As the climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland conclude with a Just Transition Declaration stressing that a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs are integral to the fulfillment of the goals of the Paris Agreement, we are once again left with a reminder that anything we’re agreeing to in high-level political talks means significant changes on the ground for real people.
At the end of the day, much as we disagree with their practices, the tight grip of the fossil fuel industry on our economies means thousands of people rely on them not just for power but for jobs that put food on dinner tables and send generations of children to schools. Ultimately, calling for a transition to a clean energy future means securing these sources of livelihood and ensuring the integration of workers’ rights in a new system powered by clean energy for all. As advocates, we must be conscious of the ramifications of the systemic change we are calling for on the most vulnerable sectors—sectors who, by the cruel joke of inequity due to capitalism, bear the anxiety of job loss because of widespread economic changes and impacts as conglomerate owners get tax breaks and profits.
In the Philippines, Ben* (not his real name), for example, has worked in a coal-fired power plant in Bataan for 10 years. He values his above-minimum-wage salary as an operator and the regular status of company employees. “I recognize that coal plants have a bad effect on the environment and health,” he said in a phone interview. “But it is a good job that allowed me to have a school service business on the side to escape poverty.”
Ben is also part of a workers’ union that unseated an erring general manager in the past, but describes his relationship with the management now as harmonious. “If coal plants do retire soon, I hope to find a job in a renewable energy plant.”
So what is the extent of the state’s responsibility to make sure workers are ready with the technical skills needed in an energy transition? Here, we have the Green Jobs Act of 2016 that seeks to “identify needed skills, develop training programs, and train and certify workers for jobs in a range of industries that produce goods and render services for the benefit of the environment, conserve natural resources for the future generation, and ensure the sustainable development of the country and its transition into a green economy.” This sounds promising, but on the ground, we have a long way to go in protecting workers rights as local renewable energy players start and expand operations.
A source who does not want to be identified has informed us that one of the biggest solar panel companies in the country that just scored a major government contract is also deterring its workers from organizing themselves to assure fair wages and safe workplace conditions. This is similar to a situation in Tesla in the United States, where efforts to unionize to appeal for higher wages are being shut down by the management with threats of dismissal. This is concerning for a sector that claims to be for sustainable development for all.
As advocates, we must ensure that our calls always reflect the needs and circumstances of marginalized sectors and the most vulnerable groups -- those who probably will never see the insides of negotiation halls. Frontline communities include not just those who are first impacted by climate change but also those who will be impacted by the systemic shift to a clean energy future. It is our duty to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for generations of abuse not just against the environment but against its people, and equally important, we must hold new players in the renewable energy sector to the same standard of ensuring the rights and welfare of workers and their families.
Beatrice Tulagan is the founder of media non-profit Climate Stories. She is also the East Asia Regional Field Organizer of 350.org.