The role of trade unions in Just Transition

On October 24, BIS-MIS, the international trade union solidarity organisation of the General Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Belgium (ACLVB/CGSLB), invited the leaders of six African trade unions, along with other partners from other development NGOs of the Belgian labor movement, to a seminar entitled ‘Just Transitions - the Role of Trade Unions’

by Joris Verscheuren, BIS-MIS/ACLVB-CGSLB

The seminar aimed at exploring the levers for unions to influence their countries’ climate policies and commitments in order to ensure that the ecological transition includes a Just Transition that promotes decent work, creates quality jobs and leads, through social dialogue, to an economic system that is socially and humanely sustainable.

Olivier Valentin, President of BIS-MSI and National Secretary of the ACLVB/CGSLB, recalled in the opening of the seminar that it is no coincidence that the global trade union movement is supporting movements around the world that are putting climate emergency on the political agenda. Unions are aware that workplaces and work itself must change in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero and increase our resilience to extreme weather.

The global picture

The unions have adopted the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C and they subscribe the goal of reaching zero net emissions by 2050. For the trade unions, it is important to stress that even though transition agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, are concluded at the international level, carrying them out will directly impact workers’ experiences and will require national, sectoral and company-level agreements and commitments.

Bert De Wel, of the International Trade Union Confederation, stressed the urgency of carrying out climate policies to prevent an average global warming of 4 ° C, which would trigger irreparable human, social and economic damage. Following the introduction, De Wel outlined the content of the Paris Agreement, its implementation and the resulting responsibilities for governments.

By 2020, following the COP 25in December 2019, governments will have to submit more ambitious National Determined Contributions. Some countries have already committed, through the 2018 Silesia Declaration, to include the social partners in the process in order to plan for a Just Transition.

De Wel said that a Just Transition is achieved through social dialogue and in consultation with civil society. He also stressed that a Just Transition aims at social protection for all, decent jobs and zero greenhouse emission. Unfortunately, he recalled, the world is currently far from achieving the ambitions of the transition.

Moustapha Kamal Gueye, coordinator of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Green Jobs Initiative. He spoke about challenges and options for the world of work. He started from the impact of climate change on different sectors and forms of employment, and emphasised the importance of training, social protection and the need for massive investment.

In response to these challenges, the ILO launched the Climate Action for Jobs Initiative at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. This initiative seeks to translate the principles of a Just Transition to the national level and invites countries to formulate national plans for a just transition. The initiative is an opportunity to achieve a Just Transition with guaranteed union participation, through social dialogue.

Just Transition in Belgium

Cedric van de Walle, from Belgium’s Federal Institute for Sustainable Development, talked about the possibilities of consultation of the civil society and of the inclusion of social partners in the organs of consultation and decision in Belgium. He explained that, in addition to various mandatory advisory councils that are regularly heard to define sustainable development plans and commitments on energy and climate, governments have the opportunity to hold informal consultations with stakeholders or experts with the aim of refining them and ensuring their quality, as well as broadening the democratic nature of environmental policies.

After the seminar, participants had the opportunity to have a field visit to one of the largest distribution centers in Belgium complemented the seminar. The center is very advanced in terms of sustainability and the workplace delegates explained to the participants how, through social dialogue, they manage to make workers feel good about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Take away for African unions

The African delegates came from the Union Nationale des Travailleurs du Congo (UNTC), Confédération des Syndicats du Burundi (COSYBU), Confédération Syndicale Burkinabé (CSB), Confédération Nationale des Travailleurs du Sénégal (CNTS), Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU). They renewed their commitment to adapt the ITUC’s approach to a Just Transition to their respective national contexts and realities.

SACCAWU’s Angie Phetlhe also committed to defend the interests of current and future workers, by working for a Just Transition and in ensuring that there will be jobs in the future, notwithstanding digitalisation.