World Day for Safety and Health at Work

Working conditions in Europe and globally

Remarks by Sandra Polaski, ILO Deputy Director-General, to the European Commission conference on "Working Conditions"

Statement | Albert Borschette Conference Centre, Brussels | 28 April 2014
Good morning, and thanks to Commissioner Andor and his team for inviting me to bring an ILO global perspective to the discussions today.

Looking at the recent history of working conditions in Europe, we can see significant progress but also daunting challenges. The same is true at the global level. I would like to use my presentation to comment briefly on some key aspects of the current European situation and then look at the global picture, which of course is the comparative advantage of the ILO. I will finish with some observations on next steps.

Last week, the Eurobarometer survey gave important insights into the perceptions of the European public on their own and their countries’ working conditions. The very good news was that among the 26,000 people interviewed across Europe, 77% of those currently working say that they are fairly satisfied or very satisfied with their own current working conditions. Looked at from the long historical perspective, we can conclude that this is likely a high point of decent conditions for those employed, a sign of real progress that has been made over recent decades.

More sobering is that among the random sample interviewed, 48% were not working. This partly reflects the high unemployment in the EU and also the relatively low labour force participation in some European countries, aggravated by the lack of job opportunities. And of the full sample, working or not, a bare majority said that working conditions in their country were good or very good, while 43% said that working conditions in their country were bad or very bad, based on their own experience or that of friends and relatives. In 12 European countries a majority said that, with the proportion rising to a stunning 82% in Greece, 76% in Spain and 7% in Italy.

Let me show a few figures that illustrate at a more concrete level the progress and challenges that Europe faces across three aspects of working conditions, each of which will be discussed in much more detail in the workshops today.

Slide 1 (see presentation)

Today, 28 April, is the World Day for Safety and Health at Work so let’s start with occupational safety and health. This slide gives a quick illustration of progress and challenges in occupational safety and health. On the left, we steady reductions of the number of serious injuries at work, a very welcome development. However on the rights, we see a 50% increase in work-related health problems. Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace-related stress are significant factors in the increase in health problems at work. For example, in the UK the latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey show that stress-related illnesses made up 40% of all work-related illnesses. More broadly, the highest rates of work-related stress were among health professionals (in particular nurses), teaching and educational professionals and those delivering personal services such as welfare and housing advice and services. Work-related stress and psychosocial factors are the subject of a timely EU-OSHA campaign in 2014-15.

A new European Strategy for safety and health at work is due to be launched soon. The most recent strategy, which ended last year, is very much in line with the approach promoted by the ILO’s Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, which emphasizes the need for strong government commitment expressed in a national OSH policy together with a strategy and programme that is built on the active participation and coordination of employers, workers and their organizations, and health, education and research professionals. It is important that the new European Strategy should conform to these strong principles, particularly when the economic crisis has added pressures in the workplace and an increase in the vulnerability of significant segments of the workforce.

Within the EU a study calculated the cost of work-related diseases at a minimum of €145 billion per year. So beyond the benefits to individuals, improving OSH could make European businesses more efficient and better able to succeed in the global economy. A time of economic crisis is not the time to relax health and safety protections at work. They are more needed than ever and they can be a win-win approach to increasing the competitiveness of European businesses.

Slide 2

Let me turn now to a second aspect of working conditions, namely working arrangements and working hours. Part-time work and temporary contracts can both play a role in providing flexibility to both firms and workers. For workers, part-time work and the ability to voluntarily enter and leave the workforce can help them to reconcile the demands of work and with the needs of their private lives, including family needs.

However over the last 15 years we have seen a significant increase in the proportion or workers who work on temporary contracts doing do on an involuntary basis. On the left side of the table, we see that for the EU as whole, the share of workers who are on temporary contracts on an involuntary basis has risen from 54 to about 61%, as mentioned by Commissioner Andor. In Greece and Spain, almost all work on temporary contracts was involuntary, both before and after the crisis. In Ireland, Italy and Portugal the share of involuntary contracts rose dramatically with the onset of the crisis and has only continued to rise.

Turning to part-time work, the table on the right shows that involuntary part-time employment has risen as a share of total part-time employment—by 50% in the EU as a whole. The share of involuntary part-time work has increased even more dramatically in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Working-time arrangements characterized by very short working hours of less than 15 hours a week and often by high variability and a lack of predictability in working hours can also be a cause of economic hardship and work-life stresses. One example of such part-time work is the so-called “zero-hours” contracts, where the employer is not obliged to guarantee workers any minimum number of working hours and workers are on call for long periods but paid only for the hours actually worked. One recent estimate of the incidence of “zero-hours” contracts in the UK showed that approximately 250,000 individuals are employed on such contracts and other surveys suggest that the number could be up to 1 million (CIPD, 2013).

