Save the workers

Thursday, 9 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

ARE Sri Lankans dying to work? Sri Lanka records around 4,000 workplace accidents every year, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), raising massive concerns over workplace safety, regulations and accountability frameworks. Labour Department statistics reveal that, alarmingly, over 80 Sri Lankans lose their lives in work-related accidents every year. Predictably, the construction sector has the highest number of work-related accidents in the country and the highest frequency of fall-related fatalities is experienced by the construction industry, media reported. ILO estimates that around the globe, every 15 seconds, worker dies from a work-related accident or disease and every 15 seconds, 151 workers have work-related accidents. Over two million people die annually from work-related diseases and 321,000 people die each year from occupational accidents. In Sri Lanka the situation is less bleak. Most accidents at work take place either due to negligence or lack of awareness. But it works out to an alarming 11 accidents each day. One of the biggest facilitators to this bleak situation is that existing provisions are not sufficient in the current context, especially with changes taking place in industries and technology. Sri Lanka has the Factories Ordinance, which details safety measures to be taken by employers, but it is only applicable to factories and The Shop and Office Employees Act covers maternity benefits to employees, while the Industrial Disputes Act covers terminations and related issues. The bulk of this legislation was drafted out before 1954, creating a huge need to update laws and create and framework for reporting and investigating accidents as well as awarding compensation and other assistance. The Labour Ministry has been formulating fresh legislation since 2010 but this is yet to be passed into law and it is unclear how much more time will lapse before it is implemented. Another desperate need is to have a formal reporting system to capture work-related injuries and diseases. Work related incidents of this nature are severely underreported in Sri Lanka with some estimates putting it as low as 1% of the actual number. Inadequacy of information about occupational hazards is one of the major obstacles to prevent occupational fatalities and diseases effectively. However, with the available data, the Health Ministry estimates that nearly 15% of the total admissions due to injuries at the Colombo National Hospital in 2011 were work-related. As many as 60% of Sri Lanka’s workforce is employed in the informal sector and as such does not have even the limited resources of the formal sector to report on transgressions. So hazy are the links that most work-related diseases are not even traced back to their origins and the environment improved for future benefit. Clearly the Health Ministry has to go beyond performing physical inspections and monitor worksites more competently and engage in data collection of injuries. Another important point is that backlogged legislation needs to be passed as soon as possible with a national policy that covers both the public and private sectors to provide more impetus. However, these measures should not be a burden to employers and proper incentives have to be provided so they are maintained voluntarily. While tacking workplace injuries and diseases is a challenging one, its importance cannot be overstated. It deals directly with saving human lives and improving the economy. Surely the eight million or so workforce of Sri Lanka deserves that.