Legal Abroad

Risks and challenges of the contemporary work environment

We publish below the speech given by Umberto Oliva, partner of MB.O Law Firm, at the inauguration of the first conference of PEOPIL Occupational Health and Workplace Accidents European Exchange Group, held in Thessaloniki on the 15th of June 2023.

An overview of the main trends in the current European society (EU mega trends) and their influence on the world of work, and an analysis of the main risks to the health and dignity of today’s workers are the main themes covered in the following speech.

“Understanding the change” is the challenge we at Legal Abroad are willing to take up too!

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I am sincerely honoured to open the first Occupational Health Convention of our association.

Firstly, I wish to thank you all for your kind participation: thanks for being here!

I would also like to express my gratitude to all our Greek colleagues, for their factual contribution to the organization of our gathering here, in Thessaloniki.

And let me personally thank every colleague who will be speaking today, sharing their knowledge and experience.

In the last weeks, I have been thinking about my possible contribution to today’s debate: “Should I talk about this or that?”… Many topics seemed noteworthy.

Eventually, I came to the resolution that, being entitled of writing the very first page of our Occupational Health Group, the best thing to do, rather than focusing on a specific matter, was trying to draw a picture of the world of work and the problems that current working people face. To set a clear beginning: today, 2023.

So, my “Report” will consist of an introduction and three issues.

The Introduction: in our field, personal injury occurs within and in the breach of a contract. But the employment contract is a very particular contract, that carries great importance for the person involved.

It looked essential to me to start by stating which the values of a worker involved in an employment contract are; by investigating the reasons why the law regards to the workers’ health and dignity as the two pillars of the protection of working people; and why a “safe and fair” workplace is a right that is individual as well as collective.

Then the first question: What changes have occurred to the world of work, after the adoption, 35 years ago, of the fundamental European Directive on Safety and Health at Work 89/391?

And the second issue:

What are the problems for the people who work today? Where do the main risks for the workers lie? What new diseases have emerged?

And, finally, the third question:

Which horizons should we, worker-protecting lawyers, turn to? What challenges await us?

My speech could appear not very technical legal, but I thought the occasion allowed it. I sincerely hope you’ll like, and you’ll find it useful.

Let’s start with laying a milestone. According to all studies (Sociology, Psychology of Labour, Economics and Politics – but also to our own personal experiences) work bear, in our society, at least three fundamental values to a person.

From an economical point of view, work is the main means of support to grant our survival. The typical question “What do you do for a living?’ is an alternative way to ask “What is your job?”. This implicates that, according to the common sense, working means granting life for oneself and their family. Hence, the first basic value inherent in the contract of employment.

From a personal perspective, work is a major element of self-respect. A person who does their job well, a person whose job is appreciated, is a person with self-esteem. Working is a powerful means of self-expression.

But a job does not only mark a person’s value ratio, “I for myself”.

Work provides a person with an identity from a social point of view too.

In a society that has overcome the issue of identity as an element linked to its social provenience (a given family, a clan, a village), work has become the most important element of social identity, which affects the value ratio “I for the others”.

Whether we like it or not, this is how it works. We are talking about an asset of the individual, which is primary at all levels: economical, personal, and social.

Precisely because of this highest value of work to the person, the law protects a worker’s HEALTH and also its DIGNITY.

Under the art 31 of the CHARTER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION.

Every worker has the right to working conditions which respect his or her health, safety and dignity”.

This principle is most important for us: the protection of the working individual occurs not only, guaranteeing its physical integrity, but also its moral personality. The two values go together.

There is a further concept I want to recall: there is a deep connection between work and democracy.

In our societies, a job is not only the main means to improve one’s life, it is also the way a person takes part in, and improves, the life of its community.

The right to a safe and fair job has a double worth: it is an asset for the individual as well as for the society.

A person who is forced to work under conditions that put their health at risk, or trample its dignity, represents damage not only for himself but also for the whole society. The infringement of its fundamental rights is a loss for everyone; without a safe and fair job, there can be no true democracy.        

                                                             ——–

Let us now see how the work market has evolved in the last decades.

According to official data, between 1996 and 2019 the most outstanding fact is the drop in the manufacturing sector occupation, and a sensible increase in the services sector.

This is the consequence of the well-known phenomenon of deindustrialisation, whereby today we have about 74% of workers employed in the service sector, about 22% in manufacturing and construction, and 4% in agriculture.

