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Doing the job

Juan Somavia
Director-General, International Labour Organization

The global economic model of the past decades has failed to improve the lives of too many in society and has wreaked havoc on the health of our planet. Continued overuse of natural resources threatens the environment and means production costs will rise, businesses will be disrupted, jobs will be lost and living standards will fall. Indeed, over a million Asian forest workers have already lost their jobs through unsustainable logging practices.

The transition to a greener economy is not just environmentally critical but also makes perfect economic and social sense. It brings improved livelihoods, social inclusion and more and better jobs. But for this to happen, people and their livelihoods must be at the core of policy-making — unlike today.

At the ILO we believe that the Decent Work Agenda offers a coherent policy framework that can integrate the macroeconomic, employment, social and environmental dimensions of this shift. The concept of sustainable enterprises is particularly relevant — aligning enterprise growth and the creation of productive employment and decent work with sustainable development objectives. And so is that of Green Jobs which contribute to reducing the economy’s environmental footprint and are carried out under decent work conditions, including healthier and safer workplaces.

The shift towards a greener economy will affect employment and income distribution. Will it help us tackle the social challenges facing the world in the 21st Century? What will happen to the more than 200 million unemployed, the largest number ever recorded? Will there be opportunities for youth in a greener economy when some 400 million additional jobs are needed over the next decade for young people entering the labour market? What of the more than 940 million working poor — nearly one in every three of the world’s workers? Or the billions suffering persistent social exclusion in terms of access to basic social security, modern energy, decent housing or sanitation?

As with any structural change, the move towards a greener and more sustainable growth model will entail both job creation and losses. Alarmist claims that caring for the environment would cost growth and jobs are misplaced: green measures can have a positive impact on net employment. A recent analysis of 20 studies covering eight countries and the EU shows such policies had a net impact of between a 0.5 to 2 per cent increase in employment. This is clearly not enough to solve the employment problem, but it makes a contribution.

The biggest impact is likely to be neither creation nor destruction, but transformation of many jobs across the economy. The biggest opportunities from greening the economy are in improving existing jobs and incomes. This is true for agriculture, which still employs one in every three workers, but concentrates 70 per cent of the world’s poor. Studies by UNEP and the ILO suggest that investing in sustainable smallholder farming could lift tens of millions out of poverty. Similarly, 10-20 million informal waste pickers could be integrated into formal, modern recycling systems massively improving their incomes and conditions, with great environmental and economic benefits. Women play a key role in managing natural resources and form the majority of the world’s poor: moving towards a greener economy offers an opportunity to promote gender equality.

Neither net gains in employment nor accelerated poverty reduction and social inclusion will happen by default. Environmental concerns alone will not lead us towards a greener and fairer economy. If policies are to be successful and sustainable they will need a strong employment and social component.

We need to focus on fiscal policies and price signals like eco-taxes which penalise resource consumption and pollution and reward employment by shifting the cost burden from labour to energy and resources. Early identification of needed skills and programmes for upgrading them is required to avoid the bottlenecks holding back green growth in many countries and sectors.

Greening the economy opens up an avenue for strengthening awareness and honing skills that promote the safety and health of workers . Greening traditional industries can help address many long-standing occupational safety and health hazards, but growth in green sectors like renewable energies, waste management and recycling may bring new ones. The implications must be carefully considered before deploying new technology and implementing new production processes.

It will be crucial to ensure that enterprises — particularly the small and medium-sized ones that provide most employment and create most new jobs — can make the transition. They need access to information, technology, finance, skills and green markets — often not easy to provide. And targeted programmes will be needed to overcome social exclusion. Access to clean, modern energy for the 1.3 billion people who lack it will not happen automatically. Deliberate policies can enormously boost the quality of life, particularly for women, but energy access will have a big spin-off effect, opening up a whole range of new employment and income generation opportunities.

Identifying as early as possible the industries, enterprises and workers most likely to be affected is key. For example, greening transport will imply a shift to rail and mass transportation, with a tremendous impact on people working in those industries. Governments, unions and employers can work together to develop preventive strategies and make the transition economically and socially sustainable.

Finally, social protection floors have proven to be highly effective during the global economic crisis. They helped to boost household incomes and aggregate demand, giving many countries more room to manoeuvre. They will also be very useful as countries embark on green transitions, for example by protecting redundant workers. Income support schemes can pay poor households for environmental services they provide through protecting forests and marine life — and compensate them for energy price increases resulting from subsidy reforms or pricing of emissions that would otherwise hit them disproportionately hard. While the poor consume much less energy, a much bigger part of their household expenditure is directly linked to its cost.

Many of the changes that will occur in moving towards a fairer and more sustainable future are predictable and manageable. A firm commitment to social dialogue would give governments, social partners and all stakeholders a unique opportunity to ensure this transition benefits people, the economy and the environment. There can be substantial net gains in employment, social inclusion and poverty reduction if economic and environmental measures are complemented with appropriate decent work policies. Rio +20 will be a crucial moment for solidifying this goal backed by firm commitment to action.

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