Opinion

No trade-off in worker health

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A scientist, recently interviewed on the radio about his research into the Coronavirus, was asked a question: why is the current outbreak so widespread and so deadly, when compared to previous outbreaks?


He paused before replying and the interviewer admitted it’s a difficult question. “No, no,” he replied, ‘the answer is quite simple, what it means is more challenging.

To a large extent, the reason is that China is much more interconnected now. Changes to transport infrastructure, how people work and take leisure means that they move around a lot more, come into contact with each other more often. There is simply more exposure.” Coronavirus, in a sense, is partly a reflection of a good thing: the modernisation of China.

China is also, of course, much more connected – and exposed – to the rest of the world. Whether through its Belt and Road initiative, with China carrying out or planning construction projects in more than 60 countries, or the long-standing and central role that Huawei plays in the Internet’s infrastructure (never mind its more local role in the UK’s 5G network), China is a global player.

China, where the Coronavirus broke out, is much more interconnected now which is why it's such a global threat to health

Connections between people are not new, of course; trade across borders (and far before nations existed) is one of the oldest human activities. However, the systems built to facilitate such connections, whether in the form of communication technologies, reforms to the labour market and integrated supply chains, are new and introduce new risks.

They have also produced the necessity for ‘trade deals’: basically, how to balance the competing demands of being open to the movement of goods, people, etc. and the need to protect – or close off – damage to the fabric of society.

With Brexit and the intention of increasing global trade as an ‘individual’ country, many of these deals – and trade-offs – will be on the table for discussion.

Isn’t how we look after workers a simple question of national policymaking, of little interest to others? Yet look at Bolivian miners. They take extraordinary risks, using dynamite deep underground to loosen the rock and with shovels and wheelbarrows alone, move their precious cargo to the surface. Many die in tunnel collapses and the average age of a Bolivian miner is 40. 

And yet, in the last five years the number of miners has doubled. Why? Because the growth of the global construction market means the demand for their produce has increased, driving up prices. There is more money to be made for those prepared to take the risk.

A more interconnected world is not going away and so the solution to the risks of interconnectivity must be around building co-operation between people, businesses and countries. Co-operation and working together will have to cross national boundaries to succeed and this of course can present difficulties where national interests clash.

However, it might be that interconnectedness, in tying us more closely into the fates of distant peoples like miners who supply us with the materials we need, offers a chance of a global response to reduce such risks. Why such a response? Not just because of a moral imperative but with interconnectedness come shared fears and concerns and it is these that will drive people to co-operate and reduce risks.

This may seem somewhat self-interested, but with 2.3 million people dying each year from injury and ill health caused by work, if business and social interests drive greater co-operation then we have a chance to chip away at the terrible toll of wasted lives.

Mike Robinson is CEO of the British Safety Council 

Read British Safety Council's useful advice for employers about the coronavirus here

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