Workers in the informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS)—such as collectors, traders and waste pickers—help recycle almost 60 percent of the world’s plastic waste and, in some countries, provide the only form of municipal solid waste collection. This service financially supports millions of workers who are already facing social marginalization, poverty, appalling working conditions and minimal local government support. The rights of these workers, who contribute significantly to their communities and the environment, must be protected under the proposed new global plastics treaty, say worker rights advocates—including just transition policies that enable IWRS workers to upskill or shift to alternative livelihoods.
Policymakers, civil society and industry representatives met in Uruguay last week for the first of five meetings through 2024 to prepare a treaty that aims to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040—stopping the conveyor belt of what the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says is a garbage truck of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every minute.
Elements under discussion included global, collaborative measures to reduce hazardous chemicals in plastics production, transitioning to plastics that are more easily recyclable, reducing the supply of plastics by capping plastics production—thus making recycling more economically viable—and fairly addressing the fate of waste pickers and others informal workers associated with the waste and recovery sector.
“Climate and labor justice requires that all workers impacted by climate change mitigation measures have a meaningful say in the process to ensure that a greener economy is also one that protects worker rights and advances decent work,” says Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry, who helped review a UN-Habitat global plastics treaty report, “Leaving No One Behind.” Other report reviewers included Solidarity Center allies Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and WIEGO network partner International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAW), which represents thousands of waste picker organizations in more than 28 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Recognition and inclusion of IWRS voices in the development of solutions to end plastics pollution are key to ensuring that such solutions align with UN Sustainable Development Goal 8 promoting labor rights, safe and secure working environments, productive employment, decent work and equal pay for work of equal value, concluded the report.
“Fairness demands that the needs of all workers and their communities be at the center of climate-responsive policies and practices, including those negotiated through a global treaty to reduce plastics pollution,” says Mistry.
Climate justice grassroots organizations and their advocates globally are demanding together that nations, governments and companies enriched by practices leading to climate degradation do not shift the costs of climate change mitigation policies to the most vulnerable, most of whom live in countries subjected to the worst forms of historical and contemporary racial and ethnic subordination.
In a global context where most working people and their communities are being denied a say in their future according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K) is effectively engaging government and policy makers to represent the needs of working people in the development of climate change solutions.
“[N]early nine out of ten countries are… not using social dialogue,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow about climate plans submitted by governments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), social dialogue structures and processes are tools for promoting consensus building and democratic involvement among the main stakeholders in the world of work—representatives of governments, employers and workers—on issues of common interest.
In Kenya, the climate crisis is prompting more frequent and prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, intermittent flooding, water scarcity and increased incidence of climate change-related diseases—which threaten people’s jobs and livelihoods in all sectors, especially agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and tourism. Unions, says COTU-K, must take their place at the table to advance worker-centered climate solutions toward a sustainable and thriving future.
COTU-K, a Solidarity Center partner, has successfully represented the interests of Kenya’s most vulnerable citizens in multiple fora and processes, contributing to the country’s Climate Change Response Strategy, the National Climate Change Action Plan, Climate Change Act and, most recently, in the 2020 process of updating Kenya’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement to include just transition elements. COTU-K is also a member of Kenya’s National Climate Change Council—a body chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta that advises government on the development of climate change policies and legislation.
COTU-K’s just transition program is rooted in its vision of climate justice, which advocates for a low-carbon development path and actions to address climate change while simultaneously prioritizing the creation of good jobs and ensuring social justice, rights and social protection for all.
“Climate justice [will ensure] that the environmental and social costs of unsustainable production and consumption are met by the economic agents responsible for them,” and prevent the burdens of changes benefiting everyone being placed disproportionately on a few or the most vulnerable, says COTU-K.
The development of climate-related programs and policies requires active and informed public participation, says COTU-K. To this end, COTU-K is pursuing climate-justice coalitions with like-minded organizations, supporting climate and labor justice at both national and county levels of government, and providing worker-to-worker and union-to-union exchanges on effective climate justice strategies.
Marking this year’s April 22 Earth Day, the Solidarity Center is launching a new, partner-informed, inclusive strategic plan to support workers and their unions around the world to address impacts and drive solutions for an accelerating climate crisis.
“The Solidarity Center recognizes that workers and their communities—especially in the global south—are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. We are committed to directing resources and attention toward people-centered climate policy and legislative advocacy by our partners and allies in their respective countries,” says Shawna-Bader Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
The Solidarity Center’s strategic plan—centered on ensuring decent work and a strong labor movement in the future—endorses the following program and advocacy approaches:
Developing worker-driven climate solutions and playing a significant role in their implementation to protect hard-fought gains and advance worker rights in changing industries
Using collective bargaining to advance cleaner, safer and more sustainable operations across sectors; and ensuring an inclusive process that prioritizes the needs of workers and their communities in transitioning sectors
Building broader coalitions, securing the mutual commitment of climate, human rights and community organizations in the fight to win decent, unionized green jobs; building healthy, resilient and sustainable communities; and supporting worker rights
Effectively participating in national, regional and global climate justice negotiationsand holding policymakers and employers accountable for achieving a just transition to a cleaner economy that enables workers to enjoy their fundamental freedoms and rights; and
Advancing an enabling legal environmentto achieve a just transition, recognizing the critical link between labor rights and environmental justice.
“On Earth Day, the Solidarity Center stands with our partners as they drive the vision for a fair or just transition to a cleaner, more inclusive, and more equitable economy,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition.
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