Feb 01, 2021 Letters
A right is something that you are morally or legally entitled to do or to have. Workers do not automatically enjoy the legal right to refuse or shut down unsafe work in every jurisdiction or every circumstance. However, we always have the moral right to refuse or shut down unsafe work. In serious circumstances, we believe that not only do we have the right to refuse or shut down unsafe work, but we also have to do so.
Our problems arise when the exercise of that right is not protected from reprisals by the employer like the Guyana Oil Company Limited. Notice that wherever workers enjoy the legal right to refuse work, either in national laws, or collective bargaining agreements, it has always followed worker activism and demands; never preceded it.
Our rights are rarely given to us freely we must demand and fight for them.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, States “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
It does not state that these rights disappear when you go to work. Indeed, the right to favourable conditions of work is also mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another United Nations document, the international covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights, provides that everyone should have the right to safe and healthy working conditions.
However, the most important reference to the right to refuse unsafe work comes from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a specialised United Nations Agency dealing with International Labour Standards.
The ILO has several Conventions and Recommendations that mention the right to refuse unsafe work. The most generally significant of these is convention 155, Occupational Safety and Health Convention,1981.
Convention 155 States (excerpts):
“Article 4 (1) Each Member shall, in the light of national conditions and practice, and consultation with the most representative organisations of employers and workers, formulate, implement and periodically review a coherent national policy on occupational safety, occupational health and the working environment.
(2). The policy shall aim to prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, linked with or occurring in the course of work, by minimising, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment.”
“ Article 5 (e) The protection of workers and their representatives from disciplinary measures as a result of actions properly taken by them a conformity with the policy referred to in Article 4 of this convention”.
“Article 13. A worker who removed himself from a work situation which he/she has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent danger to his/her life or health shall be protected from undue consequences following national conditions and practice.”
“Article 19. There shall be arrangements at the level of the undertaking… (f) a worker reports forthwith to his/her immediate supervisor any situation which he/she has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to his/her life or health; until the employer has taken remedial action, if necessary, the employer cannot require workers to return to a work situation where there is continuing imminent and serious danger to life or health.”
In plain language, this says that within the context of national law, workers can, with reasonable justification, remove themselves from unsafe work and not return until the employer has remedied the situation, and if they have exercised this right in good faith they cant suffer undue consequences.
Other ILO conventions also refer to this right. For example, convention 176 the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995; Recommendation 183 on Safety and Health in Mines 1995; Recommendation 172 on Asbestos, 1986 and Recommendation 177 on chemicals, 1990.
ILO conventions have legal standing when ratified, but our government may have ratified these conventions. However, both ILO Convention and ILO Recommendations can be referred to as part of International best practice sometimes even in countries that have not ratified the relevant convention.
The Guyana Oil Company Limited is in breach and violation of Occupational Safety and Health act No. 32 of 1997. After being reconstituted, the Occupational Safety and Health committee excludes the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union who represent 90% of workers at the Guyana Oil Company Limited.
“Section (22)(5) The selection of a safety and health representative shall be made by those workers who do not exercise managerial functions and who will be represented by the safety and health representative in the workplace, or the part. Or parts thereof, as the case may be.”
“ Section (22)(6) Where a trade union or trade unions are representing the workers referred to in subsection (5), the selection of a safety and health representative may be delegated by a majority of such workers to the trade union or trade unions.”
“ section (23)(8) The members of a committee who represent workers shall be selected by the workers who do not exercise managerial functions and who will be represented by those members of the committee in the workplace or the part or parts thereof, as the case may be.”
“Section (23)(9) Where a trade union or trade unions are representing the workers referred to in subsection (8), the selection of the members of a committee referred to in subsection (8) maybe by a delegated majority of such workers to the trade union or trade unions.”
The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Many collective bargaining agreements refer to the right to refuse or shut down unsafe work. When there is a disagreement in the interpretation of labour law or collective agreements between an employer and a worker, the general rule is to comply now and grieve later. This advice serves to protect the worker from immediate discipline or discharge, on the belief that if a labour arbitrator or judge later rule in favour of the worker, an appropriate remedy can be applied. Lost wages can be repaid, workers can be restored to their rightful positions, indignities can be compensated.
However, in the case of occupational Health and Safety, this general rule cannot apply.
There is no remedy that an arbitrator can impose that will restore life or health, if it is lost.
The right to refuse or to shut down, unsafe or unhealthy work is not automatically guaranteed by law or by CBA. Like all human rights, we assert our moral authority when we demand it. It is a right that we must win, lost it along with our health or life.
Thats what the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) mean we say “the Guyoil workers have the right to refuse unsafe work”.
Clerical & Commercial Workers Union
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