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Statement from workers and unions at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

18 March 2015
First responders after Hurricane Sandy in 2012
Public Services International published this statement on the last day of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held at Sendai, Japan, on 14-18 March 2015.

Public Services International is a global trade union federation, composed of 650 unions affiliated from 160 countries.  We represent 20 million working women and men across the public services.  We represent most first responders and frontline workers.  These are the people who put their lives at risk in order to protect and save your families.  We are the first responders:  the firefighters and emergency medical technicians; the police and other uniformed services.  We are also the frontline workers in hospitals and health clinics; in the schools; in the energy and water utilities; in public transport; in civil administration and in a range of other areas.  All of us depend on these people being able to do their jobs, having the right tools and training.  

For example, a few statistics from just 35 countries:  Firefighter fatalities: in 2008 in 150 were killed, 82,000 injured. In 2012, 90 killed, 73,000 injured, while doing their jobs, giving their lives to save others.  In Japan in 2011, including during the Great East Japan Earthquake, 222 firefighters were killed trying to save others and 2,500 were injured. 

During and after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, first responders were working 24/7 for more than one month.  Health workers did not leave their duty stations for days, even weeks.  Their own families were at risk, but the workers could not go home to provide support. The New York City SEIU nurses’ union 1199 were donating air mattresses to staff in the Philippines who were sleeping on the floors of the hospitals.

We have many stories of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from health workers, social workers, first responders… In general, there is no psychological support. There is no help for the helpers. 

In Africa, Ebola killed 500 health workers.  The unions had tried to warn government months before, but no-one paid attention.  During the crisis, salaries were not paid, there was no training and equipment for a long time.  Why did Ebola take such a heavy toll on health workers?  Because for years, structural adjustment policies from the international system have been ordering these countries to cut public staff positions, to cut public staff wages, to privatise and outsource.

Another grim statistic:  More than 500 UN staff have been killed in the line of duty in the past ten years. These workers were sent to provide help to some of the most needy people on the planet. 

In all of these crises, whether natural disasters, epidemics or conflicts, you need the workers.  Better first responder training and equipment help reduce deaths and injuries among community members and among workers. 

But our concerns and our voices are barely reflected in the proceedings at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction – WCDRR.  Why?  Possibly because having first responders costs money:  wages must be paid, training and equipment provided.  Governments don’t want to be told they have to spend this money.  And, since the financial crisis of 2008, no government wants to borrow; austerity is the dominant policy. 

That is why we are part of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice:  we need a global agreement that will put an end to tax havens, to tax dodging, aggressive tax planning and other tricks by which governments are being starved of much-needed revenues.  This is entirely relevant to DRR, as the largest burden falls on the public sector.  Because much of the work of first responders can’t be privatised. 

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