Published: 24/04/2005

The carnage continues. Statistics recording injury, illness, mutilation and death from work-related causes show no let-up. An estimated 270 million workplace accidents again took place in 2004. In some countries, and in some sectors, like China’s coal mines, the mortality rate is rising.

The ILO estimates − conservatively − that at least 2.2 million people continue to die annually from the effects of work, including 22,000 children killed on the job. Women are five times more likely to die from work-related causes than men, owing to their preponderant role in agriculture. Half of all fatal workplace accidents take place in agriculture.

Those who help to feed the world are twice as likely to die as workers in most other sectors. Further upstream, food processing has become an engine for producing crippling repetitive strain injuries. Food and drink workers are pressed into continual speed-up in the relentless drive for greater profits. Yet there are no global injury and fatality statistics for the sector − an indication of the low priority given to workplace health and safety. Stress, workplace accidents and injuries and long-term illness in the service sector, including hotels and restaurants, are on the rise in many countries.

While death and injury on the job are more likely to occur in poor countries, the hazards of work are universal, as is the antidote: strong unions at every workplace, strong health and safety committees, sufficient collective control over the work process to allow workers to work safely.

April 28, the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers, should not become a rhetorical or symbolic exercise. Four thousand Nicaraguan banana workers have marched to the capital, Managua, to demand effective action for the thousands of victims of Nemagon, an acutely toxic pesticide used on banana and sugar plantations in Central America, the Philippines and the Caribbean. Workers at Nestlé Brazil, young women no longer able to work because they are crippled by repetitive strain injuries, have had to take their case to the UN Commission on Human Rights, because the employer refuses to recognize their responsibility and prefers to fire the victims rather than modify their production methods. These workers, and the millions of other workers around the world who are killed and made sick on the job, need active solidarity and support. On April 28, we can again affirm the universal right to safe work through the only viable means: empowering workers through their unions to negotiate on all issues affecting the health and safety of employees everywhere.