Thinking inside the box on Workers’ Memorial Day


There are an estimated six million containers travelling around the world at any given time.

They have totally revolutionised the supply of goods and changed the face of global trade.

But what about the safety issues attached to the use of containers which are brushed aside, downplayed or not even recognised.

Unsafe containers affect workers in every section of the transport chain – that makes it a trade union issue.

Today, on International Workers’ Memorial Day we remember the dockers, seafarers, truck drivers, railway workers and warehouse workers who are potentially at risk because they often don’t have accurate information about the vital statistics of a container – what’s in it, how much does it weigh, has it been loaded properly, has it been tested for toxic substances?

Container safety is about regulation, it’s about giving workers accurate information about the containers they’re handling so they can do their jobs and still make it home at the end of the day.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) Container Safety Now campaign is cross-sectional with three main areas of focus: improper packing of containers; misdeclaration of goods or weights; and toxic gases and fumigation in containers.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just transport workers who could be impacted by container safety issues.

The truck that overturns because the container it is carrying is overloaded, the mattress that holds traces of toxic gas from treatments used to protect it from pests during transportation – these are all issues for the general public.

For example, overloading and the lack of proper securing of cargo on board the MV Sewol – a South Korean ferry which capsized in April 2014 killing 296 people – have been included in the direct causes for the sinking of the ferry. The vessel is reported to have been carrying three times the cargo weight limit.

As part of this campaign ITF unions are making it their business to raise awareness with workers their communities and to lobby governments through actions at a national level.

Two unions leading the way in Europe are BTB - ABVV in Belgium and FNV in the Netherlands.

Both have taken action to highlight the dangers of toxic gases and fumigation in containers among their members and with the general public and to address the issues at workplace level.

They are amongst ITF unions planning activities on container safety, and in particular on toxic gases in containers, this International Workers’ Memorial Day. This links with the International Trade Union Confederation’s theme of removing exposure to hazardous substances at work.

So, awareness is crucial. But, what we’re ultimately looking for here is global standards.

A code of practice on the ‘safe packing of cargo transport units’, put together by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), was endorsed by the governing bodies of the three organisations last year.

Meanwhile at the IMO tentative measures have been taken towards the checking of container weight declarations through the SOLAS (safety of life at sea) amendment.

These are first steps. To be properly effective the code of practice must be endorsed by national governments and mandatory weighing through the SOLAS amendment properly implemented.

In addition, legislation which addresses the possibility of measures like compulsory gas level testing in containers, as well as regulation on chain of responsibility, must be debated.

Issues of container safety won’t go away. Transport workers are doing some of the most dangerous jobs in the world and without proper regulation around container safety, fatalities and injuries will continue to happen.


The vital role of unions

Unions are taking action on container safety by:
• Speaking up about cases of dangerous practices and sharing the evidence
• Lobbying governments to implement global standards on container safety and getting governments to adopt those standards into legislation
•Teaming up with unions in other sectors to run joint activities and raise awareness of the issue
•Campaigning for responsibility along the transport chain
•Negotiating policies and procedures to address the issue at workplace level