Such a change suddenly brings two major issues, to our attention.

In these years, many firms have moved their production outside of Europe, to “low-cost countries” where the game down has often involved also the level of safety and dignity at work. Can we tolerate this downward competition among workers, in terms of health protection? Does this situation determine some responsibility, for our European companies?

I am truly grateful to Mr. Philip Mead for the answers he will give us in his speech.

The second issue concerns the change in the types of health hazards because of the change in the occupational field.


Because of deindustrialization (along with regulatory measures and the improvements in health care), the number of deaths in the EU caused by fatal accidents at work has declined by 70% between 1994 and 2018. Despite such progress, about, 3,300 fatal accidents as well as around 3 million non-fatal ones, are still recorded every year.

But the most important aspect relates to professional diseases.

Around 200,000 workers a year die following work-related diseases.

Now: what kind of risks are we about to deal with, in the next future?

In this kind of investigation, we can’t avoid assessing the main trends of our societies, the world of work and society are strictly interdependent.

Here is a list of “megatrends” of the European society that are influencing, and will influence more heavily in the next years, the sector of work-related risks.

1. The massive use of A.I.
This growing phenomenon has raised alarms about the destiny of work, whose very existence would be threatened. There has been talk about a jobless society: a European Union with unemployment rates reaching 50%, with many people only working a minor share of their available time.

This estimate is yet to be certain. But what all researchers agree on, is the fact that a major use of AI will occur in the sector of services mainly – and this will bring a polarization of the work market.

Work will be focusing on two main opposite ends: on one side, hyper-skilled workers with high professionalism and high wages; on the other side, a mass of labourers with a low level of professionalism and low wages.

This will represent a serious blow to the middle class, which will be heavily affected, both in terms of economical and psychic weakness.

2. The growth of computerization (the so-called digital labour) and the work/workplace dissociation.

After the COVID experience, the number of workers who work from home has increased from 5.4% of habitual teleworkers by 2019, to 40% in 2020.

All indicators point to the fact that, even after the emergency, working from home will remain a widespread habit.

This phenomenon, together with the constant use of computer connecting tools, has brought consequences in terms of health risks, which were previously unknown:

The uncontrolled raise in the working time and availability of the worker.

There is a serious risk of turning into a total job society, which is the downside of a jobless society. A community where the extreme datafication of work, along with the cancellation of the traditional distinction, between work place and non-work place, can bring a working individual to a dimension, where is life itself, in its entirety, to be “at work”.

It is such a very serious phenomenon, that the European Parliament has adopted on 21 January 2021 a Resolution with recommendations to the Commission on the right to disconnect.

The loss of control over the workplace by the employer.

An employee, who works remotely, interacts with an environment which is out of the employer’s control. From this point of view, it is the very worker who is in charge of his own safety. This phenomenon is totally undealt with, as all the regulation concerning safety at work was based, on the no longer existent assumption, that the work is carried out in an employer-controlled workplace.

3. The ageing of the population.

The European population has grown older, and workers have too, also due to the increase in the retirement age. The percentage of workers aged between 55 and 64 increased from 11% (20 million people) in 2005 to 18.4% in 2019 (36 million people). This is a constantly growing trend: take into account that the average retirement age in Italy is 67.

The ageing of the actively working population poses specific risks, which have been pointed out by many observers.

4. Immigration.

The numbers of immigrants are increasing. These relate not only to EU workers, but above all to extra-EU ones who come (even illegally) to Europe to work.

5. Climate change and Green transition.

Climate change is bringing, among the other connected natural phenomena, an exceptional raise in temperature. Heat is a major risk factor, in manual labour in particular.

Talking about the Green Transition, it will result in abandoning the production of certain goods and materials, in favour of new products and different raw materials. This means a change also in health risks related to manufacturing.

The sector of constructions is due to be heavily affected by this transition, with a tangible impact on construction work as well, because of the intensive programme of the European Union “A renovation wave for Europe”.

6. The overflow of psychological disorders.

According to worldwide reported data, in 2019 (pre-Covid) about 15% of working-age adults suffered from mental disorder: 301 million people are estimated living with anxiety, 280 mln with depression.

In the post-Covid era this widespread mental distress globally has worsened significantly.

Mental health is defined by the European Commission as “a major societal issue brought into extra focus during the pandemic”.