A “pension bridging program” for workers who retire early, special provisions for employment insurance and wage top-ups, and funding for private health coverage, education, skills-building, and relocation for new employment are among the recommendations from the task force the Canadian government commissioned last year to map out a just transition for workers in the country’s coal industry.
“Widespread support for continued climate change action is at risk of eroding if strong just transition provisions are not embedded in climate change and labour policy,” the report warns.
Canada is committed to phasing out coal-fired power generation by 2030 in the four provinces that still have any reliance on it—Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The just transition task force, co-chaired by Lois Corbett of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress, “recommends federal spending ‘well into the hundreds of millions of dollars’ on a long list of new infrastructure, financial and jobs programs, employment training, and other solutions,” National Observer reports.
The 41-page report calls for “a jobs program to provide affected workers with employment insurance benefits of up to 75% of income for two years, and wage top-ups of up to 90% of previously-earned income for up to two years for workers that get lower-wage jobs,” writes Ottawa correspondent Carl Meyer.
The task force concludes that the phaseout will have serious impacts on about 4,000 workers and the nearly 50 communities that depend on them. “A significant portion of the work force is over the age of 50, the task force found, with many in the second or third generation in their family to work in the industry,” Observer notes. “Older workers feel vulnerable in the job market,” and “previous industry closures that led to sudden or unexpected job losses have left emotional scars.”
Many workers are also “frustrated that the coal sector is not only being phased out but also disparaged as ‘dirty’,” the report states. And “coal workers and community members have many questions about when, if, and how the coal transition will affect them personally as well as professionally. Furthermore, many expressed sincere doubt about the ability of government to support them through a transition, and mistrust of government’s intentions and capabilities.”
The task force adds that “a lack of confidence, given past transition failures, is driving anxiety and fears that the government will not deliver on just transition.”
The report urges the federal government to treat the C$35 million earmarked for just transition in its 2018 budget as “the beginning of a longer plan”. Task force members deliberately avoided attaching a specific dollar figure to the transition process, after finding that “every community was facing unique challenges and would have to develop customized strategies,” Observer writes. But they say the costs will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and extend beyond Ottawa’s 2030 coal phaseout deadline.
“While there are opportunities to re-prioritize, reallocate, and dedicate some existing funding, including for infrastructure, achieving a just transition will require additional and more substantial investments in Budget 2019 and budgets thereafter,” the report concludes.
But “if the government is strategic with these existing funds and commits to new support extended over the several years of transition planning, affected workers will see new economic opportunities in their communities that can employ and sustain them, their families, and their neighbours for years to come,” Corbett said.
A key recommendation envisions the federal government working with provinces, municipalities, regional organizations, employers, and unions to set up locally-run job transition centres before job losses take effect, and keep them open for at least two years past the phaseout date. The centres would act as “a hub where information on re-employment and skills training can be shared, connections can be made, and education and financial services offered,” Observer states.
“One of the central concerns heard by the task force was that workers are unable to plan for their futures due to a lack of details about potential support from the government,” Meyer writes. “Timely and accurate information helps reduce anxiety, they said, and gives workers confidence when they make decisions affecting their families.”
The task force “also recommended including provisions related to the coal phaseout in federal-provincial agreements, such as equivalency deals under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, as well as bilateral labour and infrastructure agreements,” he adds.
Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac) and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) both expressed strong support for the report.
“Canadians know what it looks like when governments get transitions in employment sectors wrong and fail to plan for the potential impacts to workers and communities,” said CAN-Rac Executive Director Catherine Abreu. But the task force’s “powerful recommendations” will “ensure Canada gets the transition away from polluting coal right” if they’re implemented.
“As health professionals, we understand that unemployment and poverty can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health of people” said CAPE President Dr. Courtney Howard. So “it is essential that an accelerated coal phaseout is paired with a just transition plan that safeguards the health of workers, their families, and their communities.” CAPE called for transition funding in this month’s federal budget to “ensure that fossil fuel workers and their communities are supported”.