Vicente Posada Unay Jr: “How can you genuinely create green jobs without talking to the unions?”

Vicente Posada Unay Jr: “How can you genuinely create green jobs without talking to the unions?”

Vicente Posada Unay Jr addresses delegates at a future of work and just transition seminar held in Cotonou, Benin between 28 August and 1 September 2018.

(Tamara Gausi)

In 2015, the Philippine government joined the Paris Climate Agreement, making the conditional commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent below ‘business-as-usual-levels’ by 2030. However, despite this incredibly ambitious target, the current government of President Rodrigo Duterte is yet to specify how it will achieve its emissions target: despite having enacted the 2008 Renewable Energy Act, the country’s current energy mix comprises 45 per cent coal.

The Philippines is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. But it also has one of the lowest per-capita electricity consumption rates as well as some of the highest power generation charges in south-east Asia. In addition, supporters of coal in the Philippines say the country will not be able to drive economic development or reduce poverty in line with the Sustainable Development Goals without fossil fuels.

Vicente Posada Unay Jr is the project coordinator for the power programme at SENTRO, the Centre of United and Progressive Workers in the Philippines, and this November he was elected secretary general of the newly-formed National Union of Workers in the Power Industry (POWER). At an international seminar on the future of work and the just transition, organised by the Internatioanl Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), ITUC Africa, CSC - IIWE Belgium and World Solidarity in Cotonou, Benin this August, Posada spoke to Equal Times (and again by phone earlier this week) about the challenges facing the Philippines on its journey towards a just transition.

On paper, the Philippines has some very progressive policies on climate change, with legislation on renewable energy, green jobs and an ambitious emissions reduction target. What it is the reality?

There is an issue with compliance and also with the formulation of some of the laws. For example, the Philippine government enacted the Renewable Energy Act in 2008, which promotes the development, utilisation and commercialisation of renewable energy resources. The agency mandated by law to implement the National Renewable Energy Program roadmap is the Department of Energy. But from this roadmap, you can clearly see that labour’s interests are not actually integrated. It is more about business projections than it is about decent work.

Then, in 2016 the Congress passed a Green Jobs Act, but we [the unions] were never consulted about it, nor was the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). So this law, which is supposed to provide protection for workers in the creation of green jobs, has actually been designed to generate investment. How can you genuinely create green jobs without talking to the unions?

This year there have been a series of consultations with labour unions about green jobs where we are trying to push the question: ‘What really is a green job?’ Our position is that the departure from a fossil-fuel based society to one based on renewable energy must involve everyone. It cannot just be discussed at a government or industry or even union level – we must change our education system and vocational training, for example, to prepare people for the jobs of the future. A branch of DOLE – the Technical Education and Skills Development Administration – was asked to develop a curriculum to upgrade the skills of the workers. Without this, we will be trapped in the current formulation and it will be business as usual.

In 2001, the electricity industry was deregulated. What impact did this have on consumers and workers?

The Electricity Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001 was meant to reduce the cost of electricity for consumers and improve service-delivery, but it failed on both fronts. Today, our electricity prices are second only to Japan in the region. Meanwhile, the situation is bad for workers. There are an estimated 17,000 workers across generation, transmission and distribution sectors of the power industry that are in contract jobs. To be sure, the privatisation of the power industry is one of the biggest barriers to the government’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions. The big energy companies are all heavily invested in coal, so privatisation encouraged more coal-generated power plants rather than introducing renewable energy as our primary source of energy. We also have an irony here, because we have power generation trade unions that are locked-in on collective bargaining agreements with higher wages and a good package of benefits compared to other parts of the industry, like the electric cooperatives. So now the challenge is to convince our coal power unions that the national interest should transcend beyond their CBAs.

Where does the mining industry fit into the country’s gradual move towards a just transition?

