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Unions hit out over health and safety

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Union leaders have attacked the government for opposing plans to introduce a new global convention on health and safety in the workplace.

This content was published on June 2, 2006 - 21:22

The economics ministry argues that there are already sufficient guidelines in place and that any additional measures would saddle firms with extra costs.

Delegates meeting at the annual conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva are expected to vote on a new convention on occupational health and safety before the end of the session on June 16.

The convention, which was first debated a year ago, would oblige signatory states to take steps to reduce the risk of accidents or sickness at work.

The ILO estimates that there are more than two million work-related deaths a year, of which around 400,000 are attributable to the effects of hazardous substances.

In Switzerland there were 189 work-related deaths in 2004, including 89 fatalities due to hazardous substances. In the first quarter of this year more than 64,000 work-related accidents have been recorded nationwide.

"The employers don't want to be landed with additional costs and the government is doing what the employers want," Jean-Claude Prince, who handles ILO affairs at the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, told swissinfo. "But there really is a need for this new convention."

"Well covered"

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), however, takes a different view. It claims occupational health and safety in Switzerland is already "well covered" by existing ILO guidelines and national legislation.

According to the ILO, there are more than 70 conventions and recommendations relating to questions of safety and health. In addition, the ILO has issued more than 30 codes of practice.

"There are already a lot of ILO instruments on this subject and there is no need to have a new convention," ambassador Jean-Jacques Elmiger, head of international labour affairs at Seco, told swissinfo.

"We would much rather countries made a political declaration in this direction than adopt another convention which there is no guarantee every country will ratify."

"If we want to promote a universal framework on health and safety at work we need universal ratification and that cannot be certain," he added.

Opponents

According to Seco, the Swiss are not alone in objecting to the new convention and that the United States, Canada and Britain also feel it is unnecessary. But Elmiger said the chances of the convention being rejected were slim as a majority of the 178 ILO member states were in favour.

If the convention is adopted, it will then be up to the Swiss parliament to decide whether to ratify it or not.

Paul Madelaine, a health and safety expert at Seco, told Le Temps newspaper that work-related accidents were declining in Switzerland and warned that any new measures would require new investment by businesses.

Statistics show there was a slight rise in work-related accidents last year but numbers are down more than six per cent since 2001.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The Geneva-based International Labour Organization is a UN agency that seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights.

Founded in 1919, the ILO formulates international labour standards through conventions and recommendations setting minimum standards of basic rights.

These include freedom of association, the right to organise, collective bargaining, abolition of forced labour, equality of opportunity and treatment, and other standards regulating conditions across the entire spectrum of work-related issues.

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Key facts

According to the ILO:

2.2 million people died in work-related accidents last year.
Workers were involved in 270 million accidents and 160 million employees fell ill due to occupational diseases.
Deaths and injuries are considerably higher in developing countries.

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