Coverage of COP17- Climate Change and popular struggles

Jobs, Workers Rights and Climate Change

, by Pambazuka, TWN Africa , Msangi Yahya

Talks on climate change had reckoned without labour and labour related issues until now. But as Yahya Msangi points out, climate change ought to take account of labour.

The discussions and later negotiations on climate change commenced in the late 1990s without effective participation of workers and their organisations. This was mainly due to lack of capacity in linking climate change with labour issues. This lack of capacity was on the part of both negotiators and trade unions. In those early years, the link between conventional labour issues such as occupational safety and health, job security, child labour, wages and gender equality at work was not well appreciated. However, as years went by and as the negative impacts of climate change are more felt, the link between labour and climate change became more appreciated, though not as it should be. Still many actors including workers, communities and policy makers cannot comprehend the direct link between employment and climate change; as a result, little focus has been extending during national policy and programs development or during development of workplace collective bargaining agreements and policies.


Climate change is closely linked to traditional employment issues such as job security, occupational safety and health, unionisation, child labour, wages, gender equality, hours of work etc. The link can be seen at two levels i.e. due to direct impacts or as result of mitigation and adaptation measures.

It is the desire for every employee, regardless of her position, to be assured of her right of continuing with her employment as long as she wishes or as long as specified in her contract. Job security also has to guarantee the right for one to leave her job as she wishes as stipulated in the employment contract.

Neither a contract that forces an employee to continue working against her wishes nor an employment contract that contravenes the principle of job security is desirable. The direct impact of climate change e.g. floods, prolonged dry or wet seasons and hurricanes can force someone to leave her job prematurely and thus affect her job security. In situations and environments where incidences of extreme weather conditions are high, the risk to job security is also very high. On the other hand, some mitigation or adaptation measures may also led to termination of one’s employment prematurely. A good example is when an enterprise decides to adopt a new eco-friendly technology which is less labour intensive. In such situations, premature laying-off of workers is inevitable.

The right to safe and health workplaces is recognised as one of the fundamental rights in the world of work. This right is enshrined in many ILO labour standards and national legislations, particularly national legislations on occupational safety and health. The safety and health of workers and their families may be adversely affected by due to changes in climate. In a worst-case scenario situation, lives can be lost through climate- induced floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and such other physical calamities. Such calamities may also result in the increase of environmental diseases such as malaria, cholera, schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and diarrhoea. The high rise of cancer incidences is associated with ozone layer depletion, which itself is the result of climate change.

In addition to these direct impacts measures proposed for mitigating and adapting to climate change may also have a serious impact on the safety and health of workers. For example, when an enterprise decides to introduce a new eco-friendly technology or machinery; the incidences of workplace accidents may rise if proper on the job training is not done or if ergonomic issues are not factored in. Physical accidents usually lead into pain, loss of work days, loss of income and in severe cases permanent disabilities or deaths. Working with technologies or machinery that one does not master or is not in conformity with one’s physique may also lead to psychosocial and/or ergonomic health problems.

Another good example is in the energy sector where biofuel farming is one of the measures proposed to mitigate climate change. In many countries of Africa, the safety and health of workers may be affected in two ways. First, many food crops such as maize, oil crops, and sugarcane have been withdrawn from food industry to energy industry and this in a continent where food sufficiency is still a challenge. As a result, food prices have dramatically shot up, forcing workers to use more than 70 per cent of their wages for food purchases. This has affected the nutritional status of workers and their families and thus has compromised their health. It has also affected the ability of workers and their families in accessing health services.

Second, some crops that are promoted for biofuel in the region – particularly Castor Oil and Jatropha – are inherently toxic. These two contain a highly toxic substance scientifically known as Recin whose health impacts are well documented since the days of Mussolini in Italy. In the process of extracting the oil, workers – the majority of whom unfortunately are women and children – get exposed to this hazardous substance. In many African , seed harvesting and processing is not regarded to be a ‘manly’ task hence the practice of engaging more women and children in many biofuel extraction plants. In this way, the link between child labour can be identified.

