GENEVA - "Should such an instrument be adopted, Armenia will join it. We believe it could be very useful, especially for countries, which, like Armenia, still do not have a complete occupational safety and health framework in place", says Ashot Yesayan, First Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Issues of Armenia and Government delegate to the International Labour Conference.
Safety and working conditions in Armenia have been deteriorating since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the country's independence, Armenia has enacted no new labour legislation and the labour inspectorate has ceased to exist. According to official statistics, only 85 occupational accidents have been registered in Armenia in 2004, including 22 lethal ones. However, these statistics do not fully reflect the actual number of deaths and injuries at work, because there is no functioning reporting system in place.
According to the ILO conservative estimate, the overall numbers are more likely to be in the tens of thousands of accidents annually, placing a horrible burden on the workers. The ILO calculates that accidents and poor working conditions cost the employers and the country up to 4 per cent of the Gross National Product.
"For a country that signed its first technical cooperation programme with the ILO only at the end of last year, Armenia is progressing extremely well, trying to put its legislation and practices into compliance with the international standards", says Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO's Safework programme. "Thanks to the joint efforts of the Government, the social partners and the ILO, a new labour code and a Law on Labour Inspection were adopted".
A significant event was also the creation of a completely new labour inspection system with more than 140 inspectors covering all regions of the country. However, a lot more still needs to be done, especially at the enterprise level. But things also move at this level as the following example shows.
In 2005, Armenia marked the World Day for Occupational Safety and Health for the first time. The event gained special importance as it coincided with the creation of the first bi-partite safety committee by employers and workers of Almaz, a manufacturer of unique equipment for processing extremely hard surfaces, including diamonds.
On the eve of World Day, Almaz gathered in its conference hall its workers, as well as representatives from the government, the employers' association, trade unions, the ILO, and the media. "It is a great honor for us to be chosen as a venue for this event. When our social partners proposed to Almaz to create a bi-partite safety committee, both the administration and workers unanimously supported the idea", said Almaz Executive Director, Sergei Mkrtchyan in his opening speech.
According to Mkrtchyan, all this would not have been possible without a culture of social dialogue in his enterprise: "All our workers are trade union members, and social dialogue between administration and trade union is working effectively. The signing of the annual collective agreements confirm this. This year we shall sign the fifth agreement of this kind."
The Armenian Minister of Labour and Social Issues, Aghvan Vardanyan, stressed the fact that "for the past 15 years labor relations in the Republic were neglected. At present, with ILO assistance, Armenia has managed to make the transition from Soviet-era labour relations to new ones, based on the principles of a market economy". The Minister also referred to the newly adopted labour code focusing on social partnership, and the Law on Labor Inspection.
The Minister disagreed with the prevailing opinion that "the employer wants to put his employee through the wringer. This is not true. A good employer cares for his employees' health and safety, as it promotes the enterprise's efficiency".
Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist, Wiking Husberg from the ILO's Moscow office insisted on the value of social dialogue. "To ensure efficiency and sustainability, it is important to maintain social dialogue at the enterprise level. All three partners will see the benefit of this work: the government will see its employees working in safe conditions, enterprises will see that safe work is good business, and trade unions will have an opportunity to defend safe working conditions", he said.
Besides further improving social partnership, Armenia's future strategy in this area includes training of labour inspectors and informing the Armenian people about the new labour code and their rights. This will be done through occupational safety and health information systems and a training center still to be created.
"Each day, an average of 6,000 people die as a result of work-related accidents or diseases worldwide. The ILO has never accepted the notion that injury and disease 'go with the job'. The example of Armenia shows that progress in making the workplace healthier and safer can be achieved. The challenge is to make continual progress in this area", said Takala.
The proposed new ILO Convention would complement existing ILO instruments, including more than 70 ILO Conventions and Recommendations relating to questions of safety and health, 30 Codes of Practice on Occupational Health and Safety and the ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems, and encourage their application.