Kitty Jong (FNV Netherlands) interview

The Dutch trade union centre FNV is a leading voice in the push for a greener Netherlands. It recently published an advisory report entitled Energy transition and employment: Opportunities for a sustainable future. We hear from Kitty Jong, Vice President of FNV, on worker-lead solutions to a greener tomorrow.

The Dutch trade unions together with the employers, independent experts and a representative from the environmental organisations have agreed on a very interesting advisory statement of the Socio-Economic Council (SER) on the employment impact of the energy transition. Can you tell us what are the main messages of the social partners on this issue?

The Netherlands are again facing shortages on the labour market, especially in technical professions. In order to realise the climate ambitions the current administration has towards 2030, sufficient numbers of adequately trained professionals are required to be able to do all the future work

Recent studies have shown that a shortage of properly trained professionals, especially in construction and installation, could become the stumbling block in the energy transition that we also deem necessary and essential. We can only make a success of it if we anticipate, and if we do so in timely fashion. It is paramount that we are able to offer future professionals, our youth, jobs that have sufficient security, quality and perspective in upcoming sectors like wind and offshore. Investing in people and involving employees in the energy transition is one of the most important conditions to make the transition successfully.

We are now also facing the first impending wave of job losses in fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas. This administration has decided to bring forward the shutdown of the Dutch coal plants as well as gas production in the north of the country (Groningen) due to the consequences of the earthquakes in the area.

The socio-economic council concludes (council advice, April 2018) that the puzzle is complicated: on the one hand filling the growing number of job vacancies while on the other compensating for loss of employment. The mismatch between labour demand and supply requires a sensible approach, paying attention to all aspects, short and long term, both in sectors and regionally. Recruitment, job quality and future-orientated education have to be tackled together and consistently.

Secondly, we require a goal-orientated approach including the means to execute, rather than just offering our advice. Unions and employers together call on this administration to take true responsibility for the consequences faced by people losing their jobs, starting with the ‘coal chain’. We demand a Coal fund (transition fund).

Finally, we have managed to include a commitment to the preamble of the Paris climate agreement and to the ambition of ‘Just Transition and Decent Work’.

Reading the statement and the seven very concrete proposals for the integration of labour issues into the climate and energy policies, you actually have a manual to realise the unions’ demands for a just transition and decent jobs. You have proposals for the functioning of the labour market, capacity building and skills, education, inclusion, industrial relations, labour conditions, social protection, unemployment measures, etc. For many trade unionists it is probably remarkable that you could agree with the employers and the environmentalists in such detail on our demands. How do you explain this? What is the secret?

The Netherlands has a long-standing tradition of social dialogue in the Socio-economic Council on sustainability, energy and climate issues. In this Council, employers, employees, indepent experts, researchers and environmental organisations cooperate in counselling the government. We work together in the Energy agreement and the Resource agreement (Circular economy). The unions confer with environmental organisations and sometimes with ‘green’ employers. We are the experts when it comes to labour and income, they for climate and energy issues. We campaign jointly during international climate negotiations. All parties involved feel the urgency when it comes to the interests of citizens and workers, as without them it will be impossible to reach a satisfactory climate policy. Employers are also increasingly aware that for humanity a healthy future and a liveable planet require counteracting climate change and more sustainable production and consumption.

We have found that we share supporters and members: many union members also have a membership with for instance Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) or Greenpeace, and a number of volunteers and employees within environmental organisations are union members as well. This has led to greater mutual understanding and to a stronger social movement. We do not always see eye to eye, but we keep an open dialogue. We have, for instance, invited both Greenpeace and Milieudefensie to union talks about the ‘coal campaign’ to discuss union actions to enforce a social approach to the shutdown of the coal plants.

It was much harder to discuss the means necessary and the form these means should take (for us, a coal/transition fund) with the employers’ associations. The importance of having an inclusive labour market, adequate labour market and education policies, and agreeing to the ILO (Just Transition and Decent work) were mutually felt, though.

