Workers’ rights and human rights

Earlier this month, this newspaper published a photograph of a man shoulder-deep in a muddy drain along Mandela Avenue. He was trying to find the broken end of a pipeline so it could be repaired. Incongruously, perhaps, he wore a hard hat on his head, when what he really ought to have been wearing—given the task he was performing—was a wet suit. When the state of the city drains is considered, the worker’s almost complete immersion in that murky water could most definitely pose both short and long-term dangers to his health.

In addition, from the angle the photograph was taken there could have been yet another danger to him from the machinery digging silt from the same area where he was working. Scenarios included the machine’s bucket striking the worker—as he was below it in the trench—as well as the machine sliding off the muddy bank of the drain and crushing the worker. That neither happened was a stroke of good fortune.

It was not known if the man in the photo was employed by the Guyana Water Inc, or by one of its contractors and whether he is covered by health or life insurance as well as under the National Insurance Scheme. Or what sort of redress, if any, he would have if he were to develop an illness that made him unable to work or that incurred costly medical bills or both.

Last week, there was the tragic story of three bauxite workers who died when the vehicle they were in was crushed by a huge truck belonging to Bosai, the company they were employed by, on one of its internal roads.

According to reports, the vehicle had been attempting to overtake the truck when the driver somehow lost control and skidded, ending up underneath the truck’s gigantic wheels. The state of that internal road should be taken cognisance of in any determination of culpability in this instance. The questions that must be asked include: Is there a speed limit on this road? Is overtaking allowed on this road? And are there clearly marked signs that point to this, if it is indeed the case?

Were these workers covered by life insurance? Or must their families now depend on the discretion/generosity (or be left bereft by the lack of it) of the employer?

In the recent past several miners have been killed when the sides of the deep pits they were working in caved in. Two of the particularly memorable incidents involved teenagers. There was the case of a 15-year-old boy who perished in a pit in Mahdia in June last year and that of a 17-year-old who suffered the same fate at Micobie.

In the past three years, there have been some ten deaths as a result of mining pit cave-ins. And while there have been calls for miners to be sensitised to the dangers of open-pit mining and for their employers to stick rigidly to the specifications of pits—they should not be dug deeper than 40 feet, but have been found to be 75 feet deep in some of the cases where fatalities occurred.

The miners who work in these death traps are not usually the owners of the mining claim, but that person’s employee. Of the three categories of workers mentioned in this column, this last group likely earns the most lucrative salary. Possibly some of them are paid in gold, which even though its price has dropped recently, is still being sold fairly high. However, like the others, they are unlikely to be covered by life and health insurance and maybe not NIS either. This means that if they die or become medically unfit to continue their line of work, they and their families face destitution.

There are hundreds of workers, some in other industries, who are similarly not catered for. Among them are domestics, gardeners and construction workers, but this list is by no means exhausted. Many of them do not earn enough to set aside anything for a rainy day and are therefore living on the brink.

Occupational health and safety standards are breached way too often and employers are not penalised for the lack of implementation and enforcement of these standards. The fact is, most people want the job done at the least cost and will cut corners to make it happen. The ordinary man/woman struggling to earn his/her daily bread is often forced to go along with it. Complaining might result in no job and in any case the authorities move much too slowly for the complaint to have any real impact.

Workers of all categories and in all industries, along with the right to a decent wage, have the right to work in a safe environment. The authorities must do more to ensure compliance by all employers in all sectors.

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