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Labour inspectors: Killings in 2004 highlight the need for new preventive measures

The killing of two labour inspectors in France and three inspectors and their driver in Brazil in the line of duty last year drew media headlines. But according to the ILO, these two extreme examples are only the tip of the iceberg as far as problems facing labour inspection are concerned. Last week, a high level ILO-European Union (EU) conference in Luxembourg called for a holistic approach to labour inspection which puts the workers' rights to decent working conditions into practice.

Article | 18 March 2005

GENEVA – Last September, hundreds of French labour inspectors protested in the streets following the assassination of two of their colleagues who were shot dead by a French farmer in Dordogne before being able to inspect the contracts of seasonal workers employed on his farm.

In Brazil, the use of physical violence against labour inspectors is not unusual, according to Jukka Takala, Director the ILO's SafeWork Programme. Labour ministry inspectors often travel around Brazil's interior accompanied by armed federal police officers. It is widely believed that the execution-style murder of three labour inspectors in January 2004 was related to a raid on a soybean plantation, which was, it is alleged, using illegal slave labour.

Was it a bad year for labour inspection worldwide? Killing labour inspectors is certainly rare, but threats, resistance and acts of violence against them are by no means exceptional.

"Violence and negative attitudes towards labour inspection are on the increase. It is not just the killings in Brazil and France. These are merely indicators of a deeper problem", says Takala. "Clearly, inspectors sometimes bring an unpleasant message as conditions of work or the working environment are sub-standard. But one should not blame the messengers – you cannot just kill the person who brings the bad news", he adds.

According to Takala, prevention plays a central role: "The earlier the problems are corrected, the smaller they finally will be. We cannot wait for another industrial accident like in Bhopal, Chernobyl, Seveso or Toulouse. We must act now."

With 134 ratifications, ILO Convention No. 81 on Labour Inspection is one of the most ratified of the ILO's 185 Conventions and serves as a basic instrument to put this principle into practice. But only respecting the terms of the Convention does not make labour inspection efficient enough.

"A creative and holistic labour inspection approach can avoid these problems and put the rights of workers to decent working conditions into practice", says ILO expert Gerd Albracht. "The role of modern labour inspectorates is to ensure social peace by preventing accidents and illnesses at the workplace."

He also mentioned that "competent labour inspections are an important actor in the battle for a fair globalization as the door-opener for technical cooperation and as the securer of the enforcement of legal provisions. The role of labour inspection is especially important with regard to enforcement and compliance and to promote tripartism and social dialogue".

At the workplace, inspectors have a pivotal role to play in the implementation of national policies and legislation, as well as ILO core labour standards. However, their capacities need to be strengthened in order to provide qualified services to workers and employers in a sustainable and coherent way.

"The rights and duties of labour inspectors deserve broad political support from governments, employers and workers", says Takala. "SafeWork has developed a 10-step plan to provide targeted guidance and prepare inspectorates for the challenges ahead".

The increasing waves of aggression against labour inspectors worldwide require determined action to prevent future violence. "The ILO supports and welcomes the initiative of the French Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity to develop a practical guide on the rights and duties of labour inspectors", says Takala. The Ministry has created a multi-disciplinary working group in which the ILO is also represented.

SafeWork has also developed a training manual on social skills, enabling inspectors to reduce tensions and remove fears from the inspected. The project was tested in Bulgaria and came along with a policy reform that transformed the Bulgarian Labour Inspectorate into an efficiently and effectively performing state administration.

Based on training experiences in Bulgaria, Viet Nam, the countries represented by the African Regional Labour Administrative Council, and other regions, and with financial support from the German Government, SafeWork is also developing an Integrated Labour Inspection Training System to promote the idea of integrated labour inspection on a larger scale and to share good practices internationally.

"It is important to highlight that labour inspection is not a mere technical tool but a vector for reform and a powerful instrument for initiating changes and taking innovations on health and safety and social dialogue straight into the heart of business", concludes Takala.

In his address to the ILO-EU conference, "Unity beyond differences: the need for an integrated labour inspection system" which was held from 9-11 March in Luxembourg, Friedrich Buttler, ILO Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, noted that the ILO and the EU will develop coherent and consistent strategies to tackle social protection and in particular labour protection issues.

"The effective prevention of occupational accidents and diseases involves a broad participation from governments, and employers' and workers'organizations", Buttler said, adding that "the government's regulatory functions are essential for public peace, for health and safety and for determining our quality of life. In the area of work, labour inspection is the key element guaranteeing social protection for all".

Some 200 worker, employer and government representatives as well as observers from international and European organizations from 75 countries and several labour ministers and vice-ministers discussed the multiple roles of the labour inspector as an investigator and facilitator as well as a control agent facing the challenges of globalization.

Adopting the Luxembourg conclusions, conference participants concluded that globalization requires more and more creative holistic approaches to labour inspection, taking into account the changes in the world of work and the advent of new risks and opportunities merging the traditional technical and medical with the social, psychological, economic and legal areas.

The participants also agreed on the need to strengthen an integrated labour inspection system throughout the world, particularly in developing, transition and EU candidate countries, and proposed a joint ILO-EU programme to reinforce labour inspection and prevention in these countries.

The participants called on the ILO to create an internet-based service for labour inspection to support ILO constituents. This should comprise a labour inspection training system and include policy tools and strategies for labour inspection, and the sharing of best practices.

During its presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, together with the ILO provided a platform for the exchange of experiences between governments and social partners with regard to the role of labour inspection services.