A more connected world, with global labour markets and sprawling supply chain, often brings with it greater risks for workers. But it also provides us with new opportunities for cooperation to overcome narrow interests.
A scientist, recently interviewed about his research into the Ebola virus, was asked why it was that the current outbreak was so widespread and so deadly compared to previous outbreaks. He paused before replying and the interviewer admitted it was a difficult question. “The answer is quite simple,” he replied, “but what it means is more challenging.”
To a large extent the reason is that Africa is much more interconnected now. Changes to transport infrastructure, how people work and take leisure means they move around a lot more and come into contact with each other more often. There is simply more exposure. Ebola is, in a sense, partly a reflection of a good thing: the modernisation of Africa.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Bolivian miners take extraordinary risks to extract precious minerals. They use dynamite deep underground to loosen the rock and with shovels and wheelbarrows alone, move their cargo to the surface. Many die in tunnel collapses. Those that live longer often die of silicosis. Yet in the last five years the number of working miners has doubled. Why? Because the growth of the Chinese construction market means the demand for their minerals has increased, driving up prices. There is money to be made by those prepared to take the risk.
In both cases understanding – and responding – to such risks requires us to factor in the impact of greater interconnectedness between people. Connections between people are not new of course; trade between nations is one of the oldest human activities. However, the systems built to facilitate such connections, whether in the form of communication technologies, open labour markets or integrated supply chains, are growing and this greater interconnectivity brings greater risks.
As we see in west Africa, health risks can be amplified as contact between people from different regions increases. In the case of Bolivian miners demand in faraway countries can drive increased risk taking. And modern challenges like climate change and terrorism make little sense if not viewed in the context of developing global networks.
A more networked world is a development that will not go away. The solution to its risks must be around building cooperation between people, businesses and countries. It might be that interconnectedness, in tying us more closely into the fates of distant people, offers a chance of a global response to reduce such risks.
Communication technologies enable us to know a lot more about the conditions of workers in different parts of the world. Exposure to diversity encourages innovation and creativity.
In relying more on the economic activity of people from across the world, other people’s welfare becomes important for our own economic wellbeing. It is this shared interest that will drive people to cooperate, build better networks that are innovative and reduce risks.
With a worker dying every 15 seconds from a work-related accident or disease, a more interconnected world is a real opportunity to bring people together to stop this terrible tragedy. In fact, as we see with the EU’s Cross Border Healthcare Directive, human health is seen as a critical component to drive economic growth and as a major factor to improve living conditions across the globe.
This is where we, with our members, can play such an important part in developing the kind of cooperation that overcomes narrow interests in favour of a more humane and interconnected world.
Alex Botha is chief executive of the British Safety Council.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @Alexbotha1
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