Hazards banner
       Hazards, number 157, 2022
International Workers’ Memorial Day – dying to work must end now!
Work is killing 3 million workers worldwide each year. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), says that dying to work must end now, and health and safety must be recognised as a fundamental right for all workers.


In the last three years, more than 9 million workers have died because of the work they do. As Italian and Spanish-speaking trade unionists say, “Basta!” Enough!

Three years ago this June, the International Labour Conference – the only global tripartite institution, with equal numbers of union, employer and government delegates – agreed that occupational health and safety should become a fundamental principle and right at work. This summer, that same International Labour Conference must finally make that a reality.

That’s the call we will be making this International Workers’ Memorial Day, on 28 April, when we mourn the dead but commit ourselves to fight like hell for the living.

It’s fundamental

This year, occupational health and safety (OHS) must join freedom from forced and child labour, from discrimination at work, and freedom to join a trade union and bargain collectively as International Labour Organisation (ILO) fundamental rights at work.

There must be no more opposition from callously indifferent employers, or recalcitrant governments. Our right to go to work and come back at the end of the day just as fit and well as we started it must be baked in.

Getting closer  The high profile union campaign to get occupational health and safety (OHS) recognised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a ‘fundamental’ right at work has taken a big step forward. The March 2022 meeting of ILO’s Governing Body agreed recognition of OHS will be on the agenda the UN agency’s International Labour Conference in June 2022 [see: Fundamental safety move gets closer].

Over the past century of its existence, the ILO has adopted a raft of health and safety conventions – some of them general, some of them sector or hazard specific.

One or more of those conventions, starting with ILO Convention 155 (C155) on implementing occupational safety and health, must become a fundamental convention, requiring government adherence as a condition of ILO membership, whether or not they have gone through the formal ratification process. Most of the world’s countries – 187 – are members of the ILO.

C155 requires governments to put in place a preventive health and safety system, involving obligations on employers such as the requirement to consult workers and their representatives. It gives rights to workers to be trained, to free personal protective equipment and to refuse dangerous work without penalty.

What works best?

We want to see progress on another convention, ILO Convention 161, which requires governments to ensure that workers have access to an occupational health service chosen in consultation with workers and their representatives, extending coverage from the 20 per cent of formal sector workers who already have access, and addressing the occupational diseases that cause two out of three deaths at work around the world.

And ILO Convention 187, on promotion of occupational health and safety through a tripartite national institution, will also be important. We want to see these and all the other ILO health and safety conventions ratified and implemented, and global unions will be demanding that the ILO and its 187 member governments do more to promote that, with adequate labour inspectorates, campaigning to make it all happen.

We want unions to be able to establish joint health and safety committees in every workplace, and worker safety representatives covering not just big workplaces but individual and self-employed workers through initiatives like roving safety reps. We have been laying plans with national trade union centres and sectoral Global Union Federations to celebrate the adoption of OHS as a fundamental right with a new organising drive across every sector on every continent.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is demanding zero fatalities at work. Global manufacturing and mining union IndustriALL wants to see an end to the carnage in coal mines across the world, especially in Asia. From the global to the local, unions will be putting their top priorities at the heart of the campaign to make occupational health and safety a fundamental ILO right.

We want to see it embedded in public health and are working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to make that happen. We want to see trade agreements recognise that it is obscene for countries to compete on the basis of who has the laxest health and safety standards.  And we want international financial institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks to insist that their investments require decent health and safety outcomes: chiefly, that right to return home as fit and well as when workers went to work.

The world’s leading experts on occupational health and safety have already backed ITUC’s call for the subject to be made a fundamental right.

Despite the foot-dragging of employers’ representatives at the ILO, and the vacillation of some governments, many employers have joined our call for a right to healthy and safe workplaces, and so have several governments, chiefly in Europe but, since Joe Biden became President and former construction worker Marty Walsh his Secretary for Labor, also the USA.

The global building and construction union, Building Workers’ International (BWI), has secured hundreds of agreements with employers in favour of this move.

