COSATU message of support to the National Occupational Health and Safety Conference  

Solly Phetoe, COSATU General Secretary, 07 November 2023  

Programme Director,

Deputy Minister for Employment and Labour,

All Ministers, Deputy Ministers and MECs present today, 

Representatives of the International Labour Organisation, NEDLAC and Trade Union Fedeerations,

Inspectors and officials of the Department of Employment and Labour,

Representatives of business,  

Workers and Comrades  

All protocol observed.  

COSATU wishes to extend its gratitude for the invitation to deliver its message of support to this conference that is to engage on one matter that is at the heart of the Federation.  

Having noted the theme of this conference, “Collaboration and Strategic Approach to enhance decent work in an evolving world of work, which seeks to see a more collaborated and strategic approach to decent work in an evolving world of work, COSATU acknowledges that this partnership is long overdue as the issue of occupational health and safety of workers is one that is very important to the federation.

Government, employers and workers all have an interest in safe and healthy workplaces, and this offers a sound basis for successful social dialogue and consensus building.  

The ILO Constitution sets forth the principle that workers should be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment and yet, for millions of workers the reality is very different. According to ILO estimates, every year 2.34 million workers die due to occupational fatalities, 2.2 million of which result from work-related diseases, which is equivalent to 5,500 deaths every day.

I think we can all agree that these figures are alarming and it cannot be business as usual for as long as workers keep dying at this rate as a result of unsafe workplaces. This causes huge suffering for workers and their families and serious economic losses for economies and societies. Many of these tragedies are preventable through the implementation of sound preventive measures, information and training, adequate inspection and the commitment of government, employers and workers to occupational safety and health.  

The ILO clearly defines decent work as employment that is productive, fair, delivers security in the workplace and that seeks to empower workers and their families. In essence decent work is employment that respects the fundamental right of human beings and the rights of workers in terms of safety in the workplace and a fair and decent remuneration.

Convention C155 in particular, aims to promote occupational health and safety in all workplaces across all branches of the economy. It also provides for the adoption of a coherent national occupational safety and health policy, as well as action to be taken by government and within enterprises to promote occupational safety and health to improve working conditions. 

If we are to achieve decent work in this country, trade unions and the department of labour cannot work in silos or independently from each other, which is exactly why as COSATU we have been calling for the speedy finalisation of the of the OHS amendments bill, having noted the ever changing world of work that has made it evident that the review of the bill is long overdue as some of the provisions have become redundant and new inputs, in line with the new world of world should be incorporated. 

We call on the urgent finalisation of this process which started back in 2016 and 7 years later this bill is still not finalised or tabled to parliament. The unexplained delay by the Department of Employment & Labour in processing the Bill has been reckless and has compromised the rights of workers and South Africa’s international obligations. As COSATU we continue to call for the Bill to be finalised and referred to Parliament as soon as possible.  

With that said, we do acknowledge that the inspectorate plays a crucial role in the enforcement of workplace health and safety standards and the protection of workers. It must be independent, capacitated and fearless in performing its duties. The inspectorate must recognize the critical role played in health and safety by workplace health and safety representatives and registered trade unions and must actively involve them in their workplace inspections, investigations and accident inquiries.

If we are to talk collaboration and strategic approach to enhancing decent work, the department of labour must recognise this critical role played by organised labour towards achieving this goal. In monitoring compliance with the Act, inspectors must pay special attention to the functioning of workplace health and safety structures. Ensure that health and safety representatives and health and safety committees are in place in all workplaces and that registered trade unions are properly consulted by employers on all matters affecting the health and safety of their members.  

The inspectorate must speed up accident investigations and inquiries and finalize their reports without delay.  There are many outstanding accident reports years after workers have been injured or died. This hampers the learning of lessons and delays the implementation of preventative measures.

It also delays the families of workers who have died from pursuing compensation, particularly where employer negligence is identified during investigations and inquiries. Investigation and inquiry reports are public documents and on finalization must be published by the inspectorate without delay. 

The break of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 was an emergency that was unprecedented in south Africa and it has changed the world of work in many aspects. It proved that more robust action is needed to protect workers who are often forced to choose between their health, safety and their livelihood.

As a Federation, we received many complaints from workers about being “forced” to work in unsafe environments that did not comply with Covid 19 regulations, be it providing the necessary PPE, social distancing, proper ventilation etc and this made us realise that enough is not being done to ensure that employers comply with the required standards. If anything, Covid exposed the many gaps that exists in workplaces, especially where occupational health and safety is concerned.  

The pandemic exposed many employers for non-compliance with health standards and regulations that were set by government in order to curb the spread of the deadly virus. The issue of protective clothing, masks, safety protocol and a workplace environment that promotes safety for workers is something that every employer is obligated to provide, by law.

COSATU will continue to expose, condemn, and call for employers who do not comply with the provisions of the law to be penalised and pay the necessary fines.  

The Covid pandemic also indirectly assisted the country to transition to a new world of work, as we saw majority of workers being forced to work from home. Although this came with many challenges for workers, we have seen some success stories in terms of how the country has embraced the use of technology to ensure that work continues remotely without putting the lives of workers in danger.

The introduction of technology and the use of modern-day machinery has demonstrated how workers continuously need to be trained and capacitated in the use of these machinery that continues to enter the world of work to ensure that few accidents occur in the workplace and workers are operating dangerous equipment and machinery having being properly trained.  

In order to enhance a strategic relationship between government and organised labour, it is crucial that employers equip workers with the necessary training and knowledge of the provisions on the health and safety protocols in different workplaces. Employers should ensure that workers are continuously capacitated on issues of OHS and the necessary processes that should be followed in the event of workplace injuries or diseases acquired at work.

Workers should also be capacitated on how to claim compensation for injuries and diseases obtained at the workplace, as COSATU is well aware that majority of workers are in dark and lack the necessary knowledge of the recourse that is available to them in the event of incidents at the workplace.  The Department of Employment and Labour should play a key role of coordinating and rolling out training and workshops across the country to create awareness on these issues, and this should be done in partnership with organised labour and other critical stakeholders.  

As COSATU we will always be available to participate and collaborate in programmes that aims to protect the health and safety of our members across all workplaces. The department of labour should always invite and include us in all critical engagements to ensure a collaborated approach to addressing issues of OHS. We need to advance our approach and response as an injury or death of a worker at the workplace is one too many, especially if such could have been prevented.  

We hope that the deliberations of this conference will result in key resolutions that will address a more advanced approach to tackling OHS in this country. As COSATU we always caution that gathering like these should not serve as another tick box exercise that results in nothing. OHS must be treated with the urgency that it deserves, and we look forward to a fruitful conference and deliberations that will result in action.  

Thank you very much.