Our Burning Planet


Workers’ voices must not be suppressed in climate change talks because livelihoods are on the line

Workers’ voices must not be suppressed in climate change talks because livelihoods are on the line
Illustrative image | Sources: A miner fixes his goggles on Tuesday, 18 June 2019. (Photo: Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | A turbine layout map Eskom's Lethabo coal-fired power station in Vereeniging, South Africa on Friday 5 November 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Cooling towers in Mpumalanga, South Africa on Monday, 21 March 2022. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Trade union and collective bargaining structures are essential in coordinating and managing the transition towards a just low-carbon future.

This essay is part of a series exploring the challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. It is being published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multi-stakeholder just transition conference on 5 and 6 May 2022.

Climate change is no longer perceived as a peripheral environmental issue in domestic and global policy discussions. The adverse socioeconomic and ecological impacts of climate shocks are well documented, especially in the Global South. Governments, private sector organisations, trade unions and other civil society groups acknowledge that climate change should feature prominently in political economy policy negotiations. Deliberations on economy-wide structural reforms thus include climate change-related mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

A prominent policy proposition in these discussions is expanding the use of technologies supporting climate change mitigation policies in countries. The technologies will produce positive socioeconomic and ecological policy outcomes in the long run. However, it is equally important to acknowledge that increased uptake of AI-driven digital and low-carbon technologies will exacerbate the long-standing structural challenges facing worker organisations and collective bargaining structures used to represent employee interests. We aim to explore this theme in just transition public policy debates and develop some policy insights for worker organisations, government regulators and business stakeholders. 

Two core questions inform our interests in this area: What worker organising strategies are required to adapt to low-carbon economic restructuring? How will the just transition impact worker representation and collective bargaining structures? These questions are inherently linked because trade union organising strategies have a significant impact on collective bargaining institutions. They determine the categories of worker representation and which socioeconomic issues are prioritised when engaging employers.

Forging ahead with a just and climate-resilient transition

The first part of the essay addresses worker organising and advocacy strategies, while the second focuses on collective bargaining and its connections to industrial relations. Our aim is to provide a generic framework covering these two areas in the context of labour market and industrial relations shifts in a just transition. We primarily aim to set out some essential just transition guidelines and not a detailed prescriptive list of policy recommendations.

These guidelines focus on workers and the labour movement, yet government authorities and employer organisations need to deliberate on the guidelines because collective bargaining affects all three social partners. The proposed guidelines highlight the centrality of managing disruptive labour market shifts and subsequent impacts on collective bargaining equitably, with an emphasis on inclusive worker organising and collective bargaining practices.

Worker organising

Khwezi Mabasa and Crispen Chinguno argue that worker organising strategies cannot be separated from fundamental structural changes in sectors across the economy. These structural shifts impact wages, social security benefits, employment contracts and overall industrial relations. Thus – as outlined in Cosatu’s 2012 policy document, A Just Transition to a Low-Carbon and Climate Resilient Economy: A Call to Action – trade union organising in the context of just transition economic restructuring requires evidence-based analysis of the intersecting relationship linking sector production changes, trade union recruitment, organising practices and worker representation. 

A practical starting point is using case-study literature and policy evidence on emerging technologies shaping South Africa’s low-carbon economy to understand employment patterns across value chains. Several reports discuss data on existing and future labour dynamics in the country’s renewable energy sector. Other sources highlight employment trends in a hydrogen economy driven by platinum group metals, an economy early in its production and innovation life cycle. For example, the independent power producers note that South Africa’s Renewable Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme created 59,071 employment opportunities by 2021 (measured in job years).

Mistra reports on the implementation of several hydrogen economy pilot projects in the mining, energy, construction and automotive sectors. These projects illustrate that employment creation and skills development can expand rapidly in a low-carbon economy transition if supported by adequate policy measures aimed at producing socioeconomic multiplier effects. In addition, the findings identify building local value chains, increasing low-carbon energy demand and domestic manufacturing as critical to job creation in a just transition. 

What is missing in these accounts are the lived experiences of South Africans who have accessed employment opportunities in these emerging sectors, especially workers in low-skill occupations and targeted community beneficiaries. Worker organisers need support in developing training, negotiation and policy education capabilities to map employment dynamics in these nascent sectors holistically. This includes examining wage trends, the nature of employment contracts, working conditions and union density.

