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Extending occupational safety and health to the informal economy - Article for the XVIII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work

Over 1 billion people, more than 60 percent of Asia’s workforce, are still working in the informal economy, with little or no social protection. Experience shows that workers and small businesses in the informal economy are usually motivated to improve safety and health conditions out of their own initiative, but they still need practical support. ILO Online spoke with Tsuyoshi Kawakami, ILO specialist on occupational safety and health in Bangkok.

Article | 17 June 2008

ILO Online: What are the safety and health conditions of workers in the informal economy in Asia?

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: Asia’s informal economy cuts across all economic sectors – agriculture, industry and services. They all need practical support measures to improve the safety and health problems they face. Workers and the self-employed often work in substandard conditions, being exposed to various hazards in the workplace without having appropriate safety and health training and information. As far as national labour laws are concerned, they do not always cover the informal economy.

ILO Online: What are the immediate priorities for occupational safety and health (OSH) programmes?

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: We need measures that are practical, easy-to-apply, and work at the local level. Just to give you an example: low-cost approaches based on good practices have overcome cost barriers in small workplaces in Asia and have also allowed the active participation of many workers, resulting in concrete improvements. We found that things that may appear obvious have actually helped us kick-start our programmes: I think of practical training tools such as illustrated checklists and photographs showing good OSH practices.

ILO Online: Can you give us examples of successful programmes?

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: In Cambodia, four Training-Of-Trainer (TOT) courses were held in four different cities to cover all the regions. These participatory OSH training networks have constantly increased nation-wide coverage. This expansion was possible because of the practical orientation of the training programmes providing workers with low cost solutions to their OSH problems. As of April 2008, more than 3,000 workers in the informal economy were trained through the established participatory trainer networks.

These participatory training approaches will be part of the first Occupational Safety and Health Master Plan (2008 – 2012) of Cambodia that will be launched this year. The positive experiences and achievements have been widely shared with other ASEAN countries and publicized in international OSH conferences and journals.

ILO Online: How can we reach workers and the self employed in the informal economy?

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: Local workplaces and communities have varied people’s network. It is common that local small business owners form their associations for exchanging the ideas and information to upgrade their businesses. Local trade union leaders and members often have good access to grassroots workers and know the way to support informal economy workplaces to improve their working conditions. Often self employed workers have their own cooperation system to improve their work environments.

ILO Online: You stress the importance of a local approach to OSH in the informal economy…

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: Local intervention teams are a good option, as they include a variety of local resource persons, including government officials, inspectors, health personnel, trade associations, workers’ organizations, community leaders and local NGOs. They can carry out rapid assessments of the target groups in a given region. This is done by workplace walks through using relevant safety and health action-checklists and direct interviews with workers and employers.

The next step is to design participatory training programmes adjusted to specific needs of the target groups. The ILO Training Centre in Turin helps us to organize activities at all levels. Obviously, support at the national policy level is also key to the success of OSH programmes in the informal economy. The ILO’s Promotional Framework for OSH Convention (No 187, 2006) provides sound guidance for developing national OSH policy frameworks to improve OSH in the informal economy.

What do you expect from this year’s World Congress in the Republic of Korea?

Tsuyoshi Kawakami: The World Congress on Safety and Health at Work is an ideal forum to share the knowledge and experiences in achieving safe, healthy and productive workplaces and reaching all workers, including those in the informal economy. It will help to promote high levels of safety and health at work by ensuring that priority is given to occupational safety and health in national agendas and by building and maintaining a national preventative safety and health culture. We can only achieve this if we recognise that OSH is the responsibility of society as a whole and all members of society, particularly governments, employers and workers, must contribute to achieving this goal.

The 18th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, in Seoul, Republic of Korea, 29 June - 2 July 2008, is the largest global event in occupational safety and health. The Congress aims to contribute to improving health and the prevention of accidents and diseases in the workplace through the exchange of information and good practices, and will involve more than 3,000 policy-makers, senior executives, safety and health professionals, employers' and workers' representatives and social security experts. The triennial Congress is jointly organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Social Security Association (ISSA). The XVIII World Congress is hosted by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA).