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Hesitating about the OSH

EditorialHesitating about the OSH

On October 25, a man plunged to his death from 35 feet after a cable holding up a basket he and a co-worker were in, broke. The men were subcontractors, doing a job at the Belize Defence Force (BDF) Air Wing in Ladyville. After that tragic accident, the president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), Luke Martinez, issued an urgent call for the GoB to “rush the OSH”, complete the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Bill, and take it to the House of Representatives and Senate and make it into law.

Speaking on the tragedy, Major Francis Usher of the BDF said the responsibility for the men’s safety was theirs (the men’s), and that of the company they worked for, not the BDF’s. Usher said that in the BDF they adhere to rigorous safety protocols when projects are carried out by their soldiers, and that the “contractors had inspected the site, provided their own resources, and made renovation proposals, with the BDF only specifying the required repairs.”

The Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI), in a 2019 report on the OSH Bill after two men died in the Belize City Center following the collapse of a scaffold on which they were working, said the organization saw the merits in an OSH law and was committed to it. The BCCI said that when the Bill had been introduced in 2014, they had written to the Chairman of the Public Service, Labour, Industry and Trade Committee “to point out several areas of the proposed law that either required clarifications or amendments.” They had also engaged the NTUCB about their concerns, that the parties had met in 2018, and that at a meeting on July 2, 2019 they had “agreed to formulate a six-member working committee tasked with reviewing the Bill so as to obtain a satisfactory final draft by November 2019.”

The NTUCB has not been idle. Martinez said they had gotten the Prime Minister to commit to take the Bill to the National Assembly LAST month. He said that in 2022 the NTUCB, the BCCI, and a representative from the Ministry of Labour had worked “tirelessly” to iron out their differences. He said that in December 2022 they sent a joint letter to the Minister of Labour, Hon. Oscar Requena, and that “they received a response 6 months later that the Ministry was seeking legal advice and would have to go through ‘a whole new process.’” And he further noted that 3 months later “they were called to sit down and discuss how they can advance the legislation”, and now “they have been given another 2-month timeline ‘that will see the bill advance from his Ministry (Ministry of Labour) to Cabinet and then to National Assembly.’”

So, what’s the hold up? Why has this Bill which has been around, not gone to the House and Senate and been made into law? Why would a law that everyone agrees is necessary have been batted about as a Bill since 2014, and languishes up to this date? Obviously, some parties have not yet agreed to come on board.

The workers, employees, would benefit directly from an OSH law, and so would the Social Security Board (SSB). There would be fewer injuries and deaths on the job, and there would be fewer payouts by the SSB for injury and death benefits. So, the foot dragging can’t be on their part. The hemming and hawing is mainly coming from the BCCI, and the GoB, our country’s number one employer, has some responsibility for the delay too. The hesitation most likely is about the cost of safety gear, and details of the legal responsibility of employers in the event of accidents.

The fact that Belize doesn’t make safety equipment can’t be ignored. All the helmets, boots, gloves, respirators, and other safety gear and equipment would have to be imported. But those in the business of importing these types of equipment will do very well.

Some companies can easily absorb the additional expenditure. Big companies like BEL, BSI, and BTL, and the Belize Flour Mills, which stands out for its efforts to protect workers, already have excellent safety protocols in place. But marginal companies, especially small businesses, might be fazed by the costs. Farming and fishing are two of the most dangerous occupations, and owners of such businesses are among the most likely to find safety equipment mandated under an OSH law to be too much strain on their pockets.

Business owners will have concerns about the legal responsibilities. We have seen public coffers absolutely “killed” by civil suits from disgruntled employees. If the legal responsibilities of employers under an OSH law look too much like the worker protection laws in more developed countries, it might be daunting. But everyone knows we have to do much better. Seiji Machida, the Director of Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork) International Labour Office, said in a working paper from the International Labour Office that “the ILO estimates that four per cent of global GDP is lost due to occupational accidents and diseases …” The Carter Center said that while most developing nations have poor recording systems, it is estimated that “death rates due to occupational accidents among workers are five to six times higher than those in industrialized countries.”

Apart from the financial cost, injuries are terrible for morale, and deaths can cast a pall, and even cause discord if workers feel their employer was uncaring. Putting aside human emotions, workers, especially trained ones, are not that easy to replace. While we must complete and “rush the OSH”, because it is good for Belize, we must also keep the focus on the greatest threat to workers in our country: traveling on the highways and roads.

There’s no published data to go on, but it’s a reasonable wager that more workers die while being transported to and from worksites in the “pans” of pickups by their employers, than when they are on the job. Amandala’s files say 71, 83, and 85 persons died in traffic accidents in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. Everybody pays for accidents—for vehicle replacement and parts, for injuries and deaths. The mayhem on our highways has led to a massive increase in insurance premiums, way above the amount needed to offset inflation. A PAHO report on traffic accidents in Belize in 2007, said there were 63 deaths, 338 hospitalizations, and 565 minor injuries. The report said they add up to 2,501 years of potential life lost to premature death, a total economic loss of BZ$31,966,045 for that year.

An OSH law is absolutely necessary, and it hasn’t stalled because no one cares. Hon. Oscar Requena has to be smarting over the Trade License Reform Bill, which reached the Senate and got stuck there. That is important legislation that maybe could have been bettered if it had been aired out more. Maybe it would be good for Belizeans to see the draft of the OSH Bill so that they can contribute their ideas. The hesitation is understandable, but we can’t keep the OSH law in limbo forever. The NTUCB president is right that we need to be urgent, that we need to “rush the OSH”.

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