Transition is a given, but what can trade unions in the Global South do to ensure that it’s just?

A man walks past debris left by Hurricane Matthew in Dame-Marie, Haiti on 10 October 2016. Unless urgent action is taken to stop global warming, climate vulnerable countries like Haiti will continue to suffer devastating consequences. (AP/Dieu Nalio Chery)

The 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) begins in Katowice, Poland in a few days’ time, and the challenge to secure the life-altering collective action required to avert climate catastrophe remains as daunting as ever. Ensuring a more sustainable future for all – one where the economy is low carbon, jobs are green and decent, and social protection is standard – is a huge undertaking, even for the world’s most advanced economies. So what will this just transition look like in the Global South, where countries are not only on the front line of climate change but so often lack the institutions and mechanisms to ensure effective mitigation and adaptation policies?

This question formed the crux of a four-day seminar held in Cotonou, Benin this August. Organised by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), ITUC-Africa, the Belgian NGO World Solidarity Movement (WSM), the Belgian national centre CSC and its International Institute for Workers Education (IIWE), the ‘Just Transition Towards a Socially and Ecologically Sustainable Society for All’ workshop was attended by 46 participants from trade unions across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Through a mixture of presentations, expert interventions, discussions and field trips, participants in this south-south exchange shared examples of best practice, ways to effectively promote just transition at an enterprise, sectoral and national level, and how to advocate for workers during the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Future of Work Centenary Initiative.

“When you think about the scale of the problem, it is easy to get disheartened,” said Ismail Bello, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).

“In Nigeria we have 87 million people earning less than US$1 a day. As many as 75 per cent of workers are sub-contracted with no benefits. We are a nation of 200 million people suffering from diverse climate impacts,” he said citing yearly flooding and communal violence over scarce resources as just two examples.

“And yet, we should see these crises as an opportunity,” Bello implored during an intervention. It’s a sentiment that encapsulates the spirit of the Cotonou seminar.
And there are opportunities. James Canonge, a social protection officer at the ILO, told participants that the just transition could result in 18 million new jobs by 2030.

Already in the United States, more people are estimated to work in solar energy than in the oil, coal and gas sectors combined. In Brazil, the Bolsa Verde programme has provided more than 54,000 poor rural families with cash payments in exchange for maintaining the forests since 2011. And this November, Spanish trade unions secured a historic, €250 million ‘carbon bill’ that will see the closure of most coal mines, coupled with sustainable development in mining regions.

There are, broadly speaking, five principles that define a just transition: job creation, social protection, social dialogue, investment and research. What these principles look like varies depending on the country and context, but as Rhoda Boateng, a climate specialist at ITUC-Africa pointed out: “A just transition is not the end goal; it’s the process.”

During a series of site visits, workshop participants got to see what these principles look like in action. The first stop was Songhaï, a revolutionary large-scale farming project just outside of Porto Novo. As well as providing training for over 5,000 students a year and employing roughly 1500 workers, it undertakes ground-breaking research, development and production in sustainable, organic agribusiness based on the Lavoisier principle of “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”

Next up was a smaller sustainable farming project just outside of Cotonou, founded by the local Christian Workers’ Movement (MTC) and WSM, which exemplified principle one: job creation. “In 2014, we identified some youths who had finished their agricultural training with Songhaï but were at home without any land to farm or any job to do,” explained MTC project coordinator Emile Ahissou. “Since we try to promote decent work, we decided to train them in collaborative agricultural entrepreneurship and set up a cooperative.” Since then, the project has grown to about 40 farmers of all ages who now earn above the minimum wage and have access to microfinance and a health centre, thanks to the support of the unions.

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The final stop was Ciment Bouclier, one of the country’s leading cement manufacturers. Described by local trade unionists as a leading voice in social dialogue, it has been commended for placing decent work, health and safety, environmental management and corporate social responsibility at the heart of its work.

Social protection, social dialogue, investment and research

Throughout the week, trade unionists shared their own experiences with the five principles. Making sure the workers who stand to be worst affected by the just transition (such as precarious, migrant and/or informal workers) are protected, and extending sure social protection to the most vulnerable members of society forms the basis of principle two. Sid’Ahmed Kaabach of the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CLTM), told Equal Times that his union is helping to do this in Mauritania: “Along with some other confederations, we used the money we receive from our members to construct the biggest market in the capital, Nouakchott. We are now renting those spaces to business people and also to female traders so that they have somewhere safe and clean to sell their products. We then use some of the money they generate to create a health insurance fund,” he explained.

Inclusive and participatory social dialogue is the third principle. “Social dialogue is crucial because workers deserve a seat at the table if their futures are being decided on,” Bert De Wel, climate policy officer at the ITUC told the participants.

