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Women’s work study day concludes: ‘Being invisible hurts’

Nigel Rees is the European Research Officer and editor of the European Review based at the Trade Union Studies Centre at South Thames College, London. He recently attended a study day on ‘Gender inequalities and occupational diseases’ which he reports on below

The Working Conditions, Health and Safety branch of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) recently focused the spotlight on a form of gender inequality which is often overlooked, the recognition of occupational diseases. Speakers from Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and France, testified to the many reasons for the under-reporting and lack of recognition of women’s workplace health problems compared to men’s.
Professor Katharine Lippel from the University of Ottawa noted the prominence of occupational diseases such as mesothelioma in Canada’s asbestos industry which is overwhelmingly male. Also, while complaints such as tendonitis, tenosynovitis and bursitis were recognised in article 29 of the Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases Act, stress and depression, which disproportionately affected women, were much harder to prove. Only 1% of all claims of workplace stress were accepted by the authorities. Those in temporary, part-time, or agency work found it harder to claim and 15.5% of female employees were in this category compared to 10.7% of men. Lack of unionisation, stereotypes which could affect the questions asked by occupational doctors as well as problems being ascribed to the fact of being a woman all put obstacles in the way of women workers successfully registering an occupational disease. This leads to a vicious circle whereby most claims fail so most workers with health problems don’t bother reporting them; even in successful claims women receive less compensation than men because they earn less.
Isabelle Probst, an associate professor from the University of Lausanne, told the meeting that private insurance companies were often involved in compensation claims in Switzerland and tried to keep the number recognised to a minimum for profit reasons. Many focus on accidents at work rather than diseases and these are more common in male-dominated sectors. The Swiss system also involves cases going before district courts which tends to put workers off. Lists of toxic substances and musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs) exist but if the problem is not linked to these then the complainant must prove that at least half of their health problem has been caused by work. Accepted claims for MSDs have recently fallen for both sexes but as 73% of cases declared by female workers are not on the list compared to 46% for men, women do worse. They are also affected by the usual stereotypes, their illnesses often blamed on housework or hormones.
Kaisa Kauppinen, a professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, emphasised the segregation of women and men’s jobs with 91% of workers in construction across the EU being male as opposed to 5% of those working in private households. Because of this much of women’s work is face-to-face and therefore they are more likely to suffer from psycho-social risks such as dealing with angry people as well as work-induced depression and anxiety, infectious diseases and even lifting heavy individuals. While praising the TUC’s 'gender-sensitivity' checklist which aims to ‘mainstream’ a gender aspect to all union activity, she said that the Nordic model stresses health at work rather than insurance when things go wrong. In Finland the law obliges employers of more than 30 workers to draw up a gender equality plan and Professor Kauppinen drew attention to the need for men to be encouraged to take parental leave.
Laurent Vogel, for the ETUI, mentioned various flaws in the Belgian occupational disease system such as employers’ immunity to civil liability, the waiving of the right to prosecute if a worker accepts money from the asbestos diseases fund and the lack of an occupational aspect to official public health statistics. The figures that were available showed that 92% of claims accepted in the private sector in 2010 were by men.
Michelle Pavia of the University of Paris reported on interviews conducted with cancer patients in St.Denis who had worked for three big companies: Norton, Bourjois and Kodak. She found that 64% of men said that they had been exposed to toxic substances at work compared to 26% of women but as these were often invisible this could be due to lack of knowledge. Overall blue-collar workers in France were ten times more likely to develop cancer than their white-collar colleagues.
During round table discussion a union rep. from a Belgian cleaning company gave a flavour of working life where 93% were part-time women and 7% full-time men, health checks only carried out if you are working in a hospital and three medical certificates could lead to a sacking. As the Canadian campaign slogan has it ‘Being invisible hurts!’.


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