Regulation by private enterprise indulges the private sector and obstructs public responsibility

27 March 2015
Safety matters
The International Labour Organization has set important standards in the field of occupational health and safety, notably the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161), but it has yet to provide practical guidance on the management of occupational health and safety in the workplace.

In the absence of a standard under public international law for the management of occupational health and safety in the workplace, the International Standards Organisation, a private independent, non-governmental membership organization composed of the national standards bodies of 163 countries has stepped into the breach. ISO is not an inter-governmental organ, nor part of the UN system, but has general consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  On its website, ISO states:

ISO International Standards ensure that products and services are safe, reliable and of good quality. For business, they are strategic tools that reduce costs by minimizing waste and errors and increasing productivity. They help companies to access new markets, level the playing field for developing countries and facilitate free and fair global trade.

They add that “[ISO standards] are instrumental in facilitating international trade.”

ISO proposed a standard for the management of occupational health and safety to the International Labour Organization a decade ago, and was rebuffed. But in 2013, after a second attempt, the ILO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the ISO in 2013 to collaborate on an occupational health and safety management system (OHS-MS) on condition that no ISO standard should conflict with international labour standards and that the ILO should be an effective participant in the process. Set up on a pilot basis, the MOU was renewed in 2014 for a year, and is up for renewal for a further year. An earlier collaboration on social responsibility set up in 2005 along these lines had an outcome that had satisfied the ILO conditions.

No such compliance with international labour standards, nor willingness to make ILO an effective partner, has been seen this time on a standard entitled “Occupational health and safety management systems - Requirements with guidance for use”. Perhaps the climate has changed since 2005, and the pressure of neo-liberal interests to promote private enterprise and free trade has emboldened the private standard setting process itself. Whatever the reasons, ILO is being challenged by the ISO processes and purposes, and despite its evident good faith and methodical defence of labour standards, is being ridden rough-shod by the preparatory committee, especially in regard to the definition of workers’ representatives and their free election by workers, which grievously undermines the participation of workers at all levels of occupational health and safety management.  ILO’s Workers' Representatives Convention, 1971 (No. 135) is flouted. In addition, ILO resources for an ILO delegation to the committee meetings, even including trade union representatives, are spread thinly relative to the ISO committee members, given that they work in multiple concurrent task groups. Furthermore, language may be changed in its gist by ISO internal editing that is not transparent. The odds are not good for an effective partnership.  

At issue now is whether ILO continues in the process, which can lead to an outcome that ILO will not be able to live with, or pulls out of the MOU on a question of principle, which is essentially non-respect of its terms.  The Governing Body will need to make a decision at its deliberations on 27 March.  The Governing Body can either extend the pilot implementation or not, and can decide, if it is renewed, to review it as early as March 2016.

Successive drafts of ISO standards are voted on by the preparatory committee (Committee Drafts) before an international draft is voted by the membership at large.  For those who were opposed to the creation of a private standard to oversee occupational health and safety (it should be said that control of the management system of occupational health and safety, especially given the subsequent addition of a “guidance annex”, is tantamount to controlling the content and nature of occupational health and safety itself), the failure of the committee draft to pass the first vote of the preparatory committee on 18 October 2014 was seen as a good sign that there was a flaw in the entire undertaking.  Following a successful campaign led by the ITUC - The ISO is failing the standard test - 17[1] of 47 national standards bodies voted against the draft, a further 18 agreed, but with comments, and only 11 voted unreservedly in favour of the draft.  Even if that did not stop the process, it certainly signalled that there was substantial reticence on the part of the standards bodies.

Should the draft proceed to a standard, it may have content that compromises the ILO.  In any case, the standard is non-binding and does not have the force of public international law.  No oversight equivalent to that of the ILO standards can be actioned. Essentially, compliance will only be voluntary. Workers will have no recourse to a robust standard, and their representatives and unions will have no standard to depend on to defend the health and safety of workers. Beyond soft law, any such standard cannot withstand the heavy global demands of purging sources of risk in production, eradicating hazardous work and eliminating dangerous workplaces.

The ISO standard does not in fact obviate the need for a standard under public international law if the world of work is to be serious about protecting the health and lives of workers in the workplace. Yet this appears to be so: the G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Declaration of 2014 (Melbourne, 10-11 September) stated:

Improving workplace safety and health is an urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth. We agree to take further steps to reduce the substantial human and economic costs associated with unsafe workplaces and work-related illnesses. We endorse the attached G20 Statement on Safer and Healthier Workplaces (Annex C), and we commit, as appropriate, to implement its recommendations in collaboration with governments, international organisations and social partners.

The G20 state in their Annex C that: “…we underscore the need for appropriate and robust legal frameworks for OSH as well as effective systems for enforcement and compliance, safety and health management, and data collection”(

Should the ILO not renew the MOU pilot for another year, the ISO standard will be left in the lurch.  It may proceed to completion, but be tainted by the ILO pull-out.  No other lines of collaboration between the ILO and ISO are likely to be affected, given that the current ISO stance towards the ILO is not already interfering with those other lines of collaboration.

But workers globally still need a quality standard for occupational health and safety management.  It is then up to the ILO, supported by social partners and strong tripartism, to return to the drawing board, with newly reallocated resources, to meet its international mandate to provide that standard.  

PSI asserts that occupational health and safety are global health issues of public concern and as such cannot be delegated to a private entity which has already proved, during the first periods of implementation of the MOU, that it cannot meet the requisite level of social reasoning to satisfactorily address the issue. Occupational health and safety are matters for social partners to agree on and for governments to regulate and enforce. OHS is a matter of workers’ rights and social security, all the more important given that millions of workers continue to die every year: 1,000 a day in work accidents and over 5,000 a day from occupational diseases. PSI believes that the issue can be effectively and adequately addressed only within the ILO tripartite dialogue system. Should the ILO delegate the definition of OHS standards to ISO, PSI would consider this as an abdication from legally protecting workers’ health and a departure from the ILO's mandate, thereby weakening the role and image of the Organization.

[1] IRAM (Argentina), SA (Australia), NBN (Belgium), SCC (Canada), ICONTEC (Colombia), AFNOR (France), DIN (Germany),  BIS (India), JISC (Japan), SN (Norway), PKN (Poland), GOST R (Russian Federation), RBS (Rwanda), SPRING SG (Singapore), AENOR (Spain), SIS (Sweden), and ANSI (United States).   

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