Trade union education, sector-specific policy training and learning from workers’ experiential narratives are crucial factors in this process. The combination of researched evidence and learning from workers’ lived experiences lays a solid basis for developing adaptive organising strategies that are anchored in “decent work” labour market policy frameworks. The groundwork has been established in South Africa’s trade union movement advocacy through worker-affiliated policy training and research institutes, such as the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (Naledi). It needs to be developed further by using sector-specific worker surveys, experiential learning and dedicated support programmes for worker organisers. 

An additional dimension of worker organising in a just transition context is linking labour market and social policy interventions. Changes in the production structure of economies always produce positive and adverse socioeconomic externalities. One of the major concerns in the South African context is the potential loss of employment and livelihoods as a result of various low-carbon and digital economy policy interventions. The trade union movement is currently deliberating on several policy propositions that can ameliorate negative labour market and livelihood impacts. 

Several policy solutions connecting labour market and social policy advocacy in a just transition deserve attention. A universal basic income grant is one example, since it can provide transitional social security for displaced workers and create a “safety net for communities hard hit by the varied and cumulative effects of climate shocks”. This social transfer can be complemented by other social policy interventions, such as improved access to skills training suited to future wage employment or alternative livelihood pathways in a low-carbon economy. The latter includes non-wage alternatives, such as worker cooperatives and community-owned enterprises.

Last, trade union organising and worker representation in a just transition must protect the socioeconomic rights of different categories of workers. The transition towards a low-carbon economy will deepen existing labour market disparities if not managed equitably.

Several sources illuminate the extensive labour fragmentation produced by structural changes in labour markets over the past three decades. A significant trend is the expansion of atypical employment, which is markedly different from standard employment relationships. Atypical work undermines decent-work labour frameworks because it leads to decreased employment security, low incomes and minimal access to social security and collective bargaining. Naledi’s 2015 report, Cosatu Workers’ Surveys of 2006 and 2012: What Do They Tell Us?, highlights that workers in non-standard employment have significantly less access to trade union representation and contend with more exploitation than their counterparts. 

An additional area overlooked in just transition labour market policy debates is the role of informal workers, who play a significant role in waste management, recycling and other sectors which contribute to the low-carbon economy. Yet their socioeconomic rights and roles in the emerging low-carbon economy are marginalised.

Recent conservative estimates suggest that South Africa’s informal sector employs close to three million people, mainly in retail, construction, social services and transport. It is essential to include this category of workers when deliberating on future labour market policies in a low-carbon economy. The points on inclusive labour market structures illuminate the overall proposition for adaptive changes in worker organising strategies and collective bargaining, which protect different categories of workers in pursuit of decent work.

Rethinking collective bargaining

Collective bargaining and social dialogue are essential for decent work, industrial relations stability, labour protection and enhanced welfare benefits for workers. The transition of workers to a low-carbon economy will require strengthened collective bargaining institutions and social dialogue to ensure at-risk workers materially benefit from a just transition.

Labour market shifts in a just transition towards a low-carbon economy necessitate coordination and integration between environmental legislation (which prioritises decarbonisation – the Climate Change Bill) and employment legislation (which prioritises labour standards and wages – the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act). Industrial relations institutions have the institutional capacity to deconstruct the trade-offs between workers and the environment, empowering workers’ capacity to respond to long-standing environmental standards. 

The Italian experience provides a case study in which industrial relations institutions such as trade unions and employer associations have prioritised a decarbonisation agenda, with the incorporation of environmental sustainability in industrialisation observed for the past two decades. The results have been mixed across sectors, regions and firms because of regional variables and other constraints over and above the policy positions of unions or employer associations. 

Since the early 2000s many firms in Italy have undergone structural transformation to convert from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy production. In some cases this has been successful, with limited negative socioeconomic impacts on workers and communities, while in others the negative impact on jobs and the communities has been significant.

Substantive trade union and community organisation participation in decarbonisation processes has been identified as a key component in reducing the adverse socioeconomic impacts of decarbonisation. Participation has been driven by convergent forces – the escalation of the climate crises and the adoption of binding climate agreements at UN and EU level, as well as the need to respond to Italy’s National Energy Strategy, which will result in a transition from coal by many companies

Labour market shifts produced in the low-carbon economy transition could cause industrial relations conflict. South Africa’s labour market responses to previous economic structural shifts have not been favourable to workers, with a rise in atypical employment and other forms of short-time work in the past three decades. Paul Benjamin laments strategies adopted by South African employers to limit workers’ labour law protections through the adoption of short-time contracts, independent contracting and labour broking.