A good example of social dialogue at a national level can be found in Indonesia where unions and civil society are contributing to the implementation of the National Action Plan on Climate Change Adaptation. “We have a coalition, the Indonesia People’s Alliance, where we try to influence national policy on trade agreements and the environment,” said Maria Emeninta, a programme coordinator for IIWE in Indonesia and the Confederation of Indonesia Prosperity Trade Union (KSBSI). As the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the Indonesian government is under pressure to lead by example: “Indonesia has a big commitment to reduce its emissions by 25 per cent by 2020, and up to 40 per cent if developed countries provide finance and support. We have a National Council on Climate Change and for the last few years, the Alliance has been providing input to the programme.” KSBSI has also trained its members to negotiate clauses on climate action in their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). “It’s about strengthening the commitment of employers to support workers on this issue, such as securing the budget from the company’s corporate social responsibility programme to pay for trade union activities such as tree planting.”

Principle four is investment. Everything from investing in renewable energy and green building standards to securing pensions and upskilling workers will require money – and lots of it.

According to recent research by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Initiative for Responsible Investment, “2,000 institutions with assets under management of over US$70 trillion have signed the Principles for Responsible Investment, committing themselves to integrate environmental, social and governance factors throughout their operations.” However, unions want to see sound investment that is public-driven so that it benefits the people, and not just investors.

The final principle of the just transition is research. “What are we transitioning to?” asked Boateng of ITUC-Africa. “What skills will be needed and what jobs will be available?” In the Dominic Republic, Esperidon Villa Paredes, director general of the National Institute of Agrarian and Union Training, said his union offers training for small-scale farmers to work on climate-adaptive agriculture, such as organic cacao production, reforestation projects and creating value-added products: “We do not grow wheat in the Dominican Republic so we have been training our members to make bread with 40 per cent breadfruit, which is grown locally, and 60 per cent imported wheat. This reduces costs and supports the local economy. It is also very healthy!”

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Overcoming obstacles and shaping the future of work

As well as best practice, the participants also shared some of the many obstacles they are experiencing in the way of supporting a just transition and sustainable development. One issue that came up is the fact that a just transition cannot take place without strong unions and an open channel of communication to governments and employers. In too many countries, this dialogue is absent. Marc Dorvil, a programme officer at the Public and Private Sector Workers of Haiti (CTSP), described the situation in his country as “extremely difficult”.

“The various governments that have been in power since we formed in 2008 do not want to recognise the work of trade unions or the rights of workers. Even though Haiti has ratified eight fundamental ILO conventions, any time workers organise themselves they are immediately oppressed by the government.” This makes Dorvil very wary about the possibility for a just transition in Haiti. “We do not have social dialogue and we do not have social protection. Right now we are negotiating just to have a dialogue.”

For Emeninta of KSBSI/IIWE Indonesia, getting trade unionists to understand that climate change is indeed a labour issue is still a problem. “In Indonesia there are still so many issues that revolve around the violation of basic labour rights such as the lack of social protection, unfair dismissals and low wages. People see climate change as a high-level issue that’s for the government to deal with, so we have to work to make the link between the issue of climate change and trade unions clear,” she said. But for De Wel of the ITUC, the mainstreaming of climate action doesn’t have to be burdensome. “We need 99 per cent of unionists to talk about climate action alongside their work on organising or social protection, or whatever the case may be,” he said. “We need all unionists to incorporate the climate action message – but not everyone needs to become a full-time environmentalist.”

It is also the case that good jobs are not always green jobs. In the Philippines for example, Vicente Posada Unay Jr, the project coordinator for the power programme at SENTRO, said that trade unions in the coal industry have secured strong CBAs with higher-than-average wages. “So now the challenge is to convince our coal power unions that the national interest should transcend beyond their CBAs.”

Posada also expressed concerns that despite having some of the most progressive legislation on climate change, there is still a gap in the Philippines between theory and practice. He cites the example of the 2008 Renewable Energy Act, which he describes as more focused on investment than creating quality, green jobs. “Then, in 2016 the Congress passed a Green Jobs Act, but we [the unions] were never consulted about it.”

The workshop ended with the formulation of national action plans and a list of recommendations on the role trade unions should play in the promotion of just transition and sustainable development. Signatories to the declaration made a pledge on 33 points which will be presented at the 4th ITUC World Congress in Copenhagen next week. Points included organising workers vulnerable to climate change effects as a priority; establishing solidarity funds to support informal workers; and political action for effective and people-centred regulatory environmental framework, policies and programmes. For Dorvil from CTSP Haiti, the seminar was “inspiring. There are so many examples for me to take home. But it all starts with sensitisation and changing people’s mindsets. That is the first step.”

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