Agreements tackle workplace accidents by regulating subcontracting

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In late 2002, Spanish trade unions reached agreements with a number of local and regional public authorities, aimed at improving risk prevention and reducing the level of workplace accidents. The agreements' provisions include regulation and control of subcontracting in public construction works, seen in many quarters as a major factor in the high accident rate.

Over 2002, the high industrial accident rate (ES0209201N), especially in the construction sector (ES0210202F), has been the subject of heated debate in Spain and has led the social partners to adopt positions on the issue (ES0211103N). During September and October 2002, agreements were reached between trade unions and a number of public authorities at local and regional level, with the aim of introducing measures to improve risk prevention and reduce the number of industrial accidents. These measures include the regulation and control of subcontracting in construction works commissioned by the public administration in question. Though these agreements are still very limited, observers believe that they represent one of the first serious attempts to deal with the heart of the problem of workplace accidents. It has also been argued that they mark a qualitative change that opens up new horizons in risk prevention policies in Spain.

Recent agreements

Little by little, in addition to purely technical aspects (risk assessment, training etc), the debate on workplace accidents in Spain has started to incorporate aspects of a more political nature. Some public administrations are beginning to take into consideration arguments that experts and the trade unions have been putting forward for some time, such as the ideas that industrial accidents are influenced by temporary employment, decentralisation and the indiscriminate subcontracting that is typical in certain sectors.

The most recent developments in this area include an agreement between the majority trade union organisations - the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) - and several Catalan town councils - Barcelona, Cornellà, Sant Feliu de Llobregat and El Prat de Llobregat - to collaborate in risk prevention in the public works carried out in these towns. The agreement allows the trade unions to supervise the safety measures in the works directly and to prevent risks through specific information campaigns. The municipal governments will ensure that the workers involved in the works have the necessary qualifications and that they work under the health and safety conditions required by law. They will also take steps to avoid chains of successive subcontracting. In September 2002, the trade unions asked the central and regional governments to sign agreements to the same effect.

At regional level, the Catalan autonomous government signed an agreement with CC.OO and UGT in October 2002, under which it has agreed to regulate subcontracting in all public works carried out by the public company Gestió d'Infraestructures SA (GISA), which is dependent on the Catalan government. This accord is an extrapolation of the experience in the four town councils in the province of Barcelona mentioned above. The Catalan regional agreement aims to allow trade unions to collaborate in the control and monitoring of public works by supervising the organisational context in which they are carried out. This pact establishes that the Catalan government will create a body to control subcontracting in order to help compensate for the almost total absence in the construction sector of 'risk prevention delegates' (delegados de prevención de riesgos) - ie workers' representatives responsible for monitoring fulfilment of the Law on Prevention of Occupational Risks. The lack of such representatives is due to the fact that construction companies are set up and dismantled for each building contract.

Despite initial resistance to regulation of these aspects, the Catalan government finally agreed, with the proviso that a distinction must be made between the subcontracting of workers to do the same job as the main company and the subcontracting of specialised jobs. The Catalan government suggests that, whereas the former may be negative for working conditions and health, the latter favours good practices and control.

At national level, in October 2002, after over a year without meeting, the 'bargaining table on the prevention of workplace risks' (Mesa de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales) - which includes the majority trade unions and the Ministry of Labour - met and scheduled several technical meetings aimed at reaching a major agreement on risk prevention before the end of 2002 (ES0211103N). The issues proposed for discussion include the reform of the regulations on subcontracting and specific actions on companies with over 1,000 workers, particularly those that use chains of outsourcing and subcontracting. It was also proposed to place restrictions on the award of public contracts to those companies that fail to meet the requirements of the workplace risk prevention legislation.

Positions of the social partners

The trade unions are fairly satisfied with the fact that some public authorities have finally decided to regulate subcontracting, albeit only partially. The unions have been proposing regulation in this area for years, because they feel that subcontracting plays a major role in industrial accidents in certain sectors. In 2000, the unions’ concern about this subject led them to promote a 'popular legislative initiative' (Iniciativa Legislativa Popular, ILP) - a procedure provided for under the Spanish Constitution that allows citizens to present proposals for legislation directly to parliament if they are endorsed by a certain number of signatures - aimed at reforming the subcontracting regulations as a key measure for reducing the number of industrial accidents in the construction sector. The ILP was presented to parliament, backed by over 500,000 signatures, but was not debated (ES0012125N).

So far, only a few town councils and regions have introduced new regulations on subcontracting, and this seriously limits the practical consequences. Furthermore, action has been taken only in the construction sector, and in public works contracted by these public administrations, which reduces the area of application of these measures even further. The trade unions continue to demand that the measures be extended to private construction work and to other sectors in which subcontracting is widespread. Thanks to initial agreements that have been reached with the Ministry of Labour (see above), there are hopes that in the near future these measures will also be applied to other areas and sectors.

The employers' organisations have repeatedly denied the interpretation of the causes of industrial accidents put forward by the trade unions. In Catalonia, for example, due to the pressure of public opinion, the media and the public authorities, the employers' organisations have come out in favour of drawing up an 'integral plan' to combat industrial accidents (ES0210202F), but make it known that they will accept such a plan only if it considers causes of accidents other than those put forward by the trade unions (ie temporary employment, subcontracting, lack of inspection by the labour authorities etc). Furthermore, the employers suggest that the unions wish to regulate subcontracting because they can thereby exercise some control or influence on subcontractor companies, which are small and medium-sized enterprises with little trade union presence.

Commentary

Though few in number and limited in scope, the agreements between trade unions and public administrations to restrict and monitor subcontracting in public works are an important step forward in the recognition of the complexity of the factors involved in industrial accidents. So far the action taken (though limited) has focused on the need to assess risks in workplaces and to train workers, but other labour market factors such as unstable employment, decentralisation of production and chains of subcontracting have been ignored. Many scientific studies and academic analyses (such as the 2001 'Durán report', commissioned by the Prime Minister - ES0202213F) have indicated that these factors have direct effects on working conditions, and therefore on workplace accidents.

However, certain business sectors have attempted systematically to downplay the importance of these factors in accidents, because they form one of the main mechanisms of flexibility that allow companies to be competitive and to adapt to a global market. Temporary employment, subcontracting and decentralisation of production are perfectly in line with the liberal market-oriented policies that have guided the action of Spanish governments over the past 15 years. Therefore, restricting or limiting them by law tends to be seen as a step backward for a free market, and the employers' organisations tend to consider limits on subcontracting, in principle, as anathema.

The fact that public administrations are beginning to introduce regulations on subcontracting gives support to the more complex analysis of workplace accidents against the more simplistic thesis put forward by employers. It may also be an indicator that, in certain contexts, the trade unions can exert greater pressure on the public administration than on private sector employers, or at least as much. Furthermore, the industrial accident rate in Spain is so high that the government may be prepared to intervene in order to improve the situation, and at least to bring it down to the European Union average (currently little over half that of Spain). The attempts to regulate subcontracting open a new phase in risk prevention policies in Spain, and progress is very slowly being made towards a health and safety philosophy that is more in line with the Spanish Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (31/1995) and with the EU framework health and safety Directive (89/391/EEC). (Josep Espluga, Department of Sociology, Autonomous University of Barcelona)

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