past them to get fresh air and a bite to eat, but often were burned by coming into contact with the unprotected metal containers. Those of us in the union went and asked management to address the problem, explaining the risk it posed to workers' safety. Within days, they had relocated the boilers and covered them with protective material.
Meanwhile, women workers in Jordan and Cambodia have improved access to healthcare and are more likely to be educated about their health, because of the efforts of apparel companies, international and local NGOs, international organizations, and unions to respond to workers’ concerns. The companies find that not only does this benefit their workers, but it also helps their bottom line -- fewer absences, higher productivity, and an improved environment for conversation about women's health.
In Brazil, unions representing construction workers raised serious concerns about safety in the building sector. They worked with the international labor community, the International Labor Organization, employers, and the Brazilian government to sign a “Pact for Decent Work” that aims to ensure respect for labor rights and prevent the use of forced and child labor.
Over almost three years working on these and other labor issues for the United States, I have come to realize that something fundamental separates the sets of stories above: workers’ voice. This at the core of our day-to-day work to promote labor rights. Safety and health at work is not just a technical issue, but is about having a voice and being empowered to use it. Where workers can identify problems; where they can negotiate with their managers for improvements; and where they can be confident that their governments will hold employers accountable, we see more transparency, greater respect for rights, and safer and more productive workplaces.
About the Author: Sarah M. Brooks serves as a Labor Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.