The possibility of having a positive influence on the working conditions of millions of workers was discussed at an online meeting hosted by IOSH. The meeting, which was part of the pre-conference programme of the UN Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum (Asia and the Pacific), was another contribution by IOSH to an increasingly important arena of advocacy: including occupational safety and health as a key element of international trade agreements. It followed earlier input made by IOSH to the UN Policy Hackathon on model provisions for trade agreements in times of crisis. IOSH is progressively being seen as a thought leader in the international business and human rights arena, influencing decision-makers and informing the policy-making process in many aspects of safety, health and wellbeing at work.
The IOSH-hosted session focused on how occupational safety and health considerations could be applied in practice. Discussions were based on a concrete example: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a trade agreement between 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific, including 10 ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member states. Potentially, it covers a total population of 2.3 billion people.
The RCEP presents an opportunity to harmonise regulatory systems in labour and occupational safety and health, across countries with very different socio-political, economic and cultural backgrounds. The meeting considered how the RCEP could be used to create conditions for improved human rights and decent work.
Chaired by Dr Iván Williams Jiménez, Policy Development Manager at IOSH, the session was translated from English simultaneously into 11 Asian languages, to ensure participation from as wide a spectrum of participants as possible. The session gathered perspectives from forward-thinking international organisations with expertise on the topic such as the United Nations Development Programme Business and Human Rights in Asia, the International Trade Union Confederation, the Earthworm Foundation and the Business Human Rights Resource Centre.
Iván said: “IOSH welcomes events that provide an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of integrating occupational safety and health provisions into trade and investment agreements.
Intervening at the design stage of trade negotiations can effectively help to improve working conditions and ensure that future trading practices promote socially responsible trade.”
Speakers addressed how decent work can inform trade and development strategies in the region. They suggested ways in which business practices that are sustainable and responsible can lead to more resilient global value chains.
The meeting looked at how the RCEP can support decent work in the region and promote human rights in global supply chains. It asked what conditions would be needed for the RCEP to stimulate a social compact between governments, the private sector, social partners and civil society to achieve inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work.
The meeting then considered the importance of collaboration in implementing core labour standards as part of trade and investment agreements. In particular, it looked at whether it would be possible to recognise occupational safety and health as a fundamental right in free trade agreements. If so, what would be the impact and consequences for business and workers? How would this be implemented and policed in practice?
The agenda turned to concerns that not all signatories to the RCEP would find it easy to make progress towards the effective implementation of human rights and the social, labour and health and safety provisions of their national regulatory frameworks. The meeting considered how best to support Least Developed Countries whose capacity, resources and infrastructure would present the biggest challenges in this regard.
Looking to the future, participants reflected on what is envisaged for investment and trade in the region. The meeting shared various viewpoints on the impact of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on occupational safety and health.
Participants agreed that further strategic collaboration and dialogue are needed as part of follow-up efforts to design better and more efficient bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Socially responsible trade and investment policy and agreements are those that integrate the effective prioritisation of occupational health and safety provisions. This principle can only work if governments and businesses can be persuaded that worker-centred trade policy and agreements can bring sustainable benefits for workers and economies alike.
Many of the themes raised at the session were addressed in a subsequent presentation delivered by IOSH at the 7th Regulating for Decent Work Conference, held virtually 6–9 July. The conference discussed policy and regulatory measures to mitigate the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the world of work and how to facilitate a robust and inclusive recovery. IOSH continues to contribute to push the agenda for OSH to be an intrinsic part of international trade arrangements, and for decent work as part of long-term sustainability.
The Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum brings together governments, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, trade unions, academia, national human rights institutions, business enterprises and industry associations for constructive dialogue and peer-learning on strengthening responsible business and human rights.
It is co-organised by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The four-day forum in June 2021 attracted 3,211 participants (2,688 from the Asia-Pacific region, 254 from Europe, 108 from Africa, 65 from North America, and 54 from Latin America and the Caribbean).