Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Health, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean

CENTRAL AMERICA: Working Can Be Hazardous to Health

José Eduardo Mora

SAN JOSE, Nov 26 2003 (IPS) - Occupational health protections are a mere fantasy for the 12.4 million workers in Central America, where two million work-related accidents occur every year, according to a study by the Health and Work Programme in Central America (SALTRA).

The report states that the region has failed to carry out a diagnostic of occupational illnesses and there are no health monitoring systems in place.

Furthermore, the health ministries of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – the seven nations of the isthmus – lack policies on work-related health issues.

"There is great disregard for occupational health in the region, and a great ignorance of the ways in which it is possible to improving working conditions," Katharina Wessling, SALTRA executive director, told IPS.

Work-related illnesses tend to become "invisible", says Wessling, "because there is little awareness about the impact they have on the economy of the Central American family."

Employers are mistaken, she says, when they argue that attending to these problems "would cost a lot". The reality is that the long-term burden is worsened by the lack of policies that foster employee welfare in a workplace with appropriate health protections.

The scant participation of the region’s health ministers in occupational health strategies is likely due to a belief that it is not a public matter, says Wessling. This explains why so little attention is paid to the problem by the general public, she says.

The mandate of SALTRA – a 12-year initiative promoted by the Social Integration Secretariat, Costa Rica’s National University, the Autonomous University of Nicaragua and Sweden’s National Institute for Working Life – is to improve occupational health in Central America.

In the region, just 10 percent of workers are unionised, which the authors of the study consider a disadvantage that contributes to the status quo. If workers are not organised, they are unlikely to have much power to press for change.

"There are areas, such as farming, where not even three percent of the workers are unionised. This complicates the situation because they don’t have the means to demand adequate working conditions," said Wessling.

Agriculture, and sugarcane production in particular, along with the service and construction industries, are the areas where employees are most vulnerable, but also where there are no reliable records on work-related accidents or illnesses, according to SALTRA.

Of the 12.4 million workers in Central America, 47 percent are in the service sector, 36 percent in farming and 17 percent in industry and manufacturing.

The informal sector of the economy, which employs a large portion of the workforce, must be taken into account when promoting occupational safety policies for the region, "and not just workers who receive a salary," says the SALTRA director.

In 2000, 7.8 percent of the men and 7.3 percent of the women in Costa Rica’s economically active population of 1.4 million were considered "under-employed".

That year, Honduras reported the highest rate of under-employment in the region: 30 percent of the economically active population of 2.1 million.

Immigrants and children are two of the main groups found working in the informal sector, said Wessling.

The study also records the percentage of workers in each Central American country who have insurance against occupational hazards: Belize has greatest coverage, with 60 percent. Following are Costa Rica (56 percent), Panama (52 percent), Guatemala (30 percent), Nicaragua (17 percent) and Honduras (14 percent).

The continued neglect of occupational health ultimately takes a toll on the people of Central America, hurting their ability to work and to contribute to household income. Half the region’s population of 37.6 million live in poverty.

Back ailments, allergies and respiratory problems are some of the most frequent complaints of workers. In the agricultural sector, exposure to pesticides – especially on the banana plantations – can cause sterility or lead to cancer or other serious health problems.

Some 9,500 rural workers in Chinandega, Nicaragua have for the past five years pursued million-dollar lawsuits against the banana transnationals for the harm to their health caused by the pesticide Nemagon (dibromo-chloropropane).

In November 2000, Nicaragua enacted a special law for facilitating lawsuits filed by people affected by pesticide-use in the banana sector.

In the early 1990s, complaints were filed in Costa Rica and Honduras against U.S.-based banana companies, accusing them of exposing workers to the dangerous pesticides used in growing the fruit.

Ernesto Medina, rector of the Autonomous University of Nicaragua, says there is fear that in sectors like the ‘maquilas’ (for-export, tax-free manufacturing zones) and farming the occupational health situation will worsen with the launch of the free trade agreement that Central America is negotiating with the United States.

"The vulnerability of the maquila and farming, as is the case with sugarcane, could lead the way to greater exploitation of workers, and greater exposure to unsafe working conditions," said Medina.

Signing the free trade agreement implies the danger that workers will be subject to more manipulations and will not have the means to defend themselves, he said.

Among the criticisms cited by those who oppose the treaty is that it is merely an effort by the United States to obtain more cheap labour. The university rector said that this issue must be given greater scrutiny.

On Monday, hundreds of public employees and members of the Costa Rican civil society movement marched on Congress and the presidential palace in San José to demand that President Abel Pacheco halt the free trade negotiations with the United States.

The workers and activists argue that the Costa Rican people are not aware of what is at stake in the negotiations.

A new round of talks between five Central American countries and the United States begins Dec. 8.

Seeking a re-election boost for President George W. Bush, Washington is pushing for a treaty to be signed before the elections in November 2004, say Costa Rican labour leaders, including Albino Vargas, head of the public employees union.

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