>> CONTRIBUTION POSTED ON THE GLOBAL FSN FORUM
I am very pleased to be part of this important discussion. In regards to the challenges that rural youth preparing for and accessing decent work face, we cannot ignore the issue of hazardous exposures that may negatively affect the long term health and development of our future rural workers.
When we discuss issues of decent work for youth in rural settings, we often speak about the right to security, the right to education; yet the fundamental human right to health is often left out of the equation. This is where we need to speak up, and I hope that we can use this medium for reminding us all of its importance. The threat of occupational illness and disease in this young cohort must be a matter of international concern.
The Challenge: The age of young workers in question in this forum, aged 15 to 17, coincides with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of adolescence, as the period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before adulthood. This critical life transition is characterized by rapid biological changes, development of metabolic and hormonal pathways, and the onset of puberty. While adolescence is a time of tremendous growth, it is also a time of considerable health risk due to the vulnerabilities of developing systemic pathways. As an important phase for brain development, in which young people acquire increased capacity for abstract reasoning, compared to adults, already much smaller exposures to neurotoxic agents may incur long-term damage. As such, the health consequences of specific occupational exposures may be dramatically different for developing youth due to unique phases of rapid growth and development, immature metabolic and biological pathways, and lack of experience and training at the workplace.
Whereas a hazard can be anything with the potential to cause harm, such as a chemical (e.g., pesticide), an environment (e.g., heat), or an object (e.g., sharp knife), risk is the probability that a hazard will result in harm. Risk can be further specified by the degree of harm that can be imposed (i.e., severity) and the assessment of the chance that the harm may occur (i.e., probability).
Risk = severity of harm x probability of harm occurring
Common occupational hazards in rural sectors and agriculture, such as sharp knives, pesticides and heat, may be present for both adult and adolescent workers. However, the actual risk imposed on the adult worker versus the adolescent worker may be dramatically different. For example, the severity of harm will be greater for developing adolescents who are in a critical phase of rapid biological development and maturation. Biological functions such as detoxification pathways and neurological mechanisms are still developing well into late adolescence. In the case of pesticide exposure, the severity of harm increases for an adolescent because various pesticides act as neurotoxins that can directly impact the developing brain, resulting in long-term neurobehavioral effects. Probability of harm will also be greater for adolescence due to their inability to judge occupational risks and to pressure from employers.
Addressing the Challenge: The problems for hazardous exposures for youth in the rural economy have been well documented in the past. Now, comes time for developing effective solutions that can reach the most vulnerable communities worldwide. Potential solutions to address such needs will require coordinated efforts by technical experts to develop good practices and will demand effective social dialogue between social partners at multiple levels.
1. Developing occupational safety and health (OSH) networks: To help protect the health of young workers in rural areas, sustainable OSH infrastructures must be developed and key stakeholders must be trained to address the unique OSH needs of young workers. National systems for OSH reporting are often weak due to limited data, difficulties in diagnosing occupational health conditions and chronic under-reporting on behalf of workers and employers. A large number of low income countries lack the infrastructure to monitor, record and assess OSH indicators. Moreover, when such infrastructure is available, it often falls short of tracking incidence in the informal economy, in rural areas and in small-scale farming. Therefore, the first priority must be in the design and implementation of OSH networks with the capabilities of extending to hard to reach rural areas.
2. Sensitizing local actors: Potential actions should consider sensitising and mobilising local farmers and other rural economy actors in target communities to apply appropriate OSH procedures. Such actions will contribute to improving the understanding of rural families of the benefits of OSH measures for improved workplace safety in general and, as relevant, for adolescents. It would be helpful to support the establishment of local mechanisms – involving farmers, farmers’ groups and farm workers’ organizations, as well as labour inspection and agricultural extension services, including OSH technicians - to monitor OSH issues, particularly for adolescents .
3. Effective Social Dialogue: Sustainable promotion of decent and safe work in regards to eliminating hazardous exposures for youth requires the commitment and action of the sectoral actors n the rural economy – enterprises at all levels and employers’, workers’ and small producers’ organisations, including rural cooperatives. To exercise the greatest tangible impact on decent work in the sector, enterprises, together and individually pursuing complementary efforts, require open and positive relations with their social partners and validated good practices on how to work with national governments and other public authorities.
4. Collaboration with Workers’ Organisations: Workers’ Organisations have long recognised the need to contribute to the elimination of hazardous exposures for youth, particularly in rural areas. Collective bargaining, as part of social dialogue, is one of the central strategies of workers’ organisations to combat hazardous work for youth. As campaigning organisations, workers' organisations are in a position to disseminate knowledge and take direct action to influence labour law and OSH practices. Due to their uniquely integrated structure, they provide a valuable link between the global, national and local level and young workers’ safety and health.
I hope that these first ideas can start a positive discussion, resulting in sustainable solutions for protecting the health of young workers in the rural economy. As young workers represent the future workforce, protecting their right to a healthy development remains our priority.