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Opening Remarks, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and
hazardous substances and wastes,
Baskut Tuncak
42nd Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council

Excellences, distinguished delegates, colleagues, friends,

Safe and healthy working conditions is a human right. It has been globally recognized as a human right since 1966 under the ICESCR, as a fundamental component of the right to just conditions of work, and the links to civil and political rights are unmistakable.

However, despite over 50 years of global recognition, unimaginable advancements in science, medicine and technology, and specific efforts in certain countries and contexts, the right of all workers to safe and healthy working conditions sadly remains more a privilege, than a universal human right.  It remains insufficiently acknowledged as a human right by critical organizations with a duty to protect workers, poorly implemented and superficially realized, with hundreds of millions inadequately protected from toxic exposures at work.  

Since my presentation one year ago, it is estimated that nearly three million workers have died from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, just under half of which was from exposure to toxic substances and wastes alone.  While we were "breathing" with the rhythm of the ILO centenary celebrations in June of this year, millions of workers were left breathless from respiratory diseases, suffering the pains of cancer, or experiencing a life with disabilities, all of which could have been prevented.

Mr. President, distinguished delegates,

For nearly 25 years, this mandate has addressed cases concerning violations of workers' rights from exposure to toxic substances and wastes, in collaboration with ILO and WHO.  The variety, number and gravity of these cases convinced me of the need to bridge relevant discussions on the rights of workers within the labor, human rights and health forums, including the implementation of goal 8 of the SDGs on decent work. 

Workers are unquestionably among the most vulnerable to toxic exposures.  They are exposed the first and the most.  Among workers, there are those that are even more vulnerable and less likely to be adequately protected, such those working in certain sectors, those living in poverty and workers of reproductive age, whose children also bear the burden of exposure to toxic substances.  Occupational exposures not only harm workers themselves but can also have devastating impacts on their children.  The experience of Yvette is a stark reminder of this reality.

Yvette worked in the high-technology sector, assembling lasers, in one of the world's wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries.  She recalled working daily with an unidentified mixture she nicknamed "green gunk".  Yvette had a miscarriage while at work.  No one asked her about what happened, or even if she was alright.  She was back at work in 2 days. 

The next year, Yvette gave birth to her son. At birth, his eyes were crossed, organs underdeveloped, hips dislocated, and body covered with large blood blisters.  By the time he was four, the neurodevelopmental impacts were undeniable, as he was still unable to walk or talk.  In his 30s, he is unable to cross the street or use the toilet independently. 

Yvette worked daily in a small room without ventilation, without adequate protection, and without the knowledge of her daily exposure to toxic substances.  The "green gunk" was in fact a mixture of chemicals well-established to be highly toxic healthy reproduction, such as lead. The working conditions had, according to her doctor, turned her body into a "toxic warehouse before her son was conceived."  Her own contamination released stored lead from her bones into her blood stream into her son's blood and the amniotic fluid in which he developed, causing impacts for which there is no cure.  

Mr. President, distinguished delegates,

In September 2018, I presented a report to this Council highlighting the global crisis confronting workers exposed to toxic substances and wastes. In that report I concluded with 15 draft principles to help States, businesses and other actors to prevent exposure and to provide remedies for corresponding violations of workers' rights. 

I was pleased to note overwhelming support and optimism from this Council last year for the draft principles.  Many delegations and civil society representatives welcomed the report, and shared examples of good practices. Some delegations expressed particular appreciation of the fact that the draft principles elaborated, bridged and built upon the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, ILO instruments and multilateral environmental agreements on toxic chemicals and wastes, among other instruments.

Based on this, I shared with you my intention to present a final set of principles, which are contained in the report that I have the honor to present to you today.  Over the past year, I continued to consult with States and other stakeholders around the world to help refine and finalize the principles.  It was encouraging for me to note that nearly all respondents were supportive of the principles and agreed on their relevance. 

I would sincerely like to thank the many States and other stakeholders, including ILO and WHO, for lending their support in the development of these principles, with the aim of promoting the rights of all workers in accordance with my mandate. 

Seven of the principles in the report presented before you concern the prevention of exposure to hazardous substances.   Everyone must be protected from exposure to toxic substances at work.  States have a duty to prevent exposure and businesses a responsibility to prevent exposure in realizing the human right to safe and healthy work.  As illustrated in the case of Yvette, protecting workers from exposure to toxic substances has a ripple effect – it also protects their families, their communities and the environment.  In exercising these duties and responsibilities, hazard elimination is paramount, and so too is the protecting the integrity of the science on which decisions are made.

Principles 8, 9 10 and 11 concern the interrelationship between the human right to safe and healthy work, with rights to information, participation, and assembly.   The right to safe and healthy work is inseparable from freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining.  Fundamental to the worker's rights is information.  Today, Yvette says "If I knew what I know now, I would've ran out of [the company] at the time. It was unnecessary. It breaks my heart that I could've avoided this."  Every worker has a right to know, and to know their rights.  Health and safety information about toxic substances must never be confidential. 

Only the smallest fraction of workers whose rights are violated have access to an effective remedy.  The final four principles seek to help address this injustice.  Workers, their families and their communities must have immediate access to an appropriate and effective remedy, which should be available from the time of exposure.  However, for many victims, including children born of parents who have been exposed such as Yvette's son, the impacts are irreparable and irreversible.  Depriving workers of their right to safe and healthy work should be a crime. Workers or their families should not bear the burden of proving the cause of their illness or disability to access an effective remedy.

Mr. President, Distinguished delegates,

The principles contained in the present report are thus rooted in the nearly 25 years of work under the mandate, as well as intensive, expert consultations undertaken since 2017.

There is a pressing need for these principles, as for example illustrated by the centenary session of the ILO here in Geneva, in this very building.  I was deeply dismayed by the continued insistence of employers through their representative organizations that safe and healthy work is a not a human right.  Regrettably, as a result, occupational safety and health is today still not one of ILO's fundamental principles and rights at work, although it will be reconsidered at the upcoming meeting of the ILO's governing body in late October.

In my view, the implementation of these principles can and will strengthen the coherence between human rights and occupational health and safety standards with respect to the exposure of workers to toxic substances, finally making the right to safe and healthy work a reality for all, rather than a privilege.

Thank you, Mr. President.