Swine Flu

Swine flu – IUF calls for livelihood protection measures and for trade union involvement in national action plans

Posted to the IUF website 30-Apr-2009

On April 29, the World Health Organisation (WHO) moved from Phase 4 to Phase 5 of its pandemic alert system, following an official confirmation that a widespread human infection of swine flu is under way. Although this means that most countries are still not affected, the WHO declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of mitigation measures is short.

Another animal-related human disease, swine flu had on April 30 been confirmed in 12 countries. Identified as a multiple recombinant of influenza A (H1N1), this new virus contains genes of human, swine and avian origins.

There is as yet no confirmation of the initial transmission of this deadly strain of the H1N1 virus from pigs to humans, and the mutant virus has not been found in any hog farm so far. However, people in farming, slaughtering and post-slaughtering operations can get more common swine influenza from regular, close contact with infected pigs or colleagues. 'Most of the previously reported swine influenza cases in humans recovered fully from the disease without requiring medical attention and without antiviral medicines' says the WHO. Nonetheless, industrial hog farming operations where high numbers of genetically engineered hogs are concentrated in a limited space – perhaps in proximity of poultry farms - provide an ideal environment for the recombination of viruses into more dangerous variants.

As with avian flu, workers are at a strategic frontline of risk of infection and can play a key role in early warning systems and in containing outbreaks, as long as they are properly informed, receive proper training, are provided with adequate protective equipment and their voice is heard. 'Trade unions have direct lines of communication into workplace and so must be part of government action plans to deal with swine flu' commented IUF general secretary, Ron Oswald. 'Workplaces where active union health and safety committees are present and where trade unions, employers and public health authorities have a constructive, ongoing dialogue will be well equipped to assist workers and communities in preventing and containing epidemics' he added.

The IUF is also calling for measures to be put in place to provide compensation to workers. Outbreaks of avian flu caused a dramatic drop in consumption of poultry products and job losses in some countries. Pork commodity prices have dropped by 10 per cent since the outbreak of swine flu and countries such as Russia, China and South Korea are setting trade barriers to pork products. Egypt started a precautionary culling of 300,000 pigs, despite FAO judged this a mistake. Although the WHO is clearly saying that properly cooked pork products are safe to eat and cannot transmit the disease the possibility of consumer loss of confidence in pork meat products is real. This could lead to mass layoffs, in particular affecting the most vulnerable categories of workers, such as seasonal, temporary, migrants, and undocumented workers. Italian IUF affiliate FLAI-CGIL already warned that 160,000 related jobs are potentially at risk in Italy.

The social burden and loss of household revenues caused by such scares can plunge entire communities employed in the meat industry – usually already on very low incomes - into abject poverty. It is therefore critical that any plan aimed at effectively preventing a pandemics, at securing business continuity and at compensating affected actors for profit loss by a likely downturn in pork meat must fully and genuinely include workers and their unions.

For the time being, the basic safety recommendations to prevent avian flu are valid for swine flu.

RESOURCES

Q&A briefing on swine influenza by the World Health Organization (WHO)

Brochure on swine flu by US Department of Health & Human Services

Action checklist by the US Department of Health & Human Services for Businesses with overseas operations

Action checklist on avian flu by the ILO

ILO Policy Recommendation paper on how to deal with the SARS outbreak

IUF information and advice on avian flu (H5N1)