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UN Expert: Exposure to Toxic Chemicals is a Form of Worker Exploitation

Exposing workers to hazardous chemicals is a global health challenge that “can and should be” considered a form of exploitation, a United Nations expert warned earlier this month.

Speaking to the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 12,  Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, stressed that governments and businesses must better protect workers, their families and communities against pesticides, radiation and other toxic substances.

Nearly two million workers per year—or three workers every minute—die prematurely from non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and respiratory illnesses, brought on by toxic exposures in the workplace, according to the International Labour Organization.

Not only do global supply chains often fail to shield workers from toxic exposures but they also fall short of providing effective remedies to affected individuals, Tuncak said.

“Workers’ rights are human rights. No one should be denied their basic human rights, including the rights to life and health because of the work they perform,” he added. “Inaction is not an option. Governments have a duty and businesses a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of workers.”

In a report he prepared, Tuncak proposed 15 principles for healthy and safe workplaces, among them the responsibility of states to “prevent, investigate, punish and provide redress” occupational exposures to toxic substances through effective policies, legislation, regulation, enforcement and adjudication. The onus is also on governments to prevent third parties from distorting scientific evidence or manipulating processes to perpetuate exposure.

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Likewise, business enterprises have a duty to prevent exposure through the elimination of toxic substances from their products and production to the maximum possible extent. When hazards cannot be eliminated, companies should “rigorously and systematically” apply their hierarchy of hazard controls to prevent exposure, using personal protective equipment only as a last resort.

Workers, Tuncak argued, have the right to not be exposed to toxic substances without their prior, informed consent. Neither should they nor their families bear the burden of proving the cause of their illness or disability to access an effective remedy.

Poverty is a common thread among workers whose rights are abused by their exposure to toxic chemicals, the report noted. Low-income workers typically have lower educational levels, which can spur them to accept occupations that expose them to toxic chemicals, limit their access to information and prevent them from being able to defend their rights.

“Those most at risk of exposure are those who are most vulnerable to exploitation: people living in poverty, children, women, migrant workers, people with disabilities and older people,” he said. “The economic insecurity of workers who are typically exposed to toxic substances is often exploited.”

Migrant workers also experience a “substantial risk” of occupational safety and health hazards, Tuncak added, because of lack of training, language barriers, discrimination and restrictions on changing employers.

“Irregular or undocumented migrant workers are at extreme risk of exploitation by employers who seek to reap the benefits of unfair competition,” he said. “Clandestine movements, people trafficking and modern slavery frequently coincide with the exposure of migrant workers to toxic substances.”

More crucially, no country, no matter its level of development, is exempt from this problem, Tuncak said. States, business actors and international organizations must all take it upon themselves to act “with urgency.”

“Everyone has the right to just and favorable conditions of work,” Tuncak said, echoing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Every worker has a right to dignity, to be treated ethically, with respect and without being subjected to conditions of work that are dehumanizing or degrading.”