Right to safe working conditions: Workers should not die on the job

The right to safe working conditions: Fighting the genocide of workers

The right to safe working conditions is one of the most discussed problems of our time. In spite of numerous achievements in the field of technological progress and a lot of innovations in the issue of humanity, we are unfortunately stuck in the same place year after year, because unfortunately working in a healthy atmosphere is the exception, not the rule.

UN Special Rapporteur

"Despite more than 50 years of global recognition, significant advances in science, medicine and technology, and dedicated efforts in certain countries and contexts, the right of all workers to safe and healthy working conditions unfortunately remains a privilege rather than a universal right," said Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights implications of environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous products and wastes.

Labor conditions that kill

While the right to safe and healthy working conditions is recognized worldwide, he said, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 2.7 million workers die each year as a result of hazardous working conditions and exposure to toxic substances.

In 2007, Hwang Yumi died in her father's cab on the way to the hospital. It all started five years earlier when she proudly started a new job at a consumer goods factory. It was there, probably without her consent, that she was exposed to toxic materials on a daily basis. Hwang Yumi died at the age of 23, 20 months after it was discovered that she had leukemia.

Hwang Yumi compensation campaign

Seeking to influence an abusive relationship

After her death, her father did everything he could to ensure that there would be no more victims. In an effort to prevent the abuse from happening again, he repeatedly rejected the company's offers of large compensation payments. After 11 years of campaigning for justice and accountability, led by Hwang and other human rights activists, the company agreed to take preventive and compensatory measures to ensure the right of over 200 workers to effective remedies. Commenting on the case, Tuncak said that while the outcome was positive, it was just a victory for one company in one industry in one country.

"Workers are certainly among the most vulnerable to exposure to hazardous substances. They are the first to be exposed to hazardous substances and their exposure is the highest," he added. "Among workers, some are even more vulnerable and less protected, including those working in certain sectors, those living in poverty, and workers of childbearing age whose children bear the burden of exposure to toxic materials."

Green Dirt

In this regard, he cites the case of Yvette, who worked day in and day out with an unidentified substance she called "green dirt" in the high-tech sector in an industrialized country, and who was never informed by her employer of the known reproductive health risks associated with exposure to the chemical. At the age of four, her child was still unable to walk or speak because his neurological development was irreversibly impaired. He is now in his thirties and continues to suffer from irreversible impairments that could have been avoided.

Baskut Tunchak's latest report

Baskut Tuncak's latest report is the fruit of 25 years of research as part of his mandate on human rights and toxic materials. The report sets out 15 principles for governments to end worker exposure to hazardous substances. The principles are based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as ILO conventions and multilateral agreements related to the environment and toxic substances.

Who is Baskut Tuncak?


The recommendations contained in the report were included in a resolution adopted at the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council. This resolution calls on States, companies and other actors to implement the 15 principles within their respective legal and operational systems, as well as through initiatives and programs to strengthen the coherence between human rights and occupational safety and health standards. The resolution also recognizes that States have a duty to prevent exposure to toxic substances and companies have a similar responsibility.


Seven of the principles focus on prevention. "Every worker has the right to be protected from exposure to toxic substances in the workplace. As we've seen in Yvette, protecting workers from exposure to toxic materials has a ripple effect - it also protects their families, communities and the environment," the expert explained. "Within these duties and responsibilities, eliminating hazards is essential, as is protecting the integrity of the scientific data on which decisions are based."

Right of access to information

Principles 8-11 address the relationship between the right to safe and healthy working conditions and the right of workers to information, participation and assembly. Tuncak emphasized that every worker has the right to be informed, including the right to know the effects of their exposure, measures to prevent it and their rights in this regard. He added that for workers, strength is in numbers. The right to safe and healthy working conditions is inseparable from freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining.

Effective remedies

The last four principles relate to the right of workers to access effective remedies. "Workers, their families and their communities should have immediate access to an appropriate and effective remedy, which should be available from the moment of exposure to toxic substances." The Special Rapporteur noted, however, that for many victims, exposure to toxic substances and its effects are irreparable and irreversible. "Preventing further exposure of workers is a critical element in guaranteeing non-repetition," he said.

Tuncak also expressed his concern about the refusal of some employers to recognize the right to safe and healthy working conditions as a human right, and the fact that 50 years after worldwide recognition by the United Nations, the right is still not a fundamental principle of the ILO and workers' rights.



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