‘Safety and health at work is good for busi­ness’ - Dan­ish Am­bas­sador

Safety and health at work is good for busi­ness

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS -

Dan­ish Am­bas­sador Mr. John Nielsen took the time out re­cently to talk to Mizzima TV about the im­por­tance of im­prov­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health for work­ers in Myan­mar ahead of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April 2019.

Mizzima TV Editor Myo Thant talked with the Dan­ish Am­bas­sador to as­cer­tain the im­por­tance and depth of this cru­cial part of build­ing Myan­mar’s com­pet­i­tive­ness and how it will not only ben­e­fit work­ers but will also the com­pa­nies and their ex­ports.

Why is it so im­por­tant for Myan­mar to scale up its ef­forts in re­gard to safety and health at work?

First of all, I would like to thank you for invit­ing me and giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to talk about an is­sue that is be­com­ing more and more im­por­tant as Myan­mar is pro­gress­ing to­wards a more open mar­ket econ­omy. I think what is im­por­tant is to say that oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health is good for all par­ties in­volved. It is good for the work­ers, if you can im­prove their rights and their work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. But it is also good for the com­pa­nies to get health­ier work­ers be­cause they will im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity and their abil­ity to ex­port to the EU. It there­fore also good for the Myan­mar econ­omy. So it is a win-win sit­u­a­tion.

Why is it im­por­tant to the EU that Myan­mar pays at­ten­tion to oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health?

The EU to­day is the third big­gest ex­port mar­ket for Myan­mar and es­pe­cially from the gar­ment in­dus­try ex­port has in­creased a lot. If you look at the EU to­day, you will see that the con­sumers are in­creas­ingly ask­ing for purer goods, but they also look­ing at whether work­ing con­di­tions in the place of pro­duc­tion fol­lows in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. Euro­pean con­sumers are ac­tu­ally will­ing to pay more for prod­ucts if they know they are pro­duced with due re­gard to oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health.

Would it not be eas­ier for ev­ery­body, com­pa­nies and em­ploy­ees, if there were no rules con­cern­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health?

No, I don’t think so. It will be bad for every­one, be­cause as I said be­fore the con­sumers in Europe would not like to buy goods from coun­tries where the work­ing con­di­tions are not good. There is an in­creas­ing aware­ness of that not only in Europe, but also in the US and many other parts of the world. Sec­ondly, it is a duty to en­sure that work­ers have good work­ing con­di­tions. And, thirdly, I think that if Myan­mar wants to in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity within many sec­tors, and if the coun­try as such wants to in­crease the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the econ­omy, it will be nec­es­sary to im­prove oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. Myan­mar has been open­ing up to the world, and in that process where you are open­ing it up for new mar­kets, where con­sumer in­ter­ests are dif­fer­ent from the mar­ket that you have tra­di­tion­ally ex­ported to, Myan­mar will have to try to un­der­stand these mar­kets and the con­sumers’ con­cerns. In that sense, I think the com­pet­i­tive­ness of Myan­mar de­pends on whether you can do some­thing to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion for the work­ers in the coun­try. This is some­thing the EU since 2013, through the SMART Myan­mar pro­gramme, has been work­ing on with a view to en­sur­ing that lo­cal com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly in com­pli­ance with the general stan­dards for oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health.

Fur­ther­more, since 2014, the EU, US and Ja­pan, the ILO and Den­mark have been work­ing with the govern­ment, em­ploy­ers and trade unions to en­hance labour mar­ket re­form through “the Ini­tia­tive to Pro­mote Fun­da­men­tal Labour Rights and Prac­tices in Myan­mar”. You can­not see what is hap­pen­ing within the area of oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health without go­ing into the broader is­sue of labour mar­ket re­form, you have to have a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to this.

Is it ex­pen­sive for the com­pa­nies to com­ply with the rules for health and safety? How can it be an ad­vance for the com­pa­nies?

