Occupational Safety and Health has become a Fundamental Principle and Right at Work: how can Myanmar workers benefit from this development?

Occupational Safety and Health has become a Fundamental Principle and Right at Work: how can Myanmar workers benefit from this development?

This is a guest opinion piece by the International Labor Organization

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year. This corresponds to over 342 deaths every hour of every day, of which 300 are due to work-related illnesses. In addition to the suffering experienced by workers and their families, there is also a significant economic cost associated with work-related injuries and diseases. Accidents, diseases and even deaths result in loss of income, work stoppages, and overall lower productivity. Poor occupational safety and health (OSH) practices are estimated to result in a loss of 4 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year.

Given these disturbing statistics, it is therefore no surprise that on June 10, 2022, delegates at the 110th International Labour Conference (ILC), adopted a resolution to include the right to a safe and healthy working environment as the fifth International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Fundamental Principles and Right at Work (FPRW). Recognizing OSH as a FPRW opens the door to more concrete, coordinated, and traceable action with tangible impact on the lives of millions of workers in the world. Additionally, the landmark decision means that all ILO Member States commit to respect and promote the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions.

The decision by the Conference means that the most relevant ILO Conventions on OSH, specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No.155)  and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) have been added to the ILO’s fundamental conventions. These two Conventions are aimed at establishing and implementing coherent national policies, systems and programmes on OSH through dialogue between government, workers’ and employers’ organizations. 

Though Myanmar has not yet ratified the relevant conventions, as a member state of the ILO, Myanmar is now obligated to respect and promote compliance with these conventions.  But many of the gains which Myanmar has seen in OSH over the past few years have diminished in light of the economic challenges in the country. Indeed, the progressive 2019 OSH Law has yet to come into force, and advances at the policy and workplaces levels have stalled or deteriorated as businesses continue to face prolonged crisis-management modes of operation. 

OSH as a FPRW

The incorporation of OSH as a FPRW signals that the safety and health of workers is the foundation upon which good, resilient businesses are built. This is established further in the significant body of standards devoted to OSH. Conventions 155 and 187 are central to more than 40 standards specifically dealing with OSH, as well as over 40 Codes of Practice. Additionally, nearly half of ILO instruments deal directly or indirectly with occupational safety and health issues. Myanmar as an ILO Member State will now be required to report on implementation of the conventions every three years despite not ratifying them.

OSH as a FPRW in Myanmar: where to start and where to go?  

Guy Ryder, ILO Director General, said when speaking at the meeting of the G7 Labour and Employment Ministers: “If there is one subject on which there is across the board consensus, it is the idea that all workplaces should be safe and should not damage the people who perform the work. On that, Governments, Employers and Workers all agree. It has been a constitutional objective of the ILO for a century… Governments also need to strengthen their national occupational health and safety systems… [and] must resist the pressures to underinvest in labour inspection.” 

Myanmar does not yet have a national policy, system or programme on OSH and no reliable OSH statistics as no formal recording and notification system exists. However, some data has been collected, through surveys, unions and workers’ organizations, interviews with workers and employers, news reports, and before 1 February 2021, through the Social Security Board (SSB). These data demonstrate that work-related accidents, illnesses and diseases are serious issues across the board and are especially prominent in sectors such as mining, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. Even less is known about other sectors, or about informal workers across the country. This leaves Myanmar in a challenging position to fulfil its OSH obligations as an ILO Member State.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped shed light on the importance of OSH by highlighting weaknesses in OSH management at both national and workplace levels throughout the world, and Myanmar was no exception. Though far from over, COVID-19 is now only one of the issues facing workers and employers in Myanmar, as businesses fight to stay profitable and viable in the current political and economic climate. For instance, prevention and mitigation measures, such as good hygiene practices and ventilation, to combat biological hazards like infectious diseases, must be sustained through management leadership and through training. Letting these gains slip is a serious issue, both from a rights and a development perspective.

The difficulty of addressing OSH in the current climate is particularly acute in the garment sector. Trade unions have highlighted OSH among the labour law violations happening in garment factories in social media. There is no doubt that excessive, unpaid overtime, increases the risk of accidents for tired workers and would leave them unprotected by social security benefits in the case of unreported (and unpaid) overtime is becoming more common.   

ILO Governing Body decisions refer to breaches of trade union rights. With the erosion of freedom of association, it is harder for workers to advocate for safe and healthy working conditions. Additionally, as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, and define and establish a new normal, many businesses continue to focus on survival, and risk cutting corners at the cost of workers’ physical and mental wellbeing. In addition to violating workers’ fundamental rights, this is also bad for Myanmar businesses in the long run. And this context is not conducive for reaping the benefits that OSH becoming a FPRW can bring to workers and employers in Myanmar.

It has not always been this way. An opinion piece ILO published to mark World Day for Safety and Health in 2020 described the opportunities brought about by the then about-to-be-enacted OSH Law (2019) and the common ground COVID-19 have brought to employers and workers in focusing on OSH. At that time, and in many places since, a key interest in curbing the spread of COVID-19 as a means of protecting workers and business resulted in an increased interest in and demand for OSH services.

In the absence of the legal framework to underpin the work of Myanmar moving forward in realizing OSH as FPRW, workplaces can play a key role in taking the lead to ensure OSH standards are implemented. For instance, C155 has both specific wording on the duties of care of employers and responsibilities of workers in contributing to a safe and healthy workplace.

It is not only realistic but achievable for workers and employers to engage in workplace safety and health initiatives even in times of crisis. Some businesses care deeply about their workers even in (or precisely because of) this crises context, as the rising demand for workplace mental health support attests. But businesses need technical and, in some cases, financial assistance to work in a concrete and traceable way on OSH. This need for support would have been there, even if Myanmar was not going through a double crisis; it is all the more relevant in the current context.