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Austerity is bad for workplace health and safety

Every year, around 160,000 people die in the European Union as a result of illness or accidents caused by poor working conditions. However, the prescriptions imposed by the EU for ending the crisis – economic austerity and cuts in rights – mean a widespread deterioration of citizens’ living conditions and encourage policies that undermine essential preventative action, argue Spanish trade unionists, Pedro Jose Linares (CCOO) and Marisa Rufino San Jose (UGT).

 “A Spanish society with over 25% of people unemployed and with jobless rates above 50% among young people, is a sick society”

The logic is absolutely perverse: workers and their families suffer, on the one hand, the consequences of unemployment, corporate restructuring, pressure on working conditions and also, and not least, the deterioration of welfare benefits. This situation is particularly acute in countries that, by greater exposure of their economies to the financial crisis or the characteristics of their production model, have been most vulnerable.

A Spanish society with over 25% of people unemployed – with jobless rates above 50% among young people – is a sick society. But rather than address this situation with the strengthening of public protection systems, they do the opposite, deepening their austerity policies.

Furthermore, we are witnessing a form of organisational violence whereby the worker are made responsible for the lack of competitiveness in business. Existing levels of absenteeism thus become a form of employee “corruption’”, for which we all are guilty for alleged fraudulent use of the mechanisms to all us to return to health. Work absences, illness, thus becomes a mechanism of stigmatisation of the working population. If you’re sick, do not hesitate, go to work, the “economic health” of the employer requires it: this could be the slogan that they are trying to impose on us. “Your rights are a burden on the company,” “your health is worth nothing,” it what business and government seem to be saying.

Constitutional rights

This is a long way from article 43 of the Constitution that recognises the right to health protection and states that it is the responsibility of the public authorities to organise and safeguard public health through preventive measures and the necessary benefits and services.

Meanwhile we see businesses dismantling the systems to prevent accidents and ill health at work. They are taking an absolutely monetarist view, seeing prevention as something of the past, for the good times; it is common to see companies reduce their investments in modern and safe equipment. The priorities for them are different, though clearly preventing occupational hazards is a great opportunity to increase the productivity of our economy.

Today it is more necessary than ever to develop public policies on risk prevention. The Government has an obligation to promote them. The crisis is the perfect excuse for those who oppose the development of it. They argue that the priority is to get out of the crisis and reject the competitive opportunities offered be delivering adequate policies for health. There are important issues to be addressed: psychosocial risks, the incidence of occupational cancers, consideration of older workers, musculoskeletal disorders, chemical exposures, etc.. These are problems that cannot wait, and are at the basis of important social inequalities.

Austerity hits prevention 

But also, and not least, the configuration of our preventive model and specifically the quality of prevention carried out by specialised companies. The crisis is also taking its toll on these organisations and they are succumbing to the temptation to shift most of the costs of the crisis onto the workers who see a worsening their working conditions.

Five hundred fifty-five accidental deaths have been reported in Spain last year. No doubt this underestimates the true figures, since deaths from occupational diseases are not effectively recognised by the statistics, which show no fatalities caused by this. But in any case this is too high a death toll. And it is too high because they can be can be avoided, we can prevent them, and in fact, in our country we have reduced accident rates substantially in recent years, but if not do not pursue the necessary policies we are doomed to repeat past mistakes and if you growth picks up again we could see an unjustifiable rise in workplace deaths.

Two people die at work a day in Spain

Today, in this day and age, two workers die daily in Spain, businesses do not abide by the rules, the labour market deteriorates, due to the severe financial and economic crisis, with temporary jobs running at triple the European Union average, outsourcing is abusively pursued and the insufficient political commitment of the government, means that in our country the scale of workplace deaths is unacceptable to society, and unbearable for workers.

For these reasons, CCOO and UGT are urging the government and employers to negotiate a new Health and Safety Strategy, building on the progress achieved to far and to improve polices for the future.

nuevatribuna.es  April 27, 2013

Translation/edit by Revolting Europe

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Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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