It could seem like it is not an ad­van­tage, but in the long run it is go­ing to be an ad­van­tage if com­pa­nies in­vest in this, be­cause it is some­thing that con­sumers in the mar­kets to which Myan­mar is ex­port­ing are con­cerned about. So if you want to en­sure that you are able to ex­port to these mar­kets in the fu­ture, it will not only be about prod­uct qual­ity, it will also be about un­der which con­di­tions these prod­ucts are be­ing pro­duced. Con­sumers in the EU will want to know where prod­ucts they are buy­ing have been pro­duced, and un­der whicgh cir­cum­stances. There was a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent in Bangladesh some years ago within the gar­ment in­dus­try, and that has prompted even more fo­cus on cor­po­rate social re­spon­si­bil­ity and oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. Many Dan­ish and EU com­pa­nies work­ing in Myan­mar are re­ally con­cerned about these is­sues, be­cause they know that back home their con­sumers want to know that the work­ing con­di­tions are good in the fac­to­ries where we are get­ting their prod­ucts pro­duced.

For Myan­mar, it seems to be dif­fi­cult to raise aware­ness about oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. How can this process be boosted?

It is go­ing to be a long jour­ney, I think, be­cause you have to change a cul­ture where this has not been pri­or­i­tized. But as Myan­mar is open­ing up its mar­kets, you will have to change that men­tal­ity. I mean the com­pa­nies have to see that it is ac­tu­ally worth in­vest­ing in bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, in health­ier and safer work­ers be­cause that will lead to in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity. It will also en­sure a bet­ter com­pet­i­tive­ness in the fu­ture be­cause Myan­mar com­pa­nies will have to com­pete in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket where the stan­dards are set by the con­sumers in the coun­tries they are ex­port­ing to. But it is go­ing to take a long time. It will need a lot of changes. The EU and its Mem­ber States stand ready to sup­port Myan­mar in this field through the projects, ini­tia­tives and tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance we have al­ready launched.

What are the Dan­ish ac­tiv­i­ties in this field in Myan­mar?

The Dan­ish Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs has a pro­ject on Strate­gic Sec­tor Co­op­er­a­tion in Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health and Social Dia­logue where we are sup­port­ing the Min­istry of Labour, Im­mi­gra­tion and Pop­u­la­tion build up ca­pac­ity to pro­mote and en­force oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health in the govern­ment’s own oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health in­spec­tors who are the ones who make checks at the com­pa­nies to make sure the work­ing con­di­tions are in or­der. The Dan­ish Work­ing En­vi­ron­ment Au­thor­ity is train­ing the in­spec­tors and we also have a ded­i­cated ad­vi­sor at the em­bassy who is work­ing on these things. As I said be­fore the EU is through the SMART Myan­mar Pro­gramme pro­mot­ing com­pli­ance with oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health stan­dards.

Can you tell us a bit more about the SMART pro­gramme?

Since 2013, the EU funded SMART Myan­mar pro­gramme has pro­vided rec­om­men­da­tions to Myan­mar fac­to­ries and com­pa­nies to strengthen their com­pli­ance with social stan­dards and im­prove work­ing con­di­tions for the work­ers in the com­pa­nies. As far as Den­mark is con­cerned, we are also sup­port­ing what we call social dia­logue or the tri­par­tite dia­logue be­tween the trade unions and the em­ploy­ers and the govern­ment on labour mar­ket is­sues. We have a kind of con­cil­i­a­tion board in Den­mark which tries to set­tle dis­putes re­lated to labour mar­ket is­sues be­tween the three par­ties, and we are also try­ing to work on this here.

How was Myan­mar per­for­mance in terms of oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety over the last few years?

