Justice for workers goes hand in hand with climate action


Every year on 7 October, the labour movement marks the World Day for Decent Work.

This year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called on its affiliates to focus on the link between social justice, union work and climate change.

It’s clear that decent work will remain a dream if we don’t prevent climate change.

Although this statement may seem a bit extreme for those who still consider environmental issues to be peripheral to union work, there are numerous examples of this startling truth.

How can the small Caribbean island of Grenada build a strong social protection system when in one year they have lost the equivalent of two years GDP due to extreme weather events?

And even in countries such as the Dominican Republic, where trade unions are doing great work to develop such a system, public budgets will need to prioritise the repair of broken infrastructures and the loss of human life as severe weather episodes get even worse.

How then will the government be able to afford to increase social protection coverage for all its citizens?

How will rights at work, the second pillar of the decent work agenda, be protected against the race to the bottom when environmental degradation goes hand in hand with attacks on labour standards?

The recent assassination of Edwin Chota and the three other activists who had the courage to denounce the predatory and illegal behaviour of logging companies in Peru, is just one example of what happens when capital acts with impunity.

How will we have social dialogue in chaos?

How can we secure a job for every unemployed worker if investors will abandon disaster-prone regions? This is far from being a prediction. Textile and manufacturing workers on the outskirsts of Bangkok have already seen their companies move abroad following the massive floods of 2011.

When the ITUC’s general secretary Sharan Burrow popularised the slogan “there are no jobs on a dead planet”, many saw it as a rhetorical exercise. Well, in reality it has never been more true.

You would expect our world leaders and decision makers, knowing the scale of the environmental calamity that lies ahead, to take rapid action to address climate change. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The same economic powers that block decisions which would enable the fair distribution of wealth are maneuvering to slow down the transformation needed to reduce emissions and reimagine the world of work.

But we cannot afford to give up the fight. There is too much at stake. And most importantly, the potential benefits of unions acting on climate change are huge.

We can build the jobs of the future by supplying clean energy, making buildings more efficient, transporting people to their jobs or leisure spaces in sustainable public transit, growing a sustainable food system, and more.

We have a chance to shape the biggest industrial transformation in human history. And we have a chance to make it a Just Transition.

Indeed, jobs are not the only dimension to union-driven climate action. We will also be giving the next generation a chance to succeed in ensuring social justice, democracy and freedom; goals that today are as ignored as uncontrolled climate change.

When the poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner shook the UN General Assembly hall last September with an impassioned call for action, she didn’t put her hopes for securing a liveable planet for the next generation in the world leaders.

She called on us: the builders, the teachers, the engineers and the workers. People whom, with courage and imagination, can make this world a better place.

Justice for workers goes hand in hand with climate action. Once we really understand that, the fight against climate change becomes ours to fight – and win.