The strength of workers depends very much of the right to unionise i.e. unity is their strength. However, for developing countries to effectively address challenges posed by climate change they rely heavily on foreign investments and expertise. As with other forms of investments, climate change investments operate under the umbrella of globalisation where conditionalities are attached. Some of these conditionalities are anti-labour, including the suspension or softening of recipient country labour laws. This is more common in the so-called Export Processing Zones (EPZs) and in many privatised state enterprises where trade unions in the region have experienced challenges in maintaining their structures and members or enrolling new members.

These challenges are not only restricted to EPZs alone but also in all other investments outside the EPZs. The most common union-busting technique is the practice of sub-contracting staff recruitment and production processes. In the area of climate change, a good example of these malpractices has been experienced in the energy sector where foreign firms have purchased large chunks of land (most of which were previously state property). Though these firms operate as large-scale farms (a situation which is good for unionisation), in practice they operate as small-scale farming enterprises by promoting the ‘contract farming’ system. Under contract farming system, these firms enter into contract with sub-contracted and uninformed and thus powerless local farmers and thus shifting the burden of managing labour and consequently unions in the hands of these individuals.

Since economies of scale do not allow individual small farmers to pay national minimum wages and other legal benefits, these farmers either do not allow their workers to join unions or allow unions to organise in their small workplaces. Most prefer to employ children and thus promote child labour. By paying low wages, they also intensify poverty and other social problems in these areas.

Experience has shown that women and children (particularly young girls) are more affected by climate change than other groups. For example, Africa has witnessed a rising degree of social hardships, including sharp depletion of firewood and water resources forcing women and young girls to walk long distances in search of these vital life-supporting resources. This has imposed extra demand on women and girls thus denying them other basic social rights such as the right to education and participation in various local decision-making processes. However, if care is not taken, some mitigation and adaptation measures may amplify this problem; a good example is in the area of technology transfer. Due to the social and cultural norms, women and girls are generally less educated in the region compared to their male counterparts. Thus employment opportunities for women and girls are found in low technology production systems. The adoption of modern or high tech technologies that are needed for mitigating or adapting to climate change may further push women and girls out of employment.

Throughout the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations, trade union representatives have campaigned for adoption of a unique principle, a principle based on ethical and moral foundations – The Just Transition (JT) principle. Experience of trade unions all over the world has shown that most internationally driven processes have more often than not favoured the powerful multi-national corporations and national governments, while negating the rights and interests of people (including workers). It is through these experiences that trade unions requested Parties under UNFCCC to consider the social consequences of proposed measures and initiatives.

Unions recognise that in the quest to address climate change, some serious social problems may be created and are asking for ensuring justice is done in order to protect the rights, social and economic interests of the working class. Unions understand that workers and communities will be negatively affected not only by the direct impacts but also through mitigation and adaptation measures. Under the JT principle, unions are calling for the establishment and promotion of the social protection platform and creation of decent and green jobs. It was gratifying that after many frustrating years of lobbying; the JT principle was accepted and incorporated in the final text during COP16 that was held in Cancun Mexico in December 2010.

Unions understand that the current JT is not comprehensive enough to cover the interests of all major CSO groups but they consider the current text as a foundation for further engagement with other like-minded CSO groups. Trade unions would like to encourage others to support this principle, elaborate on it and later use it as a springboard to launch other demands. On practical terms, let’s use JT to ensure that mitigation and adaptation measures as proposed in the UNFCCC negotiating text do not intensify other existing labour and community problems such as child labour, low wages, gender inequality, occupational safety and health problems, job insecurity and poor working conditions.

This special issue is jointly produced by Pambazuka News and African Agenda, a publication of Third World Network-Africa.

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Yahya Msangi is regional coordinator of Occupational Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) at ITUC Africa in Lome, Togo.

This article is available in french Emploi, droits des travailleurs et changement climatique