With Fernando Rodrigo Cencillo

People suffer in silence, isolation and resignation

Pain in employment, as in unemployment


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 disconnected.


-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.


Neoliberal 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.

Thirdly, it must end the resignation with which workers bear their suffering. 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.

(Christophe Dejours)


-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 very active 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. Outrageous!
-Does this barbaric act give an accurate idea of what's happening today in Spain in terms of occupational safety and "corporate ethics"?


-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 an 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 exploitation.


Franns 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 jobs.

(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 been made.


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 immorality.


-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.



Gerardo Iglesias


December 18, 2009





Photos: Gerardo Iglesias


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