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A vicious form of exploitation: workers poisoned by toxic substances, says UN expert

Toxic poisoning in the workplace

12 September 2018

GENEVA (12 September 2018) – Exposure of workers to toxic substances can and should be considered a form of exploitation and is a global health crisis, says a UN expert.

On Wednesday, UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, told the UN Human Rights Council that governments and companies must strengthen protection for workers, their families and their communities from any exposure to toxic chemicals.

One worker dies approximately every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Global supply chains are often implicated for failing to protect workers from toxic exposures and refusing to provide an effective remedy for individuals harmed.

“Workers’ rights are human rights. No one should be denied their basic human rights, including the rights to life and health because of the work they perform,” said Tuncak.

“Inaction is not an option. Governments have a duty and businesses a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of workers,” added Tuncak.

The UN expert said that poverty, gender, age, ethnicity and migration are among the themes that frequently recur in cases of workers and toxic harms.

“Those most at risk of exposure are those who are most vulnerable to exploitation: people living in poverty, children, women, migrant workers, people with disabilities, and older people. The economic insecurity of workers who are typically exposed to toxic substances is often exploited,” said Tuncak.

“Irregular or undocumented migrant workers are at extreme risk of exploitation by employers who seek to reap the benefits of unfair competition. Clandestine movements, people trafficking and modern slavery frequently coincide with the exposure of migrant workers to toxic substances.”

In his report, Tuncak examines the situation of workers exposed to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances worldwide. He proposes 15 principles intended to help governments, businesses and others respect and protect workers from toxic exposures in and around the workplace and to provide remedies for violations of their rights. A detailed annex catalogues cases addressed by the mandate in the past decade.


(*) The UN experts: Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes  

The UN experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Read the full report.

For further information and media requests, please contact: Mr. Alvin Gachie (+41 22 917 9971, [email protected])  or Ms Lilit Nikoghosyan (+41 22 917 9936, [email protected]), or [email protected] )

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights –Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration –translated into a world record 500 languages–is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human