Covid-19 lessons

But it hasn’t just been the absence of conscience at the top of the international employers’ movement, or the anti-worker governments like Brazil that have slowed things down over the past three years.

Ironically, it was a massive workplace disease that prevented the 2020 International Labour Conference from taking place, and turned the 2021 Conference strung out and virtual for six months.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a workplace as well as a public health disaster. Too many workers in health and care, in education, from farm to fork in agriculture, logistics and retail, in concentrated workplaces such as light electronics and food processing, faced specific hazards because of the disease, and the failure to implement basic occupational health preventions.

The transmission in homes was one aspect of the disease, although of course people brought it into their families from workplaces, whether they were patients or health and care workers, teachers or school students, customers or hospitality workers, commuters or bus and train drivers. Almost everywhere people contracted the disease and brought it home was a workplace for someone.

The struggle to put occupational health and safety rules in place globally won’t end when we establish a fundamental right. For more than twenty years, unions have been demanding a Biological Hazards Convention to prevent workplace diseases like Covid-19.

That Convention, now due to be negotiated in 2024 and 2025, would have prevented tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths by preventing workplace exposure, as well as the cases of long Covid that have debilitated so many.

We need a strong Convention in place, along with prescribing such diseases as occupational to encourage prevention, reporting and compensation, for the next pandemic that strikes, as more surely will.

Psychosocial hazards like stress, and ergonomic hazards leading to musculoskeletal disorders, also need regulations globally as well as nationally.

Unequal risks

One of the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic was that women workers were more exposed than men, and we need a health and safety system that recognises that some workers are more disadvantaged than others.

Women workers predominated in many of the industries – like health and care, education, retail and agriculture – where the risks were highest.

And many women workers were less well protected by masks designed for bigger, male faces. Too many women are in the low paid and low rights occupations that had less access to occupational sick pay and occupational health services. And, even more horrific, lockdowns led to an increase in domestic violence, trapping women for whom work is often their only respite with their abusive partners.

It wasn’t only women who were at greater risk, though. Migrants and ethnic minorities generally are more often in insecure work which meant they had less opportunity to avoid toxic workplaces, and less good precautionary measures in place where they worked.

And it was countries with the highest proportions of black people who were locked out of vaccine provision by vaccine nationalism, debt regimes that restricted public health provision, and the rapaciousness of big pharma, keen to profit from their monopoly on technology and vaccine recipes.

We need equal access to better health and safety, and that is another reason why making it a fundamental right is so important. Because it should apply to everyone at work.

28 April theme

We need occupational health and safety to be made a fundamental ILO principle and right at work to prevent more workers suffering illnesses and injuries, more colleagues losing their workmates, and more families grieving.

Workers must have the right to refuse unsafe work, and to take part in the decisions about prevention at their workplace. They need unions to make sure those rights become reality, and – this International Workers’ Memorial Day above all others - they need you to make it all happen. If not now, then when?



Fundamental safety move gets closer

A high profile union campaign to get occupational health and safety recognised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a ‘fundamental’ right at work has taken a big step forward.

The March 2022 meeting of ILO’s Governing Body has agreed an amendment to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, to include occupational safety and health, will be on the agenda the UN agency’s International Labour Conference in June. According to ILO: “If adopted, the proposed amendment would indicate that all ILO Member States would have an obligation to respect and promote safe and healthy working conditions in the same manner and with the same level of commitment as the four principles currently covered by the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.”

Most of the world’s countries – 187 states – are members of the ILO. Recognition would mean occupational health and safety joined freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of child labour, and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation as one of ILO’s top-level rules.

As part of the campaign to secure this recognition, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is urging unions worldwide to again take up the issue of health and safety as an ILO fundamental right on International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April.

ITUC 28 April #iwmd22 webpages.

Top of the page  


Work is killing 3 million workers worldwide each year. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), says that dying to work must end now, and health and safety must be recognised as a fundamental right for all workers.

It’s fundamental
What works best?
Covid-19 lessons
Unequal risks
28 April theme
Selected sources

Related stories
Fundamental safety move gets closer

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
28 April