As part of the report Hazardous chemicals in ICT manufacturing and the impacts on female workers in the Philippines, Swedwatch interviewed Dr. Marcos A Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights. The interview was carried out in December 2020.

What is your view of the general situation of factory workers exposed to hazardous chemicals?

Exposure of workers to hazardous substances in the workplace is widespread and pervasive, unfortunately. At times exposure is the result of unscrupulous businesses that disregard their human rights responsibilities. At other times, exposure is the result of inadequate occupational health standards that legalize the assault on workers’ health.

Also, workers often lack information on hazardous substances at the workplace. Lack of information aggravates vulnerabilities, since without it, people are unable to act to protect themselves. For example, workers have the right remove themselves from situations where they are exposed to toxic chemicals, but it is very difficult to exercise this right in the absence of information on toxic substances in the workplace. Additionally, lack of information imposes additional hurdles to obtain effective remedy in cases of violations or abuses.

What should corporate actors be doing to protect workers from exposure?

Corporate actors should recognize the right of every worker to a toxic free work environment. They should uphold their human rights responsibilities to prevent exposure of workers, especially those most vulnerable to exposure such as women. To this end, they should exercise effective human rights due diligence, including making sure that the upstream and downstream impacts of their operations do not compromise the effective enjoyment of rights. Specifically, to protect workers from exposure, corporate actors should organize their whole production process in a way that prevents exposure. This includes applying the hierarchy of hazard controls: Eliminating or substituting hazardous chemicals for non-toxic alternatives; applying
engineering and administrative controls to avoid hazardous situations; and as a last resort, employing adequate personal protective equipment. This last element in the hierarchy should be a real element of last resort, since personal protective equipment may end up transferring the burden of prevention to the individual worker and neglecting corporate responsibility. To protect workers from exposure, corporations should respect the right to science. This includes not spreading uncertainty for the sake of confusing the public and delaying regulation. It includes not harassing scientists that denounce the hazards of certain chemicals. Respect for the right to science also includes not distorting scientific evidence or manipulating regulatory or production processes to perpetuate exposure.

What particular steps do you think companies should take when sourcing components or products from high-risk contexts such as the Philippines?

One important step that companies should take in their exercise of due diligence are human rights impact assessments. This tool can assist businesses, especially those sourcing components from high-risk countries, to obtain the information they need to avoid entering into business arrangements with providers that expose workers to dangerous toxics. Failure to do so is a form of complicity in human rights abuse.

The serious situation in the electronics industry has been known for decades but little has been done. Why is that do you think? How can it be changed?

One reason for the lamentable exposure of workers in electronics supply chains is corporate globalization. Globalization imposes immense pressure on businesses to bring down production costs by any means, legal and illegal. Protections for workers in factories are often the weakest link in the chain of production, especially where workers lack the ability to organize in defense of their rights. That is often the case in countries with repressive regimes where dissent is not
tolerated. That is also the case in countries where occupational health laws are inadequate or poorly enforced. A related factor is that globalization allows businesses to externalize the costs of their products on other societies. It is workers in poor countries that pay these costs with their bodies and their hopes for a better future. In many of these countries, labour is cheap because people are denied environmental and occupational health protections in the workplace. It used to be that the State provided the space and the parameters for property owners and workers to come together in search for a common interest. This social contract of sorts produced protections for workers and institutions mandated to oversee those protections. But with supply chains that integrate operations across countries, globalization is eroding the social contract and workers abilities to organize. The result are corporate practices that harm workers in distant lands by exposing them to toxic chemicals, for profit. This is a form of deliberate exploitation. If in the past several industries of the West relied on the slave trade to support their operations, today many businesses rely on workers being exposed to toxic chemicals that are known to cause illnesses and disabilities. These are gross human rights abuses at a global scale.

What is your view on the introduction of mandatory human rights due diligence legislation in this area?

Mandatory human rights due diligence legislation is a necessary tool to secure actual respect for occupational health standards in the workplace. Guiding principles and voluntary code of conducts are useful, but they have their limitations. For one, voluntary measures do not work when a company deliberately decides to ignore its human rights responsibilities. That is where the law must step in to provide effective protection to workers.
Human rights due diligence legislation should encompass upstream supply chains and downstream impacts of use and disposal. A life-cycle approach to due diligence can ensure that no gaps allow human rights abuses to continue. A life-cycle approach also extends to operations that may take place beyond national boundaries. Mandatory human rights due diligence is critical to ensure that businesses, and especially transnational corporations, take active steps in scrutinizing the source of the components used in their products and not turn a blind eye to the exposure of workers in developing countries.

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