This post has been contributed by Dr Ewan McGaughey, Module Convenor in Labour law in global context.
The covid-19 crisis has led to mass unemployment, worst in countries with the weakest job security laws. A pandemic and mass unemployment are bad enough, but a third crisis is climate damage. Coal, oil and gas are burning the atmosphere, causing mass flooding from Britain to Pakistan, hurricanes in America, and fires from Australia, to the Amazon to the Arctic. Coal, oil and gas companies have proven reserves of over 2,795 billion tonnes worth of carbon, and even burning 500 of these would heat the planet over 2˚C, and burning it all will raise temperatures over 6˚C. The effects on life will be catastrophic: it will mean mass crop failure, mass forced migration, mass death. The reality is, coal, oil and gas must stop as fast as technologically possible.
As we come out of the covid-19 lockdown, what would a green recovery look like, and how would it affect labour law? Replacing coal, oil and gas with renewable energy means four main things:
- (1) ensuring all energy generation is from wind and solar sources, backed by batteries
- (2) converting all transport (trains, buses, taxis, delivery vehicles and cars) to electric or hydrogen fuel, and increasing public transport
- (3) making all buildings consume less energy with insulation or solar panels
- (4) changing agriculture subsidies policy to reduce machinery, chemical use, ensure that soil retains carbon, and restoring forests
For labour this means changing how we work and new work.
Clean energy and shutting fossil fuels
In the first case, wind, solar and battery generation means fossil fuel workers are redundant, and so it is essential that there is a ‘just transition’. For instance, in the UK there were around 67,000 workers in 2017 employed in coal, oil and gas extraction and support. These jobs are often well paid, unionised jobs, and so the industry is connected with more employment, for instance in providing food and housing in towns where people are based, services to the industry, and supply chains of raw material. Of course, a replacement energy industry will create a cleaner network of employment and supply chains. There are many meanings given to a ‘just transition’, but an emerging consensus is that it must guarantee three things to people whose jobs are redundant: (1) full employment, (2) the same income in a new job, and (3) all necessary training. The transition also must be collectively agreed with workplace trade unions.
Transport, buildings, agriculture
In the second, third and fourth cases (of transport, buildings and agriculture) there are huge possibilities for new employment, and fewer if any problems with redundancy. Auto-manufacturers retool their factories to stop oil and gas vehicles, and go fully electric instead. Buildings use different materials (wood is better than concrete) and more insulation. Agricultural management becomes less machinery and chemically intensive, and there is a new type of work in planting trees and restoring ecological areas.
All of these tasks can be a part of a fresh commitment by government to full employment. As we read in the labour law module the policy of full employment worked for around 30 years from 1944 to 1979. This has consequences for labour’s bargaining power: full employment is likely to raise real wages, and therefore the total prosperity of society.
A result of the covid-19 lockdown is that many people have had to work from home. Many people have struggled with social isolation, harming mental health, and domestic killings have doubled, an absolute tragedy. For other people there have however been the benefits of saving travel time to work, and fewer working hours as there is simply less to do. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen dramatically (but nowhere near enough). The flying, trucking, commuting, rushing around is bad for the environment, and also for our health. A real possibility in a green recovery is that we can start to work smarter, and less.
We know that when people have more leisure time, they are not only happier, they are more productive and consume less. This has a profound impact on reducing carbon emissions, because when people have more leisure time they engage in lower carbon intensity activities: less impulse buying, retail therapy, or meal deliveries, and more exercise, caring for the home and garden, or socialising with friends and family. The social benefits of working less have long been recognised in international labour law. The European Social Charter 1961 section 2(1) says that signatories (like the UK) commit for ‘the working week to be progressively reduced to the extent that the increase of productivity and other relevant factors permit’ (see ch 4 of the course guide; chapter 7 of the Casebook). The progressive increase in weekends, holidays, and reducing working hours can all help to stop climate damage.