These strategies create indirect, non-conventional employee-employer relationships that subvert labour legislation and minimise access to trade union representation. Several sector case studies illustrate how industrial relations conflict increases when trade union organising and collective bargaining structures fail to adapt to structural changes in the economy. Platinum belt mining and the South African Post Office are key examples.

A consensus position on the centrality of collective bargaining in managing economic restructuring equitably is beginning to emerge. However, declining union density has the potential to weaken collective bargaining. In the context of declining trade union density, John Kelly calls for an alternative collective bargaining practice, one that shifts from the conventional thinking of institutionalised bargaining towards inclusive worker mobilisation that builds capacity to strengthen diverse employee representation.

The mobilisation theory holds that for workers to act collectively they must believe that their current working conditions are unjust, share a similar grievance with fellow workers, agree that the employer is responsible for addressing the grievance and pursue collective agency to address the collective grievance. With the impact of climate crises on water supply, food prices and workers’ purchasing power, workers are more likely to organise and create the needed agency to mobilise collectively, as Kelly suggests. 

The principle of extending collective bargaining agreements to non-unionised workers is beginning to gain traction in industrial relations. The European Union has been able to extend collective agreements to non-unionised workers and informal sector workers. Thorsten Schulten and colleagues identify two approaches to extending collective agreements to non-parties.

The first involves the extension of collective bargaining agreements to non-unionised workers in companies affiliated with the employers association negotiating an agreement, with the aim of preventing companies from discriminating between organised and non-organised workers. The second approach would extend collective bargaining to non-affiliated companies; this is usually done through declarations of general application and amendment to legislation which will apply to all firms. 

The second approach is desirable to address the labour rights of informal and formal atypical workers in the just transition. Workers in non-standard employment are unlikely to benefit from standard collective bargaining, even in its extended form. Françoise Carré and colleagues articulate the barriers to entry for informal workers and highlight the importance of legal frameworks to provide a sense of bargaining power.

The best example of such a legal framework is the promulgation of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) Act after considering proposals from Cosatu and other trade union federations in the National Economic Development and Labour Council. The NMW legislation was particularly important for reducing the poverty levels and vulnerability of farm and domestic workers. The promulgation of the NMW illustrates how inclusive approaches to worker representation and rights advocacy can reduce the exploitation of workers who are not parties to a collective bargaining structure.

This principle should be equally applied in a just transition context, emphasising a transition legal framework which connects labour and environmental laws aimed at creating decent jobs, environmental sustainability and stable industrial relations. A just transition to a low-carbon economy hinges on the ability to develop adequate regulatory measures that address market failures and externalities that accompany economic restructuring processes. 

Collective bargaining has secured decent work and a healthy working environment for employees over the years. The just transition will only be realised through the explicit integration of labour and environmental protection through collective bargaining and social partnerships. The extension of collective bargaining will ensure greater coverage of workers regardless of their type of employment or worker organisation affiliation. However, collective bargaining in a just transition will only ensure the needs of the employer (or capital) and labour; other mechanisms must be explored to ensure a just transition for communities affected by a transition to a low-carbon economy. 

Trade unions must adopt proactive just transition strategies for the future. As Béla Galgóczi observes, this can be achieved through strategies developed by trade unions to drive the just transition agenda. Labour market transitions, social and labour plans and pathway management to decent jobs are essential components of the strategies that trade unions must develop. 

This essay has developed some primary guidelines for managing low-carbon economy structural changes equitably, focusing specifically on inclusive trade union and worker organising and collective bargaining strategies. Historic economic restructuring experiences in South Africa have produced industrial relations conflict, labour market disparities and socioeconomic exclusion. 

We have posited interventions to avoid this path dependency in the emerging low-carbon economy, drawing from literature and surveys on worker experiences. Trade union organising and collective bargaining structures are essential factors in coordinating and managing the transition towards a just low-carbon future.

Both these practices must be inclusive to lessen socioeconomic exclusion and long-standing labour market disparities. This necessitates interventions that emphasise coordination of the labour market with social and environmental policy. Additionally, it is imperative to obtain and study labour market lessons from the existing low-carbon technologies being introduced in South Africa. An active labour market response cannot be developed without learning from worker experience in emerging sectors. DM/OBP

This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.

Absa OBP

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