Congress warns of concerns around negative effects of new forms of work on health of workers

28 Nov 2019

David Joyce HSA Summit 28 Nov 2019

Input by David Joyce ICTU, to Health & Safety Authority National Summit – The Future of Work and Workers and Work, 28 November 2019

“OSH performance and changes to employment status for many workers”.


Thanks to Sharon, Tom, Gavin and all at the HSA for the invitation to speak at today’s national summit on the future of workers and work, marking 30 years of the HSA.  Congress has had a longstanding working relationship with you and looks forward to continuing that work into the future. Many trade union leaders in the field of OSH have served on your board – some of who are here today, including the chair of our health and safety committee, Pat Kenny from the CWU, my recently retired colleague, Frank Vaughan and Christine Rowland. And best of luck to the new set of trade unions reps: Michelle Quinn, Deirdre McDonnell and Dave Hughes.

In my brief input today I want to reflect on the future of work and the challenges it poses to ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for people into the future.

As Congress is a Sustainable Development Goal Champion Organisation, it is obligatory for me to try and place today’s discussions in an SDG context.  You might ask “What has health and safety and the future of work got to do with the achievement of Agenda 2030”?  Well actually, in that sense my job today is an easy one.  As many of you will be aware, goal 8 of the SDGs promises to deliver decent work for all by the year 2030.  Globally, it is the view of our movement that the global economic model has failed working people.  The prevailing low wage, short term or precarious contracts and often unsafe work environments that dominate supply chains, along with the absence of regulatory environments and social protection that would formalise informal work, cannot stand as a basis for the decent work that SDG 8 stands for – nor can we accept the rise of platform businesses that use technology to deny all responsibility for employment and other obligations.

Such an economy is not only inhumane but also constitutes both a political and economic risk, as it drives people towards right wing extremism.  It also leads to an inequality by design with wealth increasingly being concentrated among the top few percentiles.

Hence the campaign depicted on the slide on screen – a global trade union campaign – Time for 8 - calling for a new social contract for workers with business and Government.  Our demands include that OSH become recognised as a fundamental right in the ILO system.  This was the context in which we entered this year’s centenary international labour conference back in June this year.  The conference saw a very difficult set of negotiations result in the ILO centenary declaration. 

The ILC, through the Resolution which accompanied the Centenary Declaration, requested the Governing Body to consider, as soon as possible, proposals for including safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work. In order to address this request the Office brought a paper to the October/November GB setting out a procedural roadmap for doing this.  The Governing Body decided to approve the road map as a planning tool, which can be reviewed and modified by the Governing Body based on progress made, for the consideration of proposals for including safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work. Not quite what we had hoped for but progress nonetheless.

(It would be remiss of me in recounting all of this not to acknowledge the tireless work of officials of the DBEI who played a leading role in the discussions on the centenary declaration and indeed on the recent discussions on the road map – and more generally have done all of us proud in their work as a Titulaire member of the ILO Governing body for the first time).

All of the elements described above – both the challenges and the elements of a new social contract will be different in different national contexts. However, it is the responsibility of Government to convene unions and employers in social dialogue to create this new social contract in a national context.

And we have a long tradition of such “partnership” work here in the field of health and safety since the results of the Commission on health and safety back in the 1980s and it is important to recognise the significant progress that has been made in the intervening years. There is now a strong culture of avoiding accidents and ensuring that the procedures and processes are in place to avoid injuries.

And it is our strong contention that the model that we have works and is based on the proposition that an effective OSH system is based on workers and employers cooperating together.  Such a model recognises that the buy in of all of people in a workplace is important. The innovative business leader will recognise the importance of a collective approach in striving for safer working. By harnessing the knowledge and experience of the collective workforce it is more likely to achieve acceptance and implementation of practices that will ensure a safe workplace where everybody takes their responsibility seriously.

There is also evidence to suggest that organised workplaces are safer and that active safety reps – independently chosen by the workforce – working with management deliver health and safety for all.

There is no place for complacency however as over 3 million workplace accidents occur every year in the EU, with almost 70 deaths per week, and 120,000 people die annually from occupational cancers. So it is clear that too many Europeans stil suffer from work related illness and accidents.

Changes in work patterns also bring new risks and there is no doubt that the transformative effect of new technologies, changing demographics, new ways of organising work, climate change and the shift towards the green economy are profoundly changing the world of work. Congress is very concerned about the negative effects of digitalization on OSH and workers. New forms of work created by digitalization (such as digital labour platforms) could potentially fall outside the scope of OSH regulations, which were designed to protect workers in more standard forms of employment.

Perhaps the worst example of digitalisation – and one worth mentioning on the eve of “Black Friday” is Amazon.  A huge multinational retail company with record profits at the top of a supply chain squeezing transport contracts and pressurising the rest of the supply chain to cut corners including in safety.  Research by the GMB trade union in the UK showed that ambulances were called to attend workers in their “fulfilment centres” several hundred times in the last three years.

Often workers in such circumstances have no community with colleagues and no collective means to select reps etc.

We make no apology for insisting that all workers should come under the protection of OSH legislation. 

These changes are bringing new and fast evolving challenges for the safety and heath of workers:

  • Increased worker monitoring;
  • Assumption of 24/7 availability;
  • More frequent job changes;
  • The management of work and workers by algorithms
  • Remote working.

These changes are also the effect of labour market deregulation such as subcontracting, and bogus self-employment. Agency work for example – evidence suggests a reluctance to report workplace accidents because the agency does not want to gain a reputation of supplying people prone to workplace accidents.

This new context clearly demands exploration of what policies are needed to effectively protect workers, including an assessment of the consequences of the definitions of workers and employers in legislation, while maintaining the principle of same OSH standards for all workers. I know that the HSA is in the process of developing your new strategic plan and it is our view that a new strategy will need to reflect this new reality and provide new solutions such as advanced workplace risk assessments, also using the opportunities offered by digital technologies and promoting a proactive worker centered approach in the planning and implementation of digitalization strategies and a framework to clarify OSH liabilities and responsibilities in relation to new systems and new ways of working. 

Let me finish by saying that some of the old solutions are also part of the way forward.  Social dialogue and respect for the rights of workers to join a trade union and to bargain collectively with their employer are key tools in the achievement of decent work for all, to achieve wage growth a fairer distribution of wealth and to ensure that all workers enjoy safe and healthy working conditions. Going back to Amazon, the GMB have been attempting to organise workers with Amazon for many years now and unsurprisingly have been met with hostility by management.  During this time, hundreds if not thousands of workers have suffered ill health and injuries. The vast majority of workers at Amazon centres are not direct employees.  They are temporary workers, employed on zero hour contracts, and sourced from labour agencies – “vulnerable by design”. Workers don’t have any of the necessary protections to air concerns about working conditions or health and safety problems.  Innovative solidarity campaigns such as the #AmazonPeeGate (look it up..) are perhaps illustrative of the battles ahead.  We are under no illusions as to the resistance they will meet – such a business model has made Jeff Bezos the first $100b man.  UCL studies have also shown that drivers and couriers working for companies such as Amazon and Uber may be at higher risk of crashing because of the demands of the gig economy.

Let us all resolve today that this a route to avoid at all costs here. The future of work does not need to come at the expense of anyone’s health and safety. And that is why, we are saying that it really is time for 8 and that the clock is ticking for a new social contract!  Thank you very much.