The global pandemic has left the world in much trepidation and taken countries by surprise with total recorded cases reaching 1,193,655 million as at April 04, 2020. By this date, the world had recorded a total death toll of 64,277. Amid the scary figures of infected cases, 246,110 have also recovered from this virus. The pandemic, as expected, is having a cataclysmic effect on robust economies like the US, China, Italy, Spain etc.
The COVID-19 statement released by the International Organisation of Employers and International Trade Union Confederation showed that millions of companies worldwide are in danger of being forced out of business, which has grave ramifications on employment. There is therefore a need to find quick and responsive measures to minimise the socio-economic consequences.
In the cause of curtailing spread and treating the novel coronavirus, health sector workers remain as the fulcrum and backbone of many countries. These workers, irrespective of where they are – i.e., developed or developing countries – are all at elevated risk of contracting this deadly virus. This notwithstanding, it is an undeniable fact that, comparatively, workers in the underdeveloped and developing countries are at higher risk than their compatriots in developed countries because of the weak Occupational, Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) mechanism and systems in place. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, some health workers in Ghana had been incessantly complaining about the inadequate provision of PPE and porous health and safety measures in the hospitals. It is also regrettable to state that this phenomenon includes most sectors of the Ghanaian economy.
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) remains as an important consideration for sectors engaged in high-risk operations like the health, agriculture, mining, logging, construction industries, etc. The Agriculture sector is considered as one of the most highly hazardous, because this area records high fatalities. It is evident that he health workers are also exposed to high risk as the spread of COVID-19 is on a surge.
The subject of health and safety, though very paramount, is treated as a tenuous issue by some employers and governments. The focus is always on increasing production or achieving tasks rather than attending to very important social needs such as the health and safety of workers.
A case in point is referenced from the 2 April 2020 publication by Ghanaweb, wherein disgruntled doctors at the Department of Accident and Emergency at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital threatened to withdraw their services over the unit’s poor level of preparedness in the fight against the fast-spreading and deadly coronavirus; especially when a side ward was converted into an isolation centre without the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
In a related story published by the same news site on 5th April 2020, nurses in the same department threatened to withdraw their services because Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was lacking. The issue gained much steam when a nurse contracted the virus in the cause of discharging her duty.
Health and Safety is a Labour right of workers, and also a global issue that needs all the attention it deserves. Labour and other Civil Society Organisations (CSO) which have fought for the rights of workers over the period have been vindicated as the world struggles to curtail effects of the pandemic. It is unbelievable that nations like the US, Italy etc. are among those complaining about shortage of PPEs.
Hearing such news makes one to wonder and ponder over the preparedness of developing countries in terms of health and safety for workers during these difficult times of battling the pandemic. The discussion is not just about the shortage of PPEs, but is a strong sign that OSHE is an important component in every working environment. Workers are only expected to sell or offer services for income, but not to sell their health.
It is for this reason of ensuring safety and health standards are upheld in the country and the need to review and adopt the draft national OSH policy for implementation – while initiating the necessary steps and processes to have ILO convention 155 ratified by Ghana – the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU), with support from the BUSAC Fund and its partners DANIDA and USAID, is carrying out an advocacy programme on convention 155 and has commissioned a study to assess the critical factors affectingthe adoption of the National OSH Policy in Ghana, and also assess the barriers to adoption of a National OSH Policy.
It is an undeniable fact that Ghana has several laws and policies to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers. Some of these include the Labour Act, 2003, Act 651 and Factories, Shops and Offices Act 1970, Act 328, etc. As conspicuously stipulated by the Labour Act, 2003 Act 651, article 118(1), employers must ensure that every worker employed in Ghana works under satisfactory, safe and healthy conditions. In a similar vein, the 1992 constitution of Ghana, section 24(1) states that “every person has the right to work under safe and healthy conditions”.
The same Labour Act 651 (2003) section 119 (1) states that a worker may move away from imminent hazard when he or she is not provided with the right environment to work. The crux of the problem in Ghana is the egregious and weak implementation of laws and policies. Invariably, though we might have such nice provision, they largely do not work; hence, exposing the worker to numerous hazards and risk.
The Health, Safety and Environment (OSHE) of employees are crucial for the development of every country, since productivity greatly thrives on the wellbeing of working populations. It is therefore imperative that issues relating to health and safety are taken very seriously by governments and employers all over the world. Providing a safer working environment and the appropriate equipment not only increases productivity but also improves the morale of workers.
The COVID-19 outbreak serves as a wake-up call for all governments to do more in protecting the lives of the global working force. Particularly, the government of Ghana needs to draw lessons from this pandemic and quicken the process of ratifying the ILO convention 155 on Occupational Health and Safety and adopt the National OSH policy. The 67th International Labour Conference adopted the Convention on 22 June 1981, and it came into force on 11 August 1983. This same convention requires that countries establish a national policy on Occupational Health and Safety.
Considering the multifaceted nature of Ghana’s economy and industrial operations, it is important that government ratifies this convention to cover a larger scope. Emphasis must be made that ratification of ILO convention 155 cannot be said to be a remedy all OSHE challenges faced by the country. However, it sends a strong signal to investors and employers that the country attaches much importance to issues of OSHE.
OSHE is also a crucial topic in pursuit of achieving the UN SDG goals – particularly goal-8, which seeks to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and productive employment and decent work for all. As one of the targets of goal-8, it is the duty of employers to protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers.
As advanced by the ILO, over 2.78 million die yearly out of occupational accidents or work-related diseases. Additionally, there are some 374 million non-fatal work-related injuries each year, resulting in more than 4 days of absence from work. The human cost of this daily adversity is vast, and the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 3.94 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year
This piece has discussed the important role Occupational Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) plays for workers and the nation at large. It has also shown how this calamitous pandemic has exposed the emasculated Health, Safety and Environment (OSHE) systems which have seriously exposed health workers to massive risk in the discharge of their duties.
This outbreak serves as a clarion call to government and other stakeholders for immediate steps to protect the working people of Ghana across all sectors of the economy. Particularly, government needs to draw lessons from this pandemic and quicken the process of ratifying ILO convention 155 on occupational health and safety, which also requires that the country gets a national policy on Occupational Safety, Health and Environment.
Though Ghana has ratified some OSHE-related ILO conventions, the argument is that these are constrained to certain sectors. In light of this, it is important that government shows political will and commitment to support and ratify this convention which has a multifaceted nature in operation.
It is also important that government puts in place measures to ensure compliance with existing OSHE policies in the lacuna of ratifying ILO convention 155. Government is encouraged to resource and empower key institutions like the Labour Department to conduct consistent, extensive and comprehensive labour inspections across all sectors in Ghana.
As a concentric effort, the Labour Commission should also be able to bring recalcitrant employers to book, since it is their obligation to set standards to safeguard the wellbeing of employees. It is also important to state that the lack of adequate information also serves as a drawback to effective implementation of OSHE policies and laws. To demand labour rights, workers and the public should be conscious of the available OSHE policies and laws which protect them. Government can achieve this by taking a ginormous step a involving all stakeholders – such as the ministries and agencies responsible for education and labour, Organised Labour, Ghana Employers’ Association and other CSOs who are committed and devoted to ensuring Ghanaian workers work in a congenial working atmosphere.
The writer is a Former Programmes Officer of GAWU and currently the Head of Research and Policy of the Health Services Workers’ Union of Ghana TUC. His interest is in project management, workers’ rights, research and advocacy.