The mining industry is the biggest carbon emitter and the biggest destructor of natural resources in the Philippines. The 1995 Philippine Mining Act liberalised the sector and for the past 20 years, the Philippine government and the Philippine people have never gained any advantage from mining. The workers, the communities, the environment – everything is subservient to the interests of foreign investors. There was a moment of hope when President Duterte was first elected. In 2016, he appointed Gina Lopez [a renowned environmentalist] as the acting secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). She was very progressive and was quoted as saying that the Philippine Mining Act is an ‘unfair’ law. She issued a memorandum to suspend all large-scale mining in the Philippines because of its destructive effects, and she even held consultations with local communities. But she was met with strong opposition [from the mining industry] and her appointment was not confirmed. Instead, the position was taken up by a former army general [Roy Cimatu]. It just goes to show that the interests of the people and the environment often take second place to the interests of capital.

What are conditions like for workers in the mining industry?

There is a myth that mining creates a lot of jobs in the Philippines but it is not true. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau said that in 2016, mining generated 219,000 jobs but according to the Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry, in 2015 220 mining companies generated 32,249 jobs in the industry, so there a big contradiction there.

The conditions are not good. Industry sources say the average worker earns 356,550 pesos (approximately US$6785) a year. But on the ground, workers actually earn about 256,550 pesos (approximately US$4880) a year. In Mindanao, the southern part of the country where many mining companies are situated and where there is a conflict, many of the workers are contract workers, even if they do the same work as regular workers, which is prohibited by law. For example, at the Philsaga Mine in Agusan del Sur, there are 4,743 workers; 2,443 of whom are regulars, the remaining 2,300 are contractual workers with service agreements to [recruitment] agencies.

But the worst violations are in occupational health and safety. Workers told us that the mines have a policy that when there is an accident, there is no report written up. The DOLE says the mining industry is not within its jurisdiction, its DENR’s, while DENR points the finger at DOLE. But it is the workers who get hurt. This is why we trade unions, with support of the ILO (International Labour Organization) and other multi-stakeholders, have to push to ensure that trade unions are represented in the national tripartite in the mining industry.

What concrete steps has SENTRO taken to promote a just transition?

We are actively participating in Alyansa Tigil Mina (the Alliance to Stop Mining, or ATM), which is a coalition of NGOs and civil society organisations that want to see a major change in the way our country’s natural resources are managed, in particular, a ban on open-pit mining. SENTRO is also a big part of the coalition that is pushing for an Alternative Minerals Management Bill in Congress, which would promote responsible and sustainable mining. We are also working with local unions in Mindanao to build capacity and help improve their existing collective bargaining agreement to harness the health and safety provisions, as well as the creation of a regional tripartite system.

In partnership with the Australian People’s Aid, we have been conducting research on the potential of renewable energy in electric cooperatives. We are trying to collaborate with one of the electric cooperatives in an off-grid island province in southern Luzon [the largest and most populous island in the Philippines].

SENTRO is also a member of the newly-founded Renewable Energy Centre which launched in October and is facilitated by the German foundation, FES. We are the only labour centre involved, but there are many NGOs, academes and professionals that are also a part of this initiative to promote renewable energy in the Philippines.

What are some of the main challenges that lie ahead?

The country’s 121 member-consumer owned electric cooperatives are under threat from privatisation. In 2013, workers at the Albay Electric Cooperative (ALECO) launched a three-year labour strike to resist privatisation. There was a massive mobilisation from the workers and consumers, and as a result, the government temporarily suspended the corporatisation of electric cooperatives.

But now there is a new Franchise Bill in the pipeline which, if passed, will see the 11.6 million households that are member-consumers of electric cooperatives across the Philippines face losing their power of ownership to the private sector. We [SENTRO] are currently working with the electric cooperatives to oppose this bill.

The government is trying to balance keeping the business community happy with following through on its climate commitments. It is going to be a long road to truly mainstream the transition toward renewable energy but as a union, we will keep working towards energy democracy. What does that mean for us? To resist, reclaim and restructure the power industry to put it in the hands of the people.