These data suggest that more must be done at national and European level both to increase demand for labour overall and to strengthen protections against abuse of temporary and part-time contracting arrangements.

Slide 3

I will skip over this slide in the interest of time in order to turn to the global picture and knowing that there will be a full discussion of training arrangements today. Outside the EU, global working conditions also present both gratifying progress and huge challenges. And there are a number of initiatives that help to point the way forward for the EU to help improve global working conditions.

Slide 4

First, some good news. While 168 million children are still engaged in child labour, the number has declined by one third since 2000, with the most rapid fall – of 47 million – between 2008 and 2012. The number of children suffering in the worst forms of child labour has been cut in half. We know what works, and many governments have adopted more coherent and integrated approaches, often with ILO support. But we still need to accelerate action.

One of the developments in global employment that is both a source of progress but also a source of profound challenges is the increasing organization of work into global supply chains.

Slide 5

This has created new employment opportunities in many developing countries where they are desperately needed, and helped to lift people out of poverty.

However the relocation of work around the globe has sometimes undermined national labour laws, enforcement and social dialogue institutions, both in countries where they had been developed and effectively operated for decades and in some developing countries where the authorities mistakenly compete for investment through weakened protection for their workers.
We have seen the results in a series of workplace disasters around the world. For example the fires and building collapses in Bangladesh over recent years shocked the conscience of the world and led to a number of innovations.

Slide 8

One was the EU Sustainability Compact with Bangladesh which was agreed shortly after the Rana Plaza collapse by Foreign Minister of Bangladesh and the EU Trade Commissioner. It includes commitments to further reform of Bangladesh’s labour laws, to conduct inspections and make repairs to factories and expansion of the country’s labour inspectorate. It is partly implemented and monitored by the ILO.

Slide 6 

More broadly, an innovative, multi-country strategy to improve conditions in the global garment sector, called the Better Work Program, has now matured and is currently operating in Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Nicaragua and Viet Nam, and its activities are being extended to Bangladesh.
It is also diversifying into the footwear sector.

Better Work provides an effective strategy to leverage the concerns and reputations of global brands and buyers—and the preferences of their customers—t o make changes in the far flung workplaces where they source their products.

Slide 7 

It does this through a program of monitoring of garment factories in the countries where it operates. It assesses compliance with international core labour standards and national labour laws and reports the results to the factories, the buyers and the governments. Increasingly, it reports the results—by factory name—to all interested parties via the internet.

By supplying this information about the actual conditions in factories, it aligns the incentives facing producers with those of their buyers and their workers to improve working conditions. In other words, it rewards compliance through reputational advantages, worker satisfaction and continued and expanded orders.
Because the monitoring is done by national staff hired and trained by the ILO, the monitoring is much more credible than initiatives run by the buyers themselves. It is also more efficient, as it can replace multiple buyer-specific monitoring programs with a single, credible program.

In addition to the monitoring and reporting, Better Work teams also advise and build the capacity of employers and workers to improve compliance and productivity.
All Better Work country programs operate with a tripartite committee of government, workers’ and employers’ organizations and with bilateral committees of managers and workers at factory level to jointly address problems or deficiencies. This also has the effect of strengthening worker organization and building social dialogue, sometimes for the first time in the countries where it operates.

The Better Work Program is financed primarily by extra-budgetary donor funds and revenue from charges for the services provided to factories and global buyers. The European Commission has recently joined as a contributor.
The EC also promotes the Decent Work Agenda through its development and trade policies and by supporting ILO technical cooperation.

Slide 9

The Commission has begun to include social and labour clauses in its trade and economic cooperation agreements. The slide shows how dramatically the number of trade agreements with social clauses has increased over the last 20 years. These clauses have the potential to encourage and reward an upward harmonization of social and labour standards among the trading partners who join them, a race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom. But they have to be implemented and monitored effectively to realize these benefits.

In conclusion, I started by saying that there has been gratifying progress in working conditions in the EU and globally, but that daunting challenges remain. I think the few sketches I have presented make evident both the progress and the challenges.

The most important thing, though, is to reaffirm the potential of governments, firms, trade unions and publics to continue to address and master the challenges they face. Specifically,

in Europe:
  • Most working people are satisfied with their jobs, but many are left behind, including some entire countries.
  • An ambitious effort by national governments and by the EC is called for to address those left in poor quality working conditions.

  • There has been great progress on poverty and child labor.
  • But many workers, including in modern global supply chains, continue to subsist on poverty wages and in poor and sometimes dangerous working conditions.
  • Global efforts through technical cooperation, supply chains and trade have shown that it is possible to make a difference. These efforts now need to be extended and utilized, including by Europe.
Thank you.