Labour Conference adopts new standard on safety in agriculture

by Kanaga Raja

Geneva, 22 June 2001 - The 89th session of the International Labour Conference concluded here Thursday with, among others, the adoption of a new international Convention and Recommendation on Health and Safety in Agriculture.

The Conference which had a wide ranging debate on reducing the decent work deficit in the global economy, in terms of its standard setting role, had given a second reading this year to the Convention on Health and Safety in Agriculture. On the final day of the Conference, the delegates gave their overwhelming approval for the first ever labour standard on agricultural safety and health.

According to the ILO, the new Convention and Recommendation provides comprehensive international standards on safety and health in the agricultural sector and proposes a universal framework on which national policies can be developed.

The Recommendation specifically provides for a progressive extension of the protection afforded by the Convention to self-employed farmers and also sets out agreed provisions designed to serve as guidelines as to how the national policy on health and safety in agriculture should be implemented.

However agricultural farming as defined excludes subsistence farming, any industrial process using agricultural products as raw material and the related services, and the industrial exploitation of forests.

According to an ILO press release, the aim of the Convention and Recommendation is the protection of the world’s 1.3 billion agricultural workers. However, with the convention not applying to subsistence farming, the major sector of the agricultural and rural economy in the developing world, it is not at all clear how far those engaged in it would in fact get any health or safety protection.

The Convention defines ‘agriculture’ as covering agricultural and forestry activities carried out in agricultural undertakings including crop production, forestry activities, animal husbandry and insect raising, the primary processing of agricultural and animal products.... as well as the use and maintenance of machinery, equipment, appliances, tools, and agricultural installations, including any process, storage, operation or transportation in an agricultural undertaking.

The Convention covers the formulation, carrying out, and the periodic review of a coherent national policy on safety and health in agriculture. Article 4 of the Convention says that such a policy should have the aim of preventing accidents and injury to health arising out of, linked with, or occurring in the course of work, by eliminating, minimizing or controlling hazards in the agricultural working environment.

The competent authorities responsible for implementing the policy shall also provide corrective measures and appropriate penalties in accordance with national laws and regulations, including the suspension or restriction of those agricultural activities that pose imminent risk to safety and health of agricultural workers.

On the issue of inspection systems, Article 5 of the Convention obliges member states to “ ensure that an adequate and appropriate system of inspection for agricultural workplaces is in place and is provided with adequate means.”

Preventive and protective measures afforded by the Convention fall under the ambit of Articles 6 and 7.

As far as it is compatible with national laws and regulations, Article 6 notes, “ the employer shall have a duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to work.”

Some of the other duties of the employer have been covered in Article 7 and these include the carrying out of appropriate risk assessments in relation to safety and health of workers, and the adoption of preventive and protective measures to ensure that the workplaces, machinery, equipment, chemicals and so on under the control of the employer are safe and comply with prescribed standards.

Most importantly, on the question of the worker’s right to be informed on safety matters, the same Article obliges the employer to “ensure that adequate and appropriate training and comprehensible instructions on safety and health and any necessary guidance or supervision are provided to workers in agriculture, including information on the hazards and risks associated with their work and the action to be taken for their protection, taking into account their level of education and differences in language...”

According to the ILO, agriculture is one of the three most hazardous industries both in the developing and developed world - the others being mining and construction. The ILO estimates that about half of the world’s 1.2 million occupational fatalities occur in the agriculture sector.

Two of the primary causes of injuries and diseases in the agricultural sector are exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and accidents with machinery.

From this perspective and of those engaged in agriculture in the developing world, the most important provision in the Convention, from the point of view of its effect on subsistence farmers, is the provisions in Article 2, which excludes from its scope subsistence farming, industrial processes that use agricultural products as raw material and the related services, and the industrial exploitation of forests.

According to the ILO, much of agriculture is still in small-scale and subsistence farming, with only 5% of the world’s 1.3 billion agricultural workers being subject to supervision by labour inspectorates and having some legal protection.

Thus, despite the Convention and its guidelines, the problems of the health and safety of subsistence farmers in the developing world remains to be addressed.

Agricultural workers involved in subsistence farming in the South face hazards from the pesticides and fertilizers that they have to use. Also, fertilizers and pesticides that are banned for health reasons in the producing countries are often exported to and are available in the South.

Though, the fertilizers and pesticides are supposedly labelled with adequate warnings of use and the need for protective clothing, by the time they reach the farmers who use them, the labels are not there or are in a language which the farmer’s don’t understand.

These health and safety problems are compounded when the importing countries themselves often do not know enough of the hazards or toxicity of the fertilizers and pesticides that they import.

Attempts at the international level to write rules and disciplines in exporting countries have remained stalled at the GATT, and still remains stalled at the WTO. The US, particularly, has blocked efforts that would bring effective rules in this area by insisting on the exclusion of the chemical and automotive sectors.

The Convention also covered other major areas including machinery safety and ergonomics, handling and transport of materials, sound management of chemicals, animal handling and protection against biological risks, and the construction and maintenance of agricultural facilities. It also provides for coverage against occupational injuries and diseases, in that workers in agriculture should be covered by “an insurance or social security scheme.”

The Convention was adopted by a vote of 402 for, 2 against with 41 abstentions. The Recommendation was adopted by a vote of 418 for, 0 against with 33 abstentions. According to the ILO, the Convention will enter into force once it is ratified by two ILO member states. – SUNS4921

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