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17 December 2018

Trade union networks: a response to occupational health in small firms?

The results of a project on best practices for organising worker representation for health and safety were presented at a seminar organised in Brussels on 29 November. This seminar allowed trade union activists to describe their day-to-day experiences in the countries covered by the project. It also included a fascinating presentation on the results of the research.

The ‘TUPA’ project - Trade Union Preventive Agent - reflects a common need throughout Europe for how to organise worker representation for health and safety in the many firms where such representation does not exist. This absence may be either because it is not required by law, or because employers block it.  

The TUPA project was carried out by four organisations: the Instituto Sindical de Trabajo, Ambiente y Salud (ISTAS) from Spain, the Fondazione Giuseppe Di Vittorio from Italy, the Cardiff Work Environment Research Centre at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, and NSZZ Solidarność from Poland. It involved field research into how trade union networks can cover firms without any trade union presence or without any worker representation for health and safety.

The experiences analysed are as rich as they are diverse and involve different time periods and a variety of political and legislative contexts. Among the countries studied were Sweden, which is regarded as a trailblazer in Europe, because it has had a network of regional safety representatives since the 1970s. With around 1,700 representatives working part time, between 50,000 and 60,000 firms are visited every year to detect occupational health problems and propose solutions. This is five times the number of firms visited annually by the labour inspectorate. In cases of serious danger, representatives can encourage workers to down tools until preventive measures are taken. In a sector such as construction, this occurs around 500 times a year. In most cases, employers quickly agree to ensure compliance with safety rules. The system is guaranteed by legislation and its financing is split between the state budget and the trade unions.

Italy has two types of multi-enterprise representation: territorial worker representatives and site representatives. The former work in a given sector in a territory (e.g. small-scale firms in a given province). The latter work at one site where there are many firms (e.g. port, shopping centre, etc.). The Italian system is not uniform across the regions or sectors. This is particularly due to the fact that the law only lays down the principle of territorial representation and entrusts the task of determining specific implementation measures to collective bargaining. 

In Spain, during the transposition of the 1989 Framework Directive, one of the main goals of the trade unions was to create a network of territorial safety representatives, but this was not achieved. Yielding to employer pressure, the government and Parliament deprived many workers of any health and safety representation. The trade unions have not given up on their demand and have managed to get it included in some collective agreements. As in Italy, the situation varies enormously from one sector to another and from one region to another. 

In the United Kingdom, the experiences studied were more modest. They mainly involve trade union safety organisers in the banking and construction sectors.

All the case studies underline the important contribution of these initiatives to the improvement of prevention.

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