The Occupational Health Needs of Workers: The Need for a New International Approach

By Barten, Francoise; Fustukian, Suzanne et al. | Social Justice, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Occupational Health Needs of Workers: The Need for a New International Approach


Barten, Francoise, Fustukian, Suzanne, de Haan, Sylvia, Social Justice


WORKERS REPRESENT AN IMPORTANT GROUP IN A POPULATION. IF, AS THE U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, all people have a right to the highest level of health attainable, then surely the health of those who produce all valued products used by society is of basic concern. Yet, workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the population. The effects of the health hazards they face are often added to those of poor living environments, poor nutrition, and unsatisfactory housing.

Workers' health status usually reflects the general health conditions of the population. At the same time, their working conditions influence the socioeconomic status, health status, and living environment of their dependents. This is particularly true for developing countries where, for the majority of workers, survival depends on work undertaken in exploitative conditions, with low incomes and unhealthy working conditions.

In many developing countries, rapid industrialization has occurred without adequate provision for the protection of workers. Their health has become an increasingly serious issue, as modern industrial and agricultural methods rely more heavily on hazardous substances. This has led to an increase in exposure to a wide range of occupational health hazards.

While concern for the health and ecological effects of air, water, and soil pollution has resulted in greater controls in developed countries, many governments of developing countries, under pressure from structural adjustment programs and the debt crisis, have offered their resources and communities as "pollution havens" for industrial development. By shifting hazardous production processes to locations where little or no environmental regulation exists, manufacturers avoid investing in equipment and procedures necessary to control hazardous exposures. Combined with lower wages, taxes, and energy costs, this contributes to higher profits. It is the workers and people living in the surrounding communities who pay for this gain through exposure to disease-producing substances.

The past few decades have witnessed a rapid growth of the urban population in the South that has created pressure on the employment market as well as on the city environment. The increase in the number of job seekers has not kept pace with the growth of the formal sector and the chance of finding a regular paid job in a city has become even more limited.

Many households in Third World cities confront the challenge of survival through a complex system of informal activities, varying from street vendors to activities in small-scale industries. Exposure to occupational health hazards is of very little concern in this unregulated informal sector. Furthermore, poor working conditions may not only create health hazards for workers, but may also have an effect upon the health status of people living in the neighborhood of a small-scale factory.

Since many workers in small-scale industries are poor, they also show the disease patterns of the urban poor. This has implications for the development of occupational standards for exposure to toxic substances. Standards based on those used in the North are often inappropriate to the work situation in developing countries for a number of reasons:

1. The high prevalence of epidemic diseases reduces the resistance of those infected (Michaels et al., 1985: 536-542); 2. The length of the working day in the South is much longer--standards are often based on the 40-hour work week common in the North. Hence, Third World workers will receive, on average, much higher levels of exposure (Ibid.);

3. The standards do not take into account differences in climate, nutritional status, or genetic predisposition (Rossiter and El Batawi, 1987:3-11).

Impact of Informalization

The informalization of industry is one of the key developments of the 1990s; small-scale enterprises are growing faster than any others in developing countries, providing opportunities for survival to the poor and profit to the industrialists (Ghai, 1991). …

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