Following recent reports on the urgency of climate change action and the need to mitigate the environmental impact of business, ETI's Industrial Relations Adviser, Beverley Hall, asks 'what about the workers?'
The recent IPCC report on climate change brings to life the stark reality of environmental degradation and the collective action needed to stem the negative impacts of our current habits and activities.
Following on from this was the BBC 3 documentary by Stacey Dooley on the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry.
In both instances, as I read and then watched, my immediate thought was, “what about the workers - why aren’t they mentioned?”
Let me explain. Firstly, workers in the factories must deal with and handle hazardous chemicals or fibres as part of their working processes - the same chemicals that are polluting rivers and killing the natural environment. No doubt many of the factory workers live in the villages affected by polluted water, and so are exposed twice.
Secondly, if money is diverted to clean up production to acceptable environmental standards, there is a danger this could lead to an additional squeeze on workers’ wages.
To make sure workers are protected, companies should seek alternatives to the hazardous chemicals used in production processes, or where this isn’t possible, make sure there are robust safety measures in place for workers handling chemicals or exposed to fumes.
Worker education in tandem with elected worker representatives and functioning safety committees is a tried and tested solution to dealing with environmental risks - good for workers, good for business and good for the environment.
Perhaps the bigger question is how to keep workers at the heart of long-term environmental planning whilst contributing to the overall collective action needed to mitigate against climatic changes and make the shift to a low carbon economy.
A ‘just transition’
The transition to an environmentally sustainable economy involves major changes to production methods, workplaces and jobs themselves. It involves a shift to low carbon or renewable energy sources, and factories that are environmentally sound with good air quality and low waste.
These changes are critical to protecting the environment and mitigating climate change, but we also need to make sure that workers aren’t left behind, and that their jobs and livelihoods are protected.
This is where the concept of a ‘just transition’ comes in.
Just Transition was developed by the trade union movement and has been endorsed internationally by governments in different arenas, including the International Labour Organisation, which published guidelines for a just transition in 2016. It also features in the Paris Climate Agreement.
As a framework, it covers a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' jobs and livelihoods when economies are making the transition to sustainable production.
‘Good jobs on a living planet’
Central to Just Transition is the freedom to associate, whereby workers can raise concerns, share experiences and contribute to factory operations without fear or intimidation.
Workers are invested through time and skill in their jobs. If we keep them at the centre of factory environmental initiatives, there is a wealth of untapped opportunities for worker education, dialogue and collective action.
Whether it is air quality, decarbonisation of processes, chemical safety, waste reduction, energy efficiency or water purity, workers are central to the solutions and they deserve a Just Transition.
As the ITUC campaign says, there are good jobs on a living planet.