The road to this advisory statement has been rocky, and it took a lot from all parties involved to find a common language that still covers what each party’s constituency feels is required. To keep the pressure on, action was sometimes necessary, as befitting the Dutch tradition of social dialogue. It does not guarantee success, but has in this case led to a unanimous advice.

Can you indicate how these proposals will be translated into policy by the Dutch government? Will it have concrete impact on the company floor? Which sectors and companies will be in the frontline of these policies and how? What will be the next steps?

For the labour market and employment, the Socio-economic Council’s advisory statement is our mainstay in the talks that are ongoing in the Netherlands about a possible new climate agreement and the Dutch contribution to INDC. The minister has committed to the advisory statement and we will hold him to it. Our aim: a healthy plan for the labour market and deals on an honest distribution of the costs and benefits of the energy transition. If we feel our demands are not met fully and satisfactorily, that will be a deal breaker, and we will not co-sign a new climate agreement.

Employment and job loss due to the Dutch cabinet climate plans will hit the approximately 100 companies using most fossil fuels almost as hard as it will the fossil fuel sectors (coal, oil and gas). Electricity, renewable energy and construction will have the greatest increase in labour demand. Parts of the manufacturing industry, the chemical industry, food and agriculture and mobility will face changes and shifts. It is still very difficult to predict the precise consequences for employment and changes to professions, job descriptions and qualifications, at the regional level especially.

We often see that many in the union movement are convinced of the urgency of good and social climate policies, but in our day-to-day struggle it sometimes falls off our list of immediate priorities. How broad is the support with union members for these kind of just transition policies?

This is an issue within the FNV as well. In our congress resolution 2017 we have committed to paying more attention to climate and energy policies and to do this together with strategic partners. We are working on that now. The environment and employment are two sides of the same coin: there are no jobs on a dead planet. We subscribe to the Paris agreement; the energy transition is necessary, but will have to be brought about in a fair way. We have an active intersectoral group of union activists with a 400-strong network of interested union members who keep the issue on the union agenda. On 27 June 2018 we will organise a working conference to update our FNV vision and to receive new input from our sectors and departments. For the Socio-economic Council’s advisory statement and for the talks about a new climate agreement we work with an internal advisory group of union officials and leaders In a number of sectors climate change and the energy transition are becoming more visible and we are facing the first consequences. This has increased the urgency to deal with the issues on sectoral level.

Is it enough? It certainly is not. In order to be able to significantly influence policy and decision making, and to enforce attention to employees’ interests in the sectors afflicted, we need more. We will only succeed if our members in the sectors support us and agree on the urgency. We also have to connect climate and energy issues to the union battle against unfair market forces, the breakdown of social rights, stopping the race to the bottom and to our members’ interests, like future employment, professionalism, health and safety and income.

In the international climate negotiations the idea of a Just Transition is getting traction; more and more negotiators start to understand that proper social measures and a fair sharing of the costs and benefits are in fact crucial to attain the necessary ambition of climate and energy policies. Taking care of the workers, their families and their communities is not an extra box to tick but a hard condition for all climate and energy policies to be effective. Do you think the Dutch government is open to and supportive of this idea?

The current administration lacks a true feeling of urgency in realising the social agenda and safeguarding the position of employees in the energy transition, despite our efforts. We are deeply worried that the costs of the energy transition will not land on the doorstep of the big polluters, but on that of low-income citizens, those least able to invest in and profit from energy-conserving measures and renewable and clean energy. It is hard to say at this point what we can expect from this administration concerning the social agenda. The government set high targets on Co2 reduction,, but the means offered are limited and mainly directed at finding the cheapest possible reduction. . The importance of public support in order to make a success of the energy transition is widely acknowledged, but a clear policy to find that support has not been formulated yet.

Finally, based on this strong statement by the Dutch social partners, can we hope for active support of the Dutch government for our Just Transition demands in the national and international climate and energy policy debate?

We certainly hope so! But we won’t get it for free. The Dutch government only wants to have a high-ambition-profile regarding setting climate goals But it is up to us and our allies to make sure they put their money where their mouths are, and take care of the issues at hand in a social and responsible manner.

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