With COP27 underway in Egypt this week and COP15, the UN conference on biodiversity, coming up in Montreal in December, calls for a “just transition” for workers are getting louder. The mainstream view, though, has focused on the energy industry, with little attention to the broader, highly interdependent ecosystems of workers, businesses and communities to which it is connected. Especially ignored is the “informal” or unprotected workforce, which made up a massive 60 per cent of the working world in 2018 – close to two billion people.

Recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports make clear that the global economy needs to undergo a deep transformation because energy, industry, transportation and food systems will all require a massive overhaul. At the heart of these systems lies an interconnected human workforce that must be embraced in the global project of a just transition.

World leaders have real opportunities at the two conferences to correct course, achieve a just transition and advance true environmental justice. To do so, they must prioritize the health and protection of the informal or invisible workforce in policy and lawmaking.

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The just transition concept isn’t new. It dates back to advocacy from unions, civil society groups and others starting in the 1970s on previous industrial-economic transformations in North America and Europe, including during a time of increased environmental and pollution regulations in the U.S. But until recently, the discourse didn’t address pervasive inequalities embedded in global value chains that cut across rich and poor nations, developed and developing worlds – including conditions of migrants who move from developing to developed countries for work.

The international community has embraced the need for a just transition. It’s been incorporated into the Paris Agreement, elaborated on by the International Labour Organization (ILO) through principles and guidelines, and enacted by a number of states in various ways. But discussion and implementation have ignored the realities of those most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of human-caused climate change: workers and families in the globalized informal economy that lies at the heart of almost all international value chains.

The ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work says climate change is one of the major forces affecting work. Every economic sector relies on energy and will be transformed by the shift from coal, oil and gas. Workers in the informal economy, from rural to urban, are the most physically, economically and socially threatened by climate disasters.

What is the just transition offering the people in this large and expanding informal economy?

One lesson of early multilateral climate governance attempts is that without meaningful participation, already vulnerable populations could be further threatened by responses to climate disruption.

The dominant characteristics of informal work — precarity, insecurity, unpredictability and uncertainty — are increasingly pervading the entire spectrum of work, diminishing decent work opportunities worldwide. The ILO recently reported that modern slavery is on the rise globally, and 90 per cent of forced adult labour is tied to the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, service and domestic work sectors.

An estimated 50 to 75 per cent of workers on U.S. farms are undocumented, so even though they pay taxes on their income, they lack access to health insurance, social security and other benefits. Although the number is thought to be lower on farms in Canada, our country has also had longstanding challenges in advancing equity for migrant farm workers. Globally, nearly 94 per cent of agriculture workers and 57 per cent of industry workers are in the informal economy.

In cities worldwide, the number of undocumented and unprotected workforces is growing as human migration increases, revealing intimate and transparent linkages between “formal” and “informal” workforces.

Can the just transition address this overarching trend of expanding human exploitation and the continued degradation of good work opportunities?

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. Global supply chains value and protect only some workers, making the rest invisible.

Informal workers have long been excluded from national definitions of the “working public” — those deserving of public infrastructure, investment, education, services and other forms of social protection. As climate change, natural resource depletion and sustainable development increasingly shape legal regimes and governmental decision-making, from local to global, political leaders must ensure that environmental governance doesn’t become another force of exclusion for the global working poor.

Exploitation of nature has gone hand-in-hand with exploitation of humans through work relationships. Sixty per cent of the world’s workers now lack social protection and security. They make up an invisible and growing working world at the heart of the global economy that is being left behind by governments in the quest for a just transition.

With the United Nations climate change conference (COP27) in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and the coming UN conference on biodiversity (COP15) in Montreal, it’s time to act.

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Sabaa Khan
Sabaa Khan is the David Suzuki Foundation’s climate program director. She’s an attorney, a member of the Quebec Bar with expertise in international environmental, trade and labour law and agreements. Twitter @sabaaahmadkhan

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