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Swiss out on a limb over health and safety

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The government has defended its decision to reject a new global convention on health and safety in the workplace in the face of strong union condemnation.

Switzerland was the only country to vote against the convention at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) annual conference in Geneva, which ended on Friday.

Jean-Claude Prince, head of ILO affairs at the Swiss Trade Union Federation, said Switzerland’s stance was “hideous” and a severe blow to the country’s image in terms of labour relations.

The convention, which was adopted by the other 177 ILO member countries, obliges signatory states to take steps to reduce the risk of accidents or sickness in the workplace

“The government is not taking its responsibilities seriously enough regarding international norms in the workplace,” Prince told swissinfo. “Other countries see this as a slap in the face for the ILO from one of its more senior members.”

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) rejected the criticism, saying the country was exercising its democratic right not to support a convention that was surplus to requirements in Switzerland.

Jean-Jacques Elmiger, head of international labour affairs at Seco, reiterated that most of the measures contained in the convention were already covered by existing health and safety legislation.

“There already exist 23 conventions and 27 recommendations on this topic. There is nothing new in this convention that Switzerland doesn’t have already,” Elmiger told swissinfo.

Under fire

The Swiss also came under fire from trade unions during the ILO’s annual session over what they see as an erosion of collective bargaining. A commission of ILO experts has demanded a report from the government on the situation.

According to the Trade Union Federation, the proportion of collective labour contracts stands at 37 per cent in Switzerland compared with 78 per cent in the 15 original European Union member states.

“We think the government should introduce more efficient mechanisms to facilitate bipartite collective bargaining between workers and employers,” said Prince.

“We will keep up the pressure to ensure that Switzerland does not become an island where employers are allowed to behave incorrectly.”

Elmiger said a tripartite federal committee set up in 2000 had already examined the issue of collective bargaining, adding that the government’s hands were tied.

“According to Swiss legislation there is no possibility for the state to intervene in collective bargaining discussions between workers’ and employers’ associations,” he said. “They have to be able to find a solution and there are mechanisms to bring them together.”

Child labour

Elmiger welcomed moves during the ILO’s annual conference towards eradicating the worst forms of child labour over the next decade.

He recalled that child labour had decreased worldwide for the first time, dropping by 11 per cent from 246 million to 218 million between 2000 and 2004.

“If you look at child labour ten years ago, no one wanted to talk about it. People were ignoring the phenomenon,” he said. “But through the persistence and activities of the ILO we have seen a change in this mentality and there is a real political will to help.”

Elmiger pointed out that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation was working with the ILO to tackle child labour in Pakistan.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

The Geneva-based ILO estimates 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 2006 more than 64,000 work-related accidents were recorded nationwide.

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

There are about 700 collective work contracts negotiated in Switzerland.
Collective work contracts are agreements between one or several employers’ organisations and one or several unions or other labour representations.
Under Swiss law it is up to employers and labour representations to agree on regulations, rights and duties in bilateral relations.
The Trade Union Federation represents 16 different unions with about 380,000 members.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR