Sharan Burrow heads the International Trade Union Confederation, which advocates for the essential role of labour movements in shaping a just transition to a low-carbon economy. She argues that we can solve both the climate crisis and the social crisis, marked by record levels of inequality and distrust. But that requires new commitment to achieving shared prosperity and abandoning economic patterns that fail people and the planet.
Why is climate a labour issue?
There are no jobs on a dead planet. We need to have a sustainable planet with decent work and shared prosperity that provides workers with hope and security.
The other issue is that if you are going to transition every industry, and we must, in line with achieving net-zero emissions, then we need to make that transition just. That requires unions to be at the table to develop an agreed plan that gives workers a secure future.
Right now, in the middle of profound economic duress and job loss, what do you say to the worker in, say, the coal industry who is justifiably afraid and wants to hang on to the job they have?
We’ve had those conversations. And it’s painful. I have walked the coal fields and talked to miners and their families. It’s a scenario that is very difficult for many to grasp. But we are actually beyond that. Investors are not investing in coal, and workers know that. What workers want is just transition measures that give them certainty.
If you invest in climate action, you create jobs. The real question is: Can we make sure that those jobs are available for workers who have been displaced?
We need to make sure that resistance to moving rapidly to stabilize the planet is reduced. That happens when workers and their families see that communities will have investment, that they will maintain jobs in the community, and that they and their children will be able to see a future in those or other jobs.
What does a just transition look like in practice?
Just transition is a very simple concept. It’s all about security. You need secure pensions. You need a bridge to pensions for older workers to retire early. You need guarantees for income, reskilling and redeployment support for younger workers to find other jobs.
Many past transitions in manufacturing or other sectors of industry have not been just. We’ve seen whole communities decimated with shifting technologies and shifting industry focus.
The ITUC’s priority is to fight for a new social contract. That starts with jobs, jobs and jobs, including climate-friendly jobs. There must be a floor of rights for all workers because we have a broken labour market, where 60 per cent of the world’s workers have no rights, no minimum wages, no rule of law. We need universal social protection, since 73 percent of workers have little to no social protection.
Despite the world being up to seven times richer in gross domestic product in the last 30 years, labour’s share is like a roller coaster going down. The shared prosperity that the world should function on simply doesn’t exist. So we need equality in terms of income as well as gender and race. And we need inclusion, including multilateral reform in line with a just transition model so that we are not creating further inequalities.
How do climate stresses intersect with globalization?
Globalization has failed to share prosperity. Supply chains have been based on dehumanizing exploitation, where low wages, unsafe work, even modern slavery can be found. You’ve seen company flight, capital flight and all the other things that go with that. That’s the social crisis.
But then the other crisis is the fact that we have overused planetary resources, which leads in turn to climate change devastation requiring the shift from coal, for instance. Changing seasons lead to the loss of livelihoods for many workers in agriculture.
These things are actually interrelated with a global model of the economy that has failed. It has failed to protect nature. It’s failed to protect people. It has been based on a mindless and relentless development that has not been regulated. And all too often it has been based on exploitation where working people miss their share of prosperity.
Before COVID-19, historic levels of inequality were generating a despair. We called it an age of anger. You could find it on the streets on every continent. When people feel excluded, then the world’s in danger. You cannot run a business, you can’t build a sustainable model. Unless people can see that their governments are accountable for things that matter to them, we will continue to see a breakdown in trust.
There are some indications that private businesses are starting to see the weaknesses in the current economic model. What is your perspective on that?
There’s a divided business community. A number of major multinational companies understand that the business model has to change. They’ve made commitments to environmental and social issues, including human and labour rights, and mandated protecting their workers.
But they are under enormous pressure. There is in fact a moment of truth. Shareholders might talk about stakeholder futures, not shareholder futures. But they are not prepared to see the share price take any kind of hit. Is the corporate greed that has defined the last three decades of the business model prepared to change? That will be the telling point.
Why does solving the climate crisis depend on achieving gender equality?
Women are everywhere in climate action. It is women in cooperatives in communities who are changing over diesel pumps in salt mining to solar pumps. There are lots of stories in agriculture, in energy, in community services where women are building independent and cooperative ventures.
But we are not seeing that breakthrough for women in traditional corporations. If you take a look at board rooms, or take a look at equal pay, the world in 2021 is appallingly unequal for women. And that will continue unless we are prepared to change our economic model, our attitudes, our sense of commitment to diversity in terms of women, race and the inclusion of young people.
We have to invest in what builds the fabric of our society whether it is social or environmental. If we invest in climate with an appreciation of a holistic ecosystem of climate, business and inclusion, women will benefit. Women are in every image of building recovery and resilience that is about the involvement of everybody.
If you ask me – it is women every time. They will take the risk. They will work for their families. They will build their communities. And that’s what we need.
The stakes are high. Where will we find the answers?
In social dialogue. If you have social parties at the table at all levels, if you have workers, businesses and, of course, where appropriate, civil society, then people will find the solutions. But if we have a dominance of business and the quest for profit that is working against people and planet, then we won’t have shared prosperity.
We have to fix the breakdown in the social model, we have to fix a broken labour market, and we have to fix the climate crisis. Otherwise, we cannot build an inclusive future. It is that simple.