Fernando Rodrigo Cencillo has been with the Labor Institute
of Work, Environment and Health (ISTAS)
since its inception in 1996, and as of 2000 he has occupied
the position of director. Cencillo's presentation was one of
the highlights of the Tourism and Hotel Workshop entitled
"An Analysis from a Health and Decent Work Perspective,"
held this past Nov. 9 in Buenos Aires. SIREL took the
opportunity to interview him to discuss labor and health
issues, two dimensions that should be linked but are in fact
-Does it please you to find that even here, so far from
Spain, ISTAS constitutes a reference point for organized
labor in health and environmental matters?
-What you're telling me is enormously motivating. We've come
to Latin America often and it fills us with great
satisfaction to see that ISTAS' materials are used by
trade unions here. That gives all of us at the Institute
strength to keep on working and continue committed to the
health of workers, to their labor rights and, most
particularly, to trade unions in this region.
-Why here particularly?
-Because we have a very active cooperation with Latin
America, both in Central America, the Andean
Community, and the Southern Cone.
-As you well know, "trabajo," the word for "work" in
Spanish, comes from the Latin "tripalium," which was an
instrument of torture. In the times we're living, it seems
that the suffering endured in the workplace is truly
honoring the origin of the word.
-Exactly. You see, we're living a paradox: on the one hand,
just having a job is considered a privilege; on the other,
to work is to suffer. Today we see workers willing to accept
this suffering, to endure whatever poor working conditions
they can get, and that's the result of feeling that they're
privileged just to have a job, compared to so many other
people who are unemployed or are working in the informal
sector. This pressure comes from the world of labor, from
society, the media and a corporate strategy that lays the
entire burden on workers.
-And they suffer in silence, like psychoanalyst
Christophe Dejours rightly says…
-Correct, it's a silent suffering, a suffering that is
experienced as an individual situation, and not as a
collective process. A suffering generated by certain working
or employment conditions.
ideology has succeeded in making people endure their
suffering at work as an individual experience, and not as a
social and collective experience.
So we have a
silent, individual and resigned suffering. The challenge for
organized labor is to break those three barriers, so that
suffering is no longer invisible, no longer silent. It must
make socially visible what is now perceived as an individual
plight, breaking out of that individualized suffering to
bring forward collective demands. It must shed light on the
fact that the damage and suffering endured by workers is
rooted in their working conditions.
must end the resignation with which workers bear their
That is, trade unions must get the message across that it is
possible to change working conditions so that the health of
workers is not affected.
Work is a key element in the construction of our
identity. And our identity is the structure that
underpins our mental health, so work is never
neutral regarding health: it either favors our
health or it damages it.
-What you're implying is that changes must be made in the
way unions work?
-In a way, breaking these three barriers entails conceiving
trade union action as somewhat different from what we've
been doing in recent years.
Breaking that silent suffering entails being able to take
that unacknowledged suffering to the media. It entails
making workers see that their individual suffering has
collective roots; it entails a
form of unionism that comes into close contact with the
people who are suffering in order to gather their views,
their own experiences, and revealing the collective nature
of that suffering.
Lastly, putting an end to the resignation and to the
acceptance of this suffering as something almost inevitable
means focusing labor actions on demands and on a struggle
that achieves gains and is able to motivate workers with
practical examples of how conditions can really change. We
must realize that we don't have to resign ourselves to
experiencing work as something that is inevitably going to
makes us ill, that is going to drain us mentally and
physically. We don't have to resign ourselves to reaching
the age of 60 or 65 and seeing that our life is spent.
-A few months ago in Gandia, a city very near your hometown
of Valencia, a worker, Franns Rilles Melgar, lost an arm
operating a machine in a "bakery"…
-And the owners just left him in the street 100 meters away
from the hospital and threw his arm in a dumpster.
-Does this barbaric act give an accurate idea of what's
happening today in Spain in terms of occupational safety and
-It gives an idea of part of what's happening, yes. There's
a sector of the economy that has been steadily sinking, a
phenomenon that is connected to the massive inflow of
immigrants and has to do with
unscrupulous corporate class that has absolutely no morals,
that takes advantage of the situation of social and labor
illegality in which these undocumented migrants works,
without any form of work permits, exposed to a ruthless
was working 12-hour days, with no social security benefits,
earning 700 euros a month, operating very old machinery with
absolutely no safety gear, and when the inevitable happened
and he suffered this atrocious accident, his bosses acted
with a total lack of decency, inhumanely throwing his arm in
a dumpster. They first left Franns a block away from
the hospital, so they wouldn't have to give an explanation
to the police and could evade their responsibility. And then
they tried to threaten the worker so he wouldn't say how the
accident had really happened.
Suffering exists no matter how hard they try to
conceal it. It has a concrete existence and it
follows certain identifiable patterns that
correspond to labor management practices that
deny workers their humanity and their rights.
There are many studies that provide evidence of
how unemployment impacts people's health, and
others that tell us of the suffering endured by
those who are 'lucky' enough to hold on to their
(Fernando Rodrigo Cencillo)
This is not common, but it is a situation that exists. It
exists alongside situations where significant gains have
been achieved, while in other companies cero advances have
We have a very diverse reality, with all kinds of
situations. It's not just black or white, there's a whole
range of colors and shades of gray in between. Trade unions
need to address this complex reality and act accordingly in
each situation, even in situations of illegality and
-The German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) has been
denouncing that as a result of the crisis and the fear of
being laid off, people are increasingly self-medicating
("doping at work") or going to work even when they are ill…
-That's right. It's a result of globalization and the crisis
that has hit this model of globalization based on market and
labor deregulation. The entire model has failed, and its
effects are all too real.
That has caused a severe rise in unemployment in Europe,
and particularly in Spain, and as we've said,
unemployment, or the fear of being unemployed, predisposes
workers to endure any working conditions, such as having to
show up at work even when they're sick -what's referred to
as having "perfect attendance."
In terms of health, perfect attendance takes its toll on
workers in the medium and long term.
Perfect attendance kills.
A study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health
reviewed 5,000 medical histories and concluded that people
who go to work even when they're sick have double the risk
of suffering severe illnesses, as compared to those who take
a few days off in similar circumstances.
Sooner or later these people in Germany, for example,
will not be able to continue working or will be excluded
from the labor market because of their poor health. They'll
waste their lives away or age prematurely. This is a
phenomenon that many workers are exposed to, especially in
those sectors most affected by precariousness, insecurity
and poor working conditions.