I think if you look back at where Myan­mar came from and where Myan­mar is to­day, quite a number of things have hap­pened and I am very happy that the Oc­cu­pa­tional Health and Safety Law was passed by par­lia­ment in March this year. This is a very im­por­tant step to­wards try­ing to put a lot more fo­cus on the is­sues, and, as we talked about be­fore, to change the cul­ture of not fo­cus­ing on that be­fore. So I think a lot of things are hap­pen­ing on the is­sues, and we have had, both the EU and Den­mark, a good re­la­tion­ship and co­op­er­a­tion with the Min­is­ter and the Min­istry on Labour, Im­mi­gra­tion and Pop­u­la­tion and the trade unions and em­ploy­ers on this. So in that sense, I think Myan­mar is mov­ing for­ward but there is a long way to go. We also have to re­call our own his­tory be­cause we are where we are to­day af­ter many, many years, even decades of work try­ing to im­prove oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. This is go­ing to take a long time, but as we look back over the last eight to ten years in Myan­mar things are pro­gress­ing in the right di­rec­tion, not fast, but mov­ing for­ward. I am not just talking about the law, I am also talking about the changes in the labour mar­ket as such and other labour laws that are in progress. I hope that these laws, once they are passed by par­lia­ment, will live up to ILO con­ven­tions and in­ter­na­tional stan­dards be­cause that would be a huge step for­ward for the Myan­mar econ­omy.

So you say Myan­mar is pro­ceed­ing in the right di­rec­tion. What is your mes­sage for em­ploy­ees, em­ploy­ers and the govern­ment?

I think it is im­por­tant to strengthen the tri­par­tite dia­logue and make sure it is a dia­logue be­tween all par­ties. You can­not just go ahead with labour mar­ket re­forms and make progress if you do not have a dia­logue with all labour mar­ket par­ties. The labour mar­ket con­sist of three par­ties and you have to have all three par­ties in­volved in dia­logue all the way to en­sure the nec­es­sary agree­ments and com­pro­mises about where you are go­ing and how you are go­ing to do it.

What would you say is pos­i­tive about the state of oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health in Myan­mar?

It think it is very im­por­tant for peo­ple to un­der­stand that it is a right for work­ers to have proper work­ing con­di­tions and I think that it has taken some time, es­pe­cially for many com­pa­nies, to un­der­stand that it is not only about

com­pet­i­tive­ness, but also about en­sur­ing the rights of work­ers to have bet­ter con­di­tions at their work­place. And at the end of the day this will lead to im­proved pro­duc­tiv­ity. We see that from our ex­pe­ri­ences in the EU, that if you im­prove the work­ing con­di­tions you also in many cases raise the pro­duc­tiv­ity, which at the end of the day is a ben­e­fit for the com­pa­nies.

What is the most im­por­tant point in rais­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health at a com­pany level?

I think the most im­por­tant is that there is a dia­logue be­tween the work­ers and the com­pany on how to do these things be­cause some of the com­pa­nies can­not in­vest overnight in long-term im­prove­ments for work­ers. But ini­ti­at­ing a dia­logue that was not there be­fore is very, very im­por­tant. This is not easy be­cause many of the com­pa­nies we are talking about are not nec­es­sar­ily Myan­mar com­pa­nies. They are also from other coun­tries and cul­tures so it is not easy. But the new Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health law also in­tro­duces the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting up oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health com­mit­tees at com­pany level where the work­ers and the em­ploy­ers can talk to­gether, which, if im­ple­mented, could be very im­por­tant for the fu­ture de­vel­op­ment of the labour con­di­tions here.

The EU and Den­mark have the SMART pro­gramme and other pro­grammes here in Myan­mar. Why do you im­ple­ment these projects and what are the dif­fi­cul­ties in do­ing that?

I think it is very dif­fi­cult when Myan­mar comes from a sit­u­a­tion eight to ten years ago where there was no aware­ness about these prob­lems. No one was dis­cussing work­ing con­di­tions and Myan­mar did not have an open econ­omy or a per­spec­tive on what good work­ing con­di­tions could ac­tu­ally mean for the coun­try’s econ­omy. So mov­ing on from there to a sit­u­a­tion where Myan­mar has to com­pete in an in­ter­na­tional set­ting and mar­ket, where Myan­mar’s prod­ucts have to be scru­ti­nized, whether they are com­ing from com­pa­nies that liv­ing up to general hu­man rights stan­dards, ILO labour stan­dards, is a huge task. It takes a long time and as I said be­fore you have many coun­tries pro­duc­ing here which makes it even more dif­fi­cult. But I think if you look at the broader per­spec­tive over the last eight years, Myan­mar is ad­vanc­ing at a rea­son­able pace. And what I feel is im­por­tant is that we see a will­ing­ness on the part of the govern­ment to progress in this area. Also the trade unions are in­ter­ested in pro­gress­ing in this area as are the em­ploy­ers, so there is an en­vi­ron­ment for mov­ing for­ward, but it is go­ing to take a long time. As I said be­fore, this has taken decades in Europe, it has taken decades in the US and in many other coun­tries. So this is noth­ing that is hap­pen­ing overnight. The first step on the path has been taken and that is very im­por­tant. That is why the in­tro­duc­tion of the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health law has been a very im­por­tant step for­ward in this area.

