In the UK, an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu on a turkey farm belonging to the transnational producer Bernard Matthews has now been linked to recent imports of semi-processed meat from the company’s Hungarian operations, where an identical strain of the virus has been identified. Following the massive UK cull, the virus was found to have spread. Five countries so far have banned UK poultry exports, generating fears of plummeting sales and extensive layoffs in the sector.
The Bernard Matthews facility is organized by the IUF-affiliated T&G. The union has been working closely with the company and government officials to ensure that worker rights, and worker health and safety, are adequately accounted for in all health measures undertaken by the public authorities, including Tamiflu injections for workers.
Poultry workers and their trade unions, however, 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.
The importance of the poultry sector as a major source of jobs and food – and the harsh conditions and employer resistance to union organization which often prevail – has still not found a central role in national and international agencies’ planning for a potential pandemic.
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. Concerted pressure from the IUF, joined by the global union federation Public Services International (PSI), has finally pushed the ILO into asserting the centrality of avian flu as an employment and workplace issue and claiming a role for ILO involvement 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).
As yet, however, no financial resources have been allocated to this work. As the virus continues to spread, poultry workers and thus the general public – remain at risk. Even governments facing strong trade union pressure continue to view poultry workers and their unions as peripheral or irrelevant in planning safety and health measures. At global level, UNSIC’s global action plan makes reference to (unresourced) ILO participation as a UN partner in their inter-agency planning, but otherwise it’s business as usual at the UN: the UNSIC website contains no concrete references to or information for poultry workers and their unions in the fight against the spread of H5N1.
Resourcing ILO involvement is a necessary but hardly sufficient measure for tackling the H5N1 threat. 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 rising death toll and the recent UK outbreak are a reminder that there is no room for complacency.
More information on poultry workers and the H5N1 virus is available on the IUF web site: Avian Influenza (H5N1) and Agricultural and Food Workers: Rights, Risks, Public Policy Issues