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Bird flu: ILO and its constituents gear up for a response

The recent outbreak of avian flu in the United Kingdom has prompted new calls for a coordinated response from the world of work. The ILO's tripartite structure is ideal for exchanging up-to-date information on risks and control measures and encouraging preparedness measures and preventive behaviour at the workplace. Coordinated by its , the ILO will assist countries to improve working conditions and protect workers against avian flu, drawing from ILO occupational safety and health standards and technical guidelines. To assess the impact of an epidemic on workers, ILO Online spoke with Susan Longley of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).

Article | 26 March 2007

ILO Online: What is avian flu and how does it impact on the world of work?

Susan Longley: The Avian Influenza Virus is mainly found in birds. However, it can also mutate into forms which infect humans. Currently over 200 million infected poultry have been culled in order to control the spread of the virus, resulting in economic losses of up to US$10 billion in Asia alone. As of 19 September 2006, 247 cases of Avian Flu had been reported in humans and of these, 147 have been fatal.

ILO Online: What is the potential global economic impact of the virus?

Susan Longley: Although the virus has yet to develop the ability to spread widely among humans, a global pandemic would have detrimental effects on the world of work. It is estimated that a two per cent loss of global GDP in the event of a pandemic would cost up to US$200 billion in one quarter and US$800 billion for the whole year. All sectors of the economy would be affected. The World Bank estimates that a 20 per cent decline in tourism transportation and other key services would occur in the event of a pandemic.

ILO Online: How would this affect the poultry industry?

Susan Longley: The poultry industry already faces major problems as things stand now. Import bans from various effected countries have led to shortages in the supply of poultry meat, an increase in global poultry prices and a drop in the poultry trade. It is crucial that there is compensation for workers who lose their jobs because of avian flu. This is particularly important in countries that have no social security system.

ILO Online: Trade unions have called for a coordinated response to the threat of bird flu, particularly in the poultry sector and the food industry…

Susan Longley: Food industry, particularly poultry workers and their trade unions are typically off the radar in most countries affected by H5N1 viral outbreaks - despite the obvious fact that poultry workers are in the front line of exposure to the virus, and represent the most likely potential vectors for spreading the virus should it mutate into a form more easily transmissible from human to human. Provided their rights – and their trade unions – are recognized, they also have a pivotal role to play in combating the spread of the virus. For the last two years, the IUF has sought to draw attention to this deficit, highlighting the need for public policy to tackle H5N1 as a threat arising from the intersection of occupational health and safety, public health and worker rights. The rising death toll and the recent UK outbreak are a reminder that there is no room for complacency.

ILO Online: What should employers be doing to avoid the risk of infection?

Susan Longley: Based on national regulations, employers should control and preferably prevent the risk of infection from diseases. This is an opportunity for workers and their unions to work together with employers to help prevent the transmission of infection by bird flu which may arise from their work. In practice, employers should carry out a risk assessment to decide what should be done to protect workers' health, monitor and review preventive measures, provide information to workers about the risks and train workers in good occupational hygiene practice. Self-employed people must also comply with health and safety law and take precautions in the same way.

ILO Online: What can governments do to support the social partners?

Susan Longley: Governments will have to be pushed to respond to union concerns, and unions must be involved at all levels in planning and implementing workplace and public health and safety programs. The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in the United Kingdom recently called for a joint flu plan to be put in place to protect countryside, poultry and food industry workers. The union recommends assessments of the effects on poultry employment of a sudden fall in poultry consumption by the public, and of poultry hatcheries and processing operations in order to produce a contingency plan for the safety of workers. It also calls for government financial support for poultry and other workers who may be temporarily laid off in the event of any bird flu outbreak.

ILO Online: What is the role of the ILO?

Susan Longley: The ILO now asserts the centrality of avian flu as an employment and workplace issue and claims a significant role in the UN agencies' response to the crisis. As a result, in November 2006, the ILO Governing Body approved an action plan involving the ILO and trade unions in the work of the UN System Influenza Coordinator (UNSIC).

So far, however, only limited financial resources have been allocated to this work. As the virus continues to spread, workers in the food industry – and thus the general public – remain at risk.

The ILO is already part of the UN action plan appealing for US$2.4 million in the areas of occupational health and safety, modeling for the loss of livelihoods and labour market implications and information dissemination. The ILO would also emphasize the need to address the issues of workers rights, social dialogue at all levels, social protection and the loss of incomes as a result of the avian flu.