Is worker welfare part of your corporate social responsibility commitment?

20 May 2020 14:57

Corporate Social Responsibility

The World Day for Safety and Health at Work is a time to focus on issues that range from simple office practices (watch your posture) to slack attitudes or procedures that lead to devastating consequences on a massive scale.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) established World Day for Safety and Health at Work on April 28 to draw attention to issues that are—or should be—of fundamental importance in any place of work, on any day of the year. This year, the event has an added handicap in that April 28 falls on a Sunday, when work is precisely what most people don’t want to be thinking about.

Nevertheless, the promotion of work safety can never be underplayed, as emphasized by the fact that April 28 is also International Workers’ Memorial Day, a time of remembrance for the many millions of workers who have been killed, disabled, injured or made unwell by their work.

Sustainable businesses consider human factors too

If you think ‘green’ when you hear ‘sustainable’, you aren’t alone. But the health of the planet is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. Companies also must develop sustainable practices when it comes to worker welfare. Patrick McCorry, vice president at safety consulting firm DEKRA Insight notes, “Worker safety and well-being are crucial elements of any sustainability effort. You cannot claim to be a sustainable, ethical, values-based organization if you’re hurting people and changing the lives of families and communities.”

The issues to consider are many. At one end of the scale are simple tips like making sure the load capacities of shelves and storage units aren’t exceeded, and that workers always have a step-ladder handy where necessary so they aren’t tempted to stand on chairs (especially those with rollers on them).

At the other end of the scale are the kinds of catastrophic tragedies that are recalled by the mere mention of their geographical locations. Ironically, one of the most recent workplace disasters took place just days before World Day for Safety and Health at Work in 2013—Rana Plaza.

Fashion industry sees reputational risks climb in wake of disaster

The Bangladesh apparel industry was already under pressure to address industrial accidents that had killed more than 500 garment workers over a six-year period when the Rana Plaza disaster took place.  The nine-storey building housed five clothing factories at the time of its collapse, killing 1,134 people and injuring another 2,500.

Suddenly the spotlight fell on the clothing brands that relied on these workers to produce their products. Walmart, Benetton, Zara and others were called out for turning a blind eye to workers in the distant tiers of their supply chain. Consumers were called out as well, for their seemingly insatiable appetite for fast fashion.

“Fast fashion is part of the trend that’s putting pressure toward the race-to-the-bottom working conditions,” says Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for an international labour rights organization. She cites quick turnaround requirements leading to forced overtime without compensation. As awareness grows, companies are recognizing that corporate social responsibility must encompass the furthest reaches of their supply chains.

Such visibility requires a comprehensive risk management approach that complements third-party due diligence with ongoing risk monitoring to identify red flags and support proactive decision making. “The number of public companies that have sophisticated sustainability reports and metrics publicly available on their websites is growing rapidly,” said McCorry. “Today, sustainability is about being transparent and showing that we care—about our people’s safety, about environmental impact, etc.”

Focusing on a fair future

The ILO is the United Nations’ oldest specialized agency, and this year’s theme for its World Day for Safety and Health at Work is inspired by its centenary and discussions on the future of work. It is looking back on 100 years of efforts in improving occupational safety and health, and looking to the future of continuing these efforts. To this effect, it will launch its global report, A Safe and Healthy Future of Work, on April 28.

In many ways, matters of worker wellbeing are at a critical juncture. “The report will touch upon the changes in work arrangements, technology (digitalisation and ICT, platform work, automation and robotics), demographics, globalisation, climate change and other drivers that are affecting e dynamics of safety and health and the nature of professions in this area,” says the ILO.

Migrant millions at risk

Most pressingly, concerns for worker safety and health apply to the 120 million transnational migrant workers in the world. They are among the most vulnerable members of society and often engaged in what are known as the 3-D jobs—dirty, dangerous and demeaning—says the 2018 US Annual Review of Public Health.

“They work for less pay, for longer hours and in worse conditions than do non-migrants, and are often subject to human rights violations, abuse, human trafficking and violence,” says an article in the review. “These precarious workers may take greater risks on the job, do work without adequate training or protective equipment, and do not complain about unsafe working conditions.”

For example, the European Working Conditions Survey, an analysis of nearly 30,000 workers in 31 European countries, has revealed higher rates of negative occupational exposures among migrants when compared with native workers, says the review. “Migrant workers were more likely to be exposed to high temperatures, loud noises, strong vibrations and fast work speeds, and to stand for long periods of time.”

Clearly, such workers would have much to gain from workplace safety and health metrics becoming an aspect of corporate sustainability/CSR/ESG reporting.

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