Protecting the global worker

Dr Christa Sedlatschek

When we talk of international business travellers, we think of "white collar" businessmen or diplomats, sent by multinational corporations or governments but if fact this is not a true picture. With increasing globalisation, the picture should include technical and manual workers who may work for small enterprises, and the work being carried out may be in new sectors, not just the traditional extractive and construction industries.

While it is very difficult to establish precise figures, the number of workers travelling abroad to take up assignments is staggering. For example, there are nearly 600 000 foreign workers in China alone, according to the official census in 2010 that counted them for the first time, and over 700 000 Chinese workers who are on assignment abroad.

These workers, just like any others, should be protected from harm as, according to Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, “Safety and health at work is not only a sound economic policy - it is a basic human right”.


To discuss how we can protect this group of workers, I met with Dr David Gold and Mr Laurent Fourier, who visited Bilbao representing the International SOS Foundation. This non-profit foundation, established in 2011, has the goal of improving the welfare of people working abroad through the study, understanding and mitigation of potential risks.

As with many cross-border themes, the legal and legislative situation varies considerably around the world, and while there has been research, guidance and tools produced, the Foundation is seeking to develop the knowledge base in this area.

Protecting international business travellers can fit into the existing European occupational safety and health management approaches, with the need for risk assessment, risk mitigation and prevention resources, and emergency planning and procedures in case things do go drastically wrong.

What is becoming clear is that not only is there a moral (and in some cases legal) responsibility for employers to provide the best care of workers posted abroad, but there is a strong business case too. Losing a key worker is a costly event, and one that may be prevented by assessing the challenges, providing training and information, and putting in place systems to mitigate the risks.

As this theme is associated with many of the EU-OSHA topic areas - such as migrant workers - I look forward to hearing more about the work of this Foundation.