An invisible work force of people in the informal economy should receive the same support as fossil energy workers during a just transition to a green economy, says a lawyer with expertise in international environmental, trade and labour law and agreements.
World leaders have an opportunity “to correct course, achieve a just transition, and advance true environmental justice,” writes Sabaa Khan, climate program director for the David Suzuki Foundation, in a post for Policy Options. But “to do so, they must prioritize the health and protection of the informal or invisible work force in policy and lawmaking.”
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As the climatic and environmental impacts of industries become ever clearer—and while representatives of countries across the world attend summits like COP 27 in Egypt, and the upcoming biodiversity COP 15 in Montreal—advocates are increasingly calling for worker protections during a transition from the most damaging industries. But Khan warns the current mainstream view focuses narrowly on the fossil industry and neglects “the broader, highly interdependent ecosystems of workers, businesses, and communities to which it is connected.”
Especially ignored in this worker ecosystem are the two billion workers (60% of the global working world, according to 2018 data) with informal jobs that lack protections. Overall, nearly 94% of agriculture workers and 57% of industry workers are in the informal economy, Khan says. As well, a recent report by the International Labour Organization found that modern day slavery is on the rise globally, with 90% of forced adult labour occurring in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, service, and domestic work sectors.
Though the concept of a just transition dates back to the 1970s and has been incorporated into major climate negotiations like the 2015 Paris Agreement, the invisible work force has been overlooked in climate policy. Furthermore, the worsening impacts of climate change are diminishing work opportunities, eroding job security, and pushing more and more people into precarious working conditions across the entire spectrum.
“Whether it’s called a just transition, green economy, or green recovery, real justice for informal workers faces barriers from the traditional state vision of these concepts and of labour law,” Khan writes. “Global supply chains value and protect only some workers, making the rest invisible.”
World political leaders therefore need to include protections for invisible workers in developing climate and environmental regulations to “ensure that environmental governance doesn’t become another force of exclusion for the global working poor,” she says. Informal workers should no longer be excluded from national definitions of the “working public” that is considered deserving of public infrastructure, investment, education, services, and other forms of social protection.
As those political leaders meet during the current and upcoming international conferences, Khan concludes, “it’s time to act”.