Saturday, November 1, 2014

Green jobs 2

It is claimed that a transition to green energy will create a lot of employment - maybe 20 million globally by 2020.  I looked in my last post at how the adoption of green energy  might be the logical outcome of historical trends. However the type of work can vary- and not all of it might be welcome. As one Trade unionist has put it, ‘a green boss is still a boss’.  There are all the usual issues of pay and conditions. For example, PV solar cell production has boomed in Germany, but much of this has occurred in the poor east of the country where wages levels are often low and trade union rights sometimes absent. More recently there has been a boom in PV cell manufacture and export in China, where wages are likely to be even lower and working conditions possibly worse, although improving (ILO, 2012). There has also been a boom in biofuel production for vehicles, with major plantations in developing countries like Malaysia, where working conditions may be very poor and environmental impacts significant, opening up a ‘food versus fuel’ and development policy debate.

Even in the industrialised countries, there are issues rated to safety and working conditions. Most renewables-related work is relatively risk free, and mostly compares well with that in other areas of energy supply (IRENA, 2012).  However, care has to be taken working at heights, and with the toxic materials sometimes used in making PV cells.  Some of the new work will be in factories, but much of it will involve on-site installation and maintenance, often in harsh environment, including offshore.  On the smaller scale there will be jobs fitting systems to houses and offices, with regular maintenance: the classic small company with a White Van. Some of this work may be outsourced to individual operators and much of it may be non-union.

Trade unions in the UK and elsewhere have been relatively quick to recognise the importance of this new pattern of employment. However, while they have welcomed the growth of green jobs, they also worry about pay and conditions.  The UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been campaigning for what are sometimes called  ‘Just Jobs’- green jobs which are sustainable and safe as well as properly paid, as part of a  ‘just transition’. The positive side of this reflects the workers’ plans for socially useful work that emerged in the UK in the 1970s (Wainwright and Elliott, 1982)

There is also a wider dimension to the transition concept. It is sometimes argued that, in order to deal with climate change and other environmental constraints, there will have to be a reduction in the level of economic growth. More immediately, the transition to renewables will mean the loss of jobs in conventional energy industries, where unions are often well established. These issues can lead to conflicts between environmentalists and workers, and sometimes quite bitter confrontations. While it may be true that longer-term there will be more jobs, in the short term there could be painful disruptions, especially for older people who cannot easily retrain or adapt.

The Unions have therefore sometimes fallen back on a more defensive line. For example, the TUC report 'A Green and Fair Future', says that union support for environmental policies is ‘conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families’.

However, in general, the trade union movement backs change via a Just Transition. In its policy document ‘Equity, justice and solidarity in the fight against climate change’ the International Trade Union Confederation says ‘Just transition is a tool the trade union movement shares with the international community, aimed at smoothing the shift towards a more sustainable society and providing hope for the capacity of a “green economy” to sustain decent jobs and livelihoods for all.’ (ITUC 2009)

The ITUC position emphasises the production process as well as products, as part of a transition to a ‘fairer, environmentally responsible society that respects human and labour rights’ and it is campaigning on that (ITUC 2010). It is a big project. Radicals hope that it will be pursued by grass roots initiatives, which can lay the basis for the new society. As Kolya Abramsky puts it ‘the most important single factor determining the outcome of this change will be the intensity, sophistication, and creativity of grass-roots social mobilization.’(Abramsky, 2010)  But he also recognises that there could be problems. For example, he says ‘The quest for renewable energy could result in a new and perhaps unprecedented land-grab by companies and investors, which would create the potential for even more extreme patterns of displacement and appropriation of land than other forms of energy have done’. He also points to disputes over pay, conditions and job security within the renewables industry.

While there are clearly battles ahead, there are some radical strands in union thinking, sometimes building on common interests. For example the American Wind Energy Association and the United Steelworkers have created a ‘Partnership for Progress’ to accelerate wind-power development and deployment in the U.S. The European union body ETUC has called for a binding EU target to cut greenhouse gas emissions 75% by 2050, and has called for a tripartite dialogue to address negative social effects of restructurings (ETUC, 2013). And in general, although some unions remain committed to nuclear power, most are very pro renewables, given their job creation potential and are keen to build links with environmental groups and campaigns.

For example, Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation has backed a radical energy transition proposal by Greenpeace. He commented ‘While many additional ‘Just Transition’ policies will be needed to ensure workers will reap the benefits of a new low-carbon economy- skills, social protection, quality of jobs; the Energy Revolution report introduces interesting ideas which will scale up investments in renewable energies, something crucial if we want to fight future unemployment in the energy sector and avoid the poorest of the planet, whose jobs depend on natural resources, paying the costs of business-as-usual’.

Moreover, pushing ahead to positive targets, a report from the UK Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group called for ‘One Million Climate Change jobs now’, outlining how cutting emissions by 80% by 2030 would create jobs in energy, building, farming and transport sector (CaCC, 2012, 2014). Overall then there are some hopeful signs around the world (Räthzel and Uzzell 2013).

The availability of what the International Labour Organisation calls ‘decent work’ (congenial, safe, properly remunerated and sustainable employment), could be seen as an ethical requirement, a basic right. It seems possible this can be achieved as part of the process of converting to green energy, but it is not automatic. It will need political struggle- to ensure it is done right. Surely we do not want to have sweated ‘zero hours’ labour for low pay in bad conditions. It is not a matter of jobs at all costs.

Abramsky, K (ed)  (2010) ‘Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution’ AK Press, Oakland,

CaCC (2012, 2014)  ‘One Million Jobs- Now’, Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group Campaign and Booklet,

ETUC (2013) ‘ETUC Position on the Fight against Climate Change in Europe and the World’ European Trade Union Confederation, Brussels,

ILO (2010) ‘Study on Green Employment in China’, International Labor Organisation,

ITUC (2009) ‘What is Just Transition?’  International Trade Union Confederation, Brussels,

ITUC (2010) Resolution on Combating Climate Change through Sustainable Development and Just Transition’, International Trade Union Confedertaion, Brussels,

Räthzel, N. and Uzzell, D (eds) (2013) ‘Trade Unions in the Green Economy,  Working for the Environment’,  Earthscan, London

Wainwright, H and Elliott, D (1982) ‘The Lucas Plan’, Allison and Busby, London update at .