Society

Workplace Stress: Western Social Ill Spreads To Developing World

Developing countries, including such emerging powers as China, have joined the West in trying to find ways of dealing with a dangerous – and expensive -- social ill.

Factory workers in Guangdong, China (Lyle Vincent)
Factory workers in Guangdong, China (Lyle Vincent)
Rémi Barroux

PARIS – Stress in the workplace, an established problem in the post-industrial West, is now emerging as a social ill in the developing world, too. Countries from Asia and the southern hemisphere are now carefully – and officially – looking at the psycho-social problems and economic consequences linked to work-induced stress.

Still, for a problem that is all too real, the statistics on the subject are surprisingly scarce. Quantifying stress is of course quite difficult, but the figures available today come only from rich countries. In Europe, nearly 30% of the total number of workers describe themselves as being "exposed to stress," according to a study conducted in 2009 by Eurostat, the statistics office of the European Union. In the United States, the cost of stress in the workplace – absenteeism, reduced productivity, sick leave, etc. – was an estimated $300 billion in 2010.

Concerned about the lack of reliable information on this issue in developing countries, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) declared April 28 the world day for safety and health at work. The agency also launched a study at the beginning of 2011, expected to be concluded within a year.

Discreetly, China has also recently turned to the ILO for information on how to best manage psycho-social risks. African countries have started showing some interest on the question. In Latin America, a network led by Columbia, Mexico and Argentina has been looking into the issue of moral harassment of workers, including mobbing.

For Valentina Forastieri, the ILO specialist in occupational health and safety in charge of the study, "the industrial restructuring that followed the economic crisis has triggered a certain number of lay-offs. But those who did manage to keep their jobs have had to cope with an increased level of stress because of longer working hours and the higher expectations of their employers."

In its 2010 report on "emerging risks', the ILO spoke about dangers linked to new working conditions, and about the miserable existence of migrant workers and those toiling in the informal economy.

"Globalization is a source of stress because it involves increased competition," says Luc Brunet, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Montreal. "But the level of stress is not the same everywhere, it depends on the work environment, or the way in which employees think they are treated, and their employers' experience in dealing with these kind of complaints."

Stress often leads to drug or alcohol use in the workplace, a phenomenon observed in a number of countries, France being among those most affected, according to experts.

But methods used to deal with this psycho-social risk cannot be identical for all nations. "We can speak about a sort of international awareness, but there is unfortunately no miracle recipe for this," says Stéphane Pimbert, general director of the French National Institute for Research and Security. "This is not the same thing as installing a metal cover on a machine to prevent workers from cutting off their fingers."

Stress aside, physical illnesses such as repetitive strain injuries (which represent the majority of work-related ailments) or skin diseases are considered to be of psychological origin.

"In the past, health in the workplace was linked to the type of activity performed; today stress and fatigue stem from what employees no longer have the time to do, because of the increased number and different nature of their tasks," says Yves Clot, from the psychology department of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. "Work today requires more commitment on the part of workers, but the very organization of work makes this impossible, which leaves employees facing a very painful paradox."


photo- Lyle Vincent

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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