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Environmentally sustainable development: the WILL is there

NAIROBI (ILO Online) - The Workers Initiative for a Lasting Legacy (WILL 2006), organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with the ILO, SustainLabour and the UN Global Compact, held here the first ever trade union assembly on labour and the environment last week. ILO Online spoke with Lene Olsen from the ILO Bureau for Workers' Activities who participated in the assembly.

Article | 30 January 2006

Can you give us a brief outline of the major issues at stake?

Lene Olsen: About 2.2 million deaths occur annually as a result of work related accidents and diseases. Due to hazardous substances alone, about 440,000 deaths occur every year. Furthermore, three quarters of the 40 million people living with AIDS are workers. If work-related accidents and diseases affect so many workers we cannot talk about sustainable development. It is therefore important to strengthen the promotion of a preventative safety and health culture and widespread awareness to raise the visibility of ILO and its occupational safety and health instruments including the ratifications and implementation of ILO Conventions and standards relating to occupational safety and health.

The meeting established the link between decent work, environmental protection and poverty reduction. The promotion of ILO conventions, recommendations and other instruments relating to occupational health and safety is key in this respect. For example, only 28 out of 178 ILO member countries have ratified ILO Convention No. 162 concerning Safety in the Use of Asbestos so far. We need more ratifications and the international trade union movement asks for a global ban on asbestos.

Chemicals and hazardous substances are not only dangerous for the environment but for workers as well. What does the ILO do in this respect?

Lene Olsen: In the field of chemical risks and hazardous substances at the workplace, the ILO has extensive collaboration in the field of chemical safety with other international agencies. As an example, the International Programme on Chemical Safety, which is an ILO/World Health Organization (WHO)/UNEP Programme, prepares the International Chemical Safety Cards that are very popular and accessed through web and CD-ROMs hundreds of thousands of times a month.

The ILO is also a member of the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals - with Food and Agriculture Organization, UNEP, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, WHO, United Nation Institute for Training and Research as members and with the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme as observers, through which the ILO has played a central role in the establishment of the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The system is based on the ILO's Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170), which among others, provides for marking or labelling chemicals, and the establishment of a criteria for the preparation of chemical safety data sheets, in accordance with national or international standards.

In addition, it also requires that classification systems and criteria, and the marking and labelling requirements for the transport of chemicals take into account the United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. These two provisions were at the origin of major international efforts to develop the now adopted United Nations Globally Harmonized System for the GHS. The ILO also participates in the ILO/UNITAR GHS Capacity Building Programme.

The ILO is also involved in the Strategic Approach on International Chemicals Management, SAICM, a UN led process that also collaborates with the Intergovernmental Forum for Chemical Safety. The results of a recent SAICM meeting will be reported to the International Labour Conference in June 2006.

Does the link between environment and the world of work call for more interagency cooperation?

Lene Olsen: The link between economic, social and environmental issues is strong and alliances are needed - at the national and international level - to address them in a coherent way in order to build a more environmentally sustainable world. The WILL assembly called upon all the organizations present - national and international - to cooperate and to play a stronger role in promoting coherence between them.

In 1977, the ILO and UNEP signed a memorandum of understanding fostering cooperation between the two agencies and the ILO should continue this kind of collaboration with other organizations.

The ILO also works closely with the WHO in the field of occupational health in ensuring progress and continuity of action for the protection of workers' health particularly in the developing countries. In its conclusions, the Assembly mapped out steps for joint follow-up action by UNEP, ILO and WHO.

Climate change was also on the agenda of the assembly. Where is the link to the work of the ILO?

Lene Olsen: Climate change is probably increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters which often have an enormous impact on jobs and working conditions. In response to such situations, the ILO can assist in restoring employment and livelihoods of people affected. Employment creation is a central objective of the economic and social reconstruction process. For example, the ILO has already made a huge effort through programmes developing local economic activities and creating livelihoods for people affected by the Asian Tsunami in December 2004 and the Pakistan earthquake in October 2005.

In order to avoid climate change or limit it, companies will have to adopt sustainable production methods. This will require a transition process in which social dialogue between employers and workers will be crucial.

Corporate responsibility was another important issue?

Lene Olsen: Corporate social responsibility is linked to the question of respecting international labour standards. The ILO's Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy is the only development-oriented instrument in the area of corporate social responsibility that is based on universal principles and standards and enjoys the support of employers, workers and governments. The ILO Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy Department is responsible for activities related to the Tripartite Declaration and to the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, ILO participation in the UN Global Compact and coordinating ILO's work on corporate social responsibility.

How can trade unions be empowered to play their role as social and environmental watchdogs?

Lene Olsen: The WILL assembly agreed on integrating "the environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development with a rights-based approach. Fundamental rights of workers such as freedom of association and collective bargaining must be respected if workers and their unions are to be able to engage in strategies for sustainable development".

Freedom of association is the basic pillar for any workplace involvement of workers and a decisive factor in strategies to protect both the natural and the human environment. Capacity building and education is also important for workers' participation.

The ILO, particularly through its Bureau for Workers' Activities, works closely with national, regional and international trade union organizations throughout the world to strengthen their influence by promoting activities which defend and advance the rights of workers. The importance of such activities, in addition to cooperation with employers and activities related to the strengthening of social dialogue was also stressed at the Assembly. The final document of the assembly reconfirmed this supporting stronger "dialogue between labour and management, consultation and negotiation in the workplace on sustainable development".

What are the main results of the WILL meeting from an ILO perspective?

Lene Olsen: The assembly outcomes, both, from the plenary sessions and the working groups, stressed the importance of respect for existing national and international labour and environmental standards. ILO standards and activities are highly pertinent to all the themes discussed in Nairobi - whether we talk about climate change and energy policies, chemicals and hazardous substances, access to water, health and safety issues such as HIV/AIDS or corporate social responsibility. Over the years, the ILO has developed international labour standards, guidelines and technical cooperation activities in all these areas. The assembly also showed that the ILO could play an even more pivotal role in reinforcing the social and labour dimension of environmental conservation and sustainable development.

Note 1 - For more information on WILL see