I think it is very dif­fi­cult when Myan­mar comes from a sit­u­a­tion eight to ten years ago where there was no aware­ness about these prob­lems.

What bar­ri­ers to you see in en­sur­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health in Myan­mar?

It is very dif­fi­cult. It takes a long time. You have to over­come a sit­u­a­tion where com­pa­nies have to un­der­stand the ad­van­tages of en­sur­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. Also the cul­ture of talking to­gether, the cul­ture of dia­logue, the cul­ture of cre­at­ing con­fi­dence be­tween the work­ers and the em­ploy­ers was not here be­fore. Now you have to move from such a sit­u­a­tion to a sit­u­a­tion where you have to, as part of the new law, ini­ti­ate such a dia­logue in the com­pa­nies and that will take a long time. It is easy to make a law but the next step is the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the law and that is where you can ac­tu­ally see whether what has been done over the last cou­ple of years is ac­tu­ally go­ing to be ef­fec­tive. But it will take time.

How do you view the fu­ture for Myan­mar in terms of im­ple­ment­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health?

I think we were talking about the cul­ture that com­pa­nies are not used to work­ing on these is­sues. You are also deal­ing with a mixed group of in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies be­ing present here which does not nec­es­sar­ily share the same val­ues about ev­ery­thing, so that is a bar­rier that will also have to be over­come. I mean the law is very im­por­tant in that sense be­cause it sets out general reg­u­la­tions for all com­pa­nies, not­with­stand­ing the coun­try they come from, but I mean the path for­ward is dia­logue. It is dia­logue be­tween em­ploy­ers and the work­ers, and it is dia­logue be­tween the em­ploy­ers, the work­ers and the govern­ment. That is where you find the progress in the fu­ture. And if you can have such a dia­logue, then I am very op­ti­mistic about de­vel­op­ing this area in the fu­ture.

What would be your mes­sage on this to the peo­ple of Myan­mar?

I would say that, first of all, it’s a right for the work­ers to have good work­ing con­di­tions. That’s cru­cial, that’s es­sen­tial, that’s part of their rights as hu­man be­ings. Sec­ondly, it is good for Myan­mar, it is good for the econ­omy of Myan­mar if you can in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity, if the com­pa­nies can in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity through bet­ter, safer and more healthy work­ing con­di­tions. That is a win-win sit­u­a­tion for the com­pa­nies, the Myan­mar econ­omy and for the work­ers. It is a very im­por­tant step for­ward and it is very im­por­tant as Myan­mar is open­ing up its mar­kets to the world.

Is there any­thing else you would like to add?

I would like to thank you for giv­ing me this op­por­tu­nity on be­half of the EU and EU coun­tries to mark the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28). This is the day where we are rais­ing aware­ness of oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health. It is a good op­por­tu­nity to talk about de­vel­op­ments in this field in Myan­mar. I think a lot of things are on the right track. There are still a lot of is­sues which must be ad­dressed in re­la­tion to the labour mar­ket in Myan­mar. I know laws are be­ing prepared and it is very im­por­tant that they live up to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. But again Myan­mar has come a long way in a very short time and this is go­ing to take a long time.

Dan­ish Am­bas­sador Mr. John Nielsen. Photo: Mizzima

Myan­mar is in the long process of im­prov­ing work and health con­di­tions for its work­ers. Photo: EPA

Gar­ment fac­tory work­ers in Yan­gon. Photo: Hong Sar for Mizzima

Dan­ish Am­bas­sador Mr. John Nielsen, right, dis­cusses the work chal­lenges with Mizzima Editor Myo Thant. Photo: Mizzima

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