Is Latin America Failing Its Workers?

The deaths of 17 workers building facilities for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, along with a lack of employment contracts and harsh working conditions at the sites, have made headlines recently. They have provoked denunciations by rights activists and drawn attention to labor abuses.

But Russia is not alone in failing to protect its workers. Latin America also suffers real problems with worker safety. According to a global study done for the International Labour Organization (ILO) based on 2010 figures, the rate of occupational injuries (with at least four days of work missed) in low and middle income countries of the Americas  was 6.5 per 100 workers, compared to 2.5 in the world´s highest income countries. Moreover, deaths from occupational injuries (estimated per 100,000 employees) were far higher in the region, more than double those of high income countries in the industrial sector, and quadruple in the service sector.

A more recent study based on working condition surveys in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Central America breaks the problem down further. Examining non-agricultural employees with a written contract, it finds that between 11.9% of men in Argentina and 50.9% of men in Colombia breathe in chemical substances in the course of their work and a majority of both men and women in all countries of the survey engage in repetitive movements that can cause negative health consequences, with the highest percentages of poor health reported by women in Central America (24.3%) and Chile (33.4%)

Still, those results are an underestimate. That is because, as the authors emphasize, they exclude agricultural workers, who usually face worse working conditions and the informally employed, who, according to an IDB study, suffer from an absence of collective bargaining, insurance mechanisms, legal standards, and regulation and monitoring of work conditions. Labor informality also is associated with temporary employment, long working hours, and hazardous exposures.

During the 2000s, a commodity boom, fed by insatiable Chinese demand for commodities, along with increases in foreign investment and public and private spending, led to an increase in the demand for low-skilled labor in South America and a reduction in informality.

But despite those gains, labor informality continues to haunt Latin America and the Caribbean. It creates problems not only for retirees — given that more than half the population doesn’t pay into a pension system — but also for those actively employed. In Central America, for example, more than 60% of non-agricultural workers labor in the informal sector and two-thirds lack social security coverage, according to a recent study. The highest levels of poor health, as revealed in a survey, were among women employers with less than five employees (a proxy for informality) and no social security coverage (43%) and for self-employed men who also lacked social security coverage (33.6%).

Those disabilities constitute a moral failure and are surely affecting productivity and growth through numerous channels. Yet, a mixture of underreporting by firms, poor government information systems, and a lack of standard criteria for analysis, make it extremely difficult to both understand the problem and design better policies to combat it. To that end a new initiative, launched by a group of international experts from Latin America, the United States, Spain and the European Union, known as Red Experta ECoTES, has designed a survey on Working Conditions, Employment and Health in Latin America and the Caribbean to improve the quality and comparability of information. It is but one small piece of what will be needed to tackle an enormous and poorly addressed predicament.



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The Author

Steven Ambrus

Steven Ambrus worked as a correspondent for US and European media during two decades in Latin America, covering politics, education, the environment and other issues. He currently works in the communications and publications unit of the Research Department at the IDB.

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