For the sake of workers, governments must commit to a new paradigm on plastics and chemicals

For the sake of workers, governments must commit to a new paradigm on plastics and chemicals

The world’s first traditional dhow boat, constructed entirely of plastic refuse collected from Kenya’s beaches and towns, sits on display at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in Nairobi, Kenya. The boat aims to raise awareness on marine plastic pollution and highlight the impact of plastic on marine ecosystems.

(Bert De Wel )

The heads of state from France, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Madagascar, the Prime Minister of Rwanda and 88 ministers of the environment are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week for the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4). The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is participating with a small delegation of trade union representatives as observers to the negotiations, where finding innovative and #SolveDifferent solutions to use resources in a more efficient and sustainable manner is the challenge.

UNEA-4 is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment and brings together governments, entrepreneurs, activists and others to share ideas and commit to action. While there are many representatives from the private sector and civil society organisations, it’s the representatives of the 170 participating member-states that negotiate and decide on the declaration and the resolutions.

The central theme of this year’s assembly is: “Innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production (SCP).” Other focus areas are: (1) Resource efficiency, chemicals and waste; (2) Ecosystems and biodiversity management and protection; and (3) Environmental governance.

While these are indeed the major environmental challenges of our time, it is often discouraging to see the slow progress that governments make in taking decisions and (above all) implementing them afterwards. Governments can count on the support of trade unions for ambitious enviromental policies. Trade unions advocate for sustainable ecosystems that can provide decent work within stable communities that are able to share prosperity with all. Trade unions also advocate for the recognition of the links between environmental protection and the eradication of poverty, the development of green technologies, which produce decent work, and the promotion of gender equality, human rights and the empowerment of women in environmental governance.

Marine litter and plastics pollution: a huge threat to workers

A major theme at UNEA is the enormous impact of plastic pollution on the oceans and the seas. At least eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, with cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear and food and beverage containers being the most common forms of plastic pollution found in the oceans. This plastic pollution is threatening the job security of fishermen all around the world. It also endangers the food security and food safety of the whole planet. The fisheries sector is responsible for supporting the livelihoods of approximately 880 million people, many of whom are among the world’s poorest. Yet, paradoxically, those who rely on fisheries for work and serve as the driving force for the realisation of the right to food of others encounter formidable barriers to realising this right for themselves.

In view of these challenges, the global unions IUF (uniting food, farm and hotel workers), ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) and the ITUC are demanding a legally binding agreement to strengthen global governance on marine plastic litter and microplastics. The international labour movement calls on all governments to recognise the scope of the problem and the need to develop and immediately start the implementation of the plans of action to reduce and fully eliminate the pollution of the world’s seas and oceans.

Transnational companies, in particular food, drink, fast food companies and retailers, must take immediate measures to remove and replace plastics in their packaging with recyclable alternatives and work with all their business partners through the entire supply chain to ensure that all packaging is developed with careful consideration of its environmental impact.

It is not enough to declare that all plastic packaging and containers be recyclable by a certain date without investing in or participating in the provision of collection and recycling operations.

Kirill Buketov, an international policy officer at IUF, says: “We believe that workers in commercial and small-scale seafood, fisheries and aquaculture are at the forefront of the problem and call on the governments at UNEA4 to respect freedom of association and include trade unions and civil society groups in consultations on the issues, to ensure environment and human rights protection. We also call on the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the ILO (International Labour Organization) and the IMO (International Maritime Organization) to upscale their efforts in developing standards and regulations on the responsible use and exploitation of marine resources for the benefit of the people working in the sector, and for everyone.”

“Plastic isn’t the problem” – or is it?

It is important to keep a clear view on the complete problem posed by plastic pollution. Erik Solheim, the former head of UNEP, declared in a report: “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.” But is this true? A recent report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and others states that, to date, research into the human health impacts of plastic have focused narrowly on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle, often on single products, processes, or exposure pathways. This approach fails to recognise that significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts of microplastics in the air, water, and soil.

Some NGOs are calling for a new paradigm on plastics. In a recent op-ed for Project Syndicate, policy officers from Break Free From Plastic and the Heinrich Böll Foundation wrote: “At UNEA-4, a resolution proposed by Norway calls for stronger global-governance structures to address marine litter and microplastics. But the hope is that this will serve as a first step toward a legally binding treaty with a multi-layered approach to solving the problem. […] its central focus would be preventing both growth in plastics pollution and harm to human health at all phases of the production cycle.”

This life cycle approach for plastics brings us to the need to protect the environment and minimize the adverse impacts of hazardous substances on human health.

Stronger national laws within a global framework are urgently required. The legal framework must include prohibition and safe removal strategies for the most dangerous substances as well as strong worker and consumer protection laws that include the right to information on hazardous substances and wastes. States should ensure access to treatment and compensation for workers and other citizens who have become ill or disabled through exposure to hazardous substances. The recent report by Baskut Tuncak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, on protecting workers from toxic exposures is extremely useful. It offers 15 principles to help states, businesses and other actors realise everyone’s right to safe and healthy working conditions.

At UNEA4, states have the opportunity to strengthen the Conventions on chemicals and waste and to commit to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), but there is a lot of reluctance. Maybe this should not be a surprise. One of the stakeholders pointed out in a meeting that she did some research and found out that 60 per cent of the resolutions at UNEA refer to the business sector. While this certainly can be a good thing, it is also worth noting that none referred to unions or worker organisations.