European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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18 December 2013

"Jobs take their toll" conference discusses future EU HSW policy

The ETUI invited European Commission and trade union officials with acknowledged experts to its big annual health and safety at work (HSW) conference on 11 December to discuss the working conditions of older workers.

The European Commission’s foot-dragging on adopting an HSW strategy for 2013-2020 and October’s announced shelving of the overhaul or adoption of HSW Directives had the European trade union movement up in arms, meaning that Commission representative Teresa Moitinho was grilled more on the EU’s plans for its HSW policy than on the issue of "older workers".

"Commission staff are busy going through the responses to summer’s online public consultation. We are also looking closely at the positions taken on the matter by Parliament, the Luxembourg Advisory Committee and other bodies. So it is wrong to claim at this stage that the Commission has declined to adopt a new strategy on health and safety at work", stressed the Head of DG Employment’s Health, Safety and Hygiene at Work Unit.

David Walters from the University of Cardiff saw the European Commission’s recent decisions as chiming with the British government’s long-standing agenda.

"The deregulationist agenda was already there under New Labour but has moved up a gear with Mr Cameron’s government. The assault on HSW legislation is part of a wider trend. The whole body of labour law is in the firing line. The right-wing media and the current government are colluding to discredit any form of regulation by using pejorative language, talking of “bureaucratic interference”, meanwhile a US-style compensation culture is developing", observed the HSW expert.

"Another means of attacking HSW legislation is by cutting the HSE [British HSW enforcement authority] and inspectorate budgets", said Mr Walters.

His view was seemingly shared by Judith Kirton-Darling, the European Trade Union Confederation Confederal Secretary in charge of HSW: "Austerity policies are short-term policies that leave states facing many longer term problems”.

She called for a union strategy to mobilise the most vulnerable categories of workers (agency staff, migrants, young people, etc.) - those with least access to real means – especially trade unions – for defending their rights.

The gender aspect of "gruelling jobs" featured little in the panel discussion, but did emerge in the discussion with the floor on working conditions in hairdressing, where the vast majority of workers are women.

Elke Schneider of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work mentioned the risk analysis tools developed specifically for these occupations by her organization.

Exposure to chemicals in the form of lacquers, dyes and other cosmetics, a range of musculoskeletal disorders through being on their feet all day, stress from demanding and sometimes rude customers - a hairdresser’s life is a very far cry from the glamorous stereotypes.

More on the other speeches at the two-day conference: PowerPoint presentations

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