#13_Climate crisis and labour standards: How better work works for survival…

Apart from the Covid19 pandemic, the climate crisis is the single most important issue these days receiving public attention almost anywhere on the planet. Protests against how the climate crisis has been handled so far are many, and obviously, the protesters are not just going away; especially, not in a pandemic sharing so many characteristics with the climate crisis. Seen from a labour standards perspective, this similarity also holds with respect to the conditions of work and employment. Like a sound response to the pandemic, the transition to a healthy and sustainable economy requires profound changes in welfare policies, the organization of work as well as the work life of individuals.

For those acquainted with the thoughts of Karl Polanyi, the striking parallels between the situation around fighting labour standard violations and the one around combating the climate crisis come as no big surprise. Both issues group around the “fictitious commodities”, labour and land (nature), both of which are subordinated to economizing in ongoing capitalist expansion (Polanyi, 2001). Current business models in many sectors stand for the accompanying work-related and environmental difficulties brought about by a societally disembedded economy of a global stretch (a striking example: the globalized fast food industry, Royle, 2010).

Similar to the violation of labour standards, there is a widespread consensus on the fact that there is a massive problem with climate change: Nearly all observers agree that the challenge of climate change is real (e.g. Archer & Rahmstorf, 2010) and that the policy problem has become “super-wicked” (Levin et al., 2012). The academic experts almost unequivocally converge on rather dramatic calls for collective action to prevent catastrophic developments from happening. Especially, if we cross ecological systems’ tipping points of no return, coming along, very likely, with catastrophes beyond what has already been experienced in recent years around the globe, i.e. extreme weather conditions of all sorts including droughts, wildfires, flooding, melting ice caps, heat waves and storms.

And similar to the debate on labour standard violations, again, there the agreement ends, although greenhouse emissions continue to rise on a global scale, still. Hence, accusations about green-washing of what is essentially a continuation of business-as-usual are entirely understandable (Wright & Nyberg, 2015). Especially because in the debate about necessary changes towards a sustainable economy, any single measure suggested to combat the climate crisis seems to trigger a lot of controversy and conflict among a diverse set of groups, usually ending in a blocking of taking serious steps forward to reduce greenhouse emissions immediately.

Roughly, the discourse appears to be dominated by two camps (e.g. Neckel, 2017): On the one hand, there is the camp of those who favour implicitly or explicitly resilience, because as climate change becomes more and more inevitable each day, the only viable option remaining is to adapt societies, for better or worse, to the new conditions, for example by “greening capitalism” (Neckel, 2017). On the other hand, the climate activists in the camp of “post capitalism” (Neckel, 2017) argue in favour of immediate action of a more fundamental kind, i.e. taking whatever measure is needed to stop climate change from happening, even if this would include measures which are economically painful for many groups as consumption levels, especially in the “developed” countries, need to go down (Alfredsson et al., 2018). Meanwhile, a third camp of deniers has gained considerable political ground (“fossil fuels forever”, Levy & Spicer, 2013) by exploiting the divide between those who want to act now – to avoid the worst case scenarios from becoming reality in a short time period –, and those who want to prepare for responding as good as possible to the catastrophes taking place later. The discursive twists towards denial, however, are a reminder on the fact that the pains could even be more dramatic; just naming a few: from wars about remaining water resources to mass displacements due to unlivable world regions and political authoritarianism. Without any dramatization, it is fair to say that not finding reasonable compromises on due time may also put into jeopardy the full range of humanist achievements.

But how is sustainable work and employment connected to the transformative processes around climate change? As articulated in policy considerations of international organizations (ILO – International Labour Office, 2018) and union initiatives (e.g. ITUC “just transition” ; ETUC “no jobs on a dead planet”, Labor network for sustainability), this connection is strong, because sustainable work is key in meeting the challenges of the climate crisis satisfactorily. Why? From an analytic bird’s eye view, the answer seems to be clear: Findings have been reported for OECD countries according to which a reduction in economies’ carbon footprints can be achieved by reducing working hours on average (Knight et al., 2013). Similarly, in a study comparing the single states in the USA it has been calculated how working time is related to carbon dioxide emissions. The study’s conclusions are that a working time reduction could be beneficial in terms of the quality of working life, lower unemployment, and the reduction of greenhouse emissions (Fitzgerald et al., 2018). Using a similar approach comparing the single US states, it has also been shown that in states with higher income inequality greenhouse emissions are higher, lending additional support to the case for the possibility to achieve social and environmental justice at the same time by making work more sustainable (Jorgenson et al., 2017).

Nevertheless, connecting a lifting up of labour standards with climate protection is not a task easily accomplished in practice. One of the reasons for the difficulty is that the debates about the labour dimension of sustainability activate and revitalize traditional political cleavages, sometimes even intensify these; and climate change – by the way, not that different from the current debate on the merits and pitfalls of remote office work – is no exception. As for labour standards, the old debate around “jobs vs. the environment” can be taken as an example. For some skeptics, there is just a trade-off between work and climate policy in which workers, especially those in industries such as coal mining, or energy production, just stand to lose, because the climate transition causes unemployment. Also, even if, on average, better jobs are created in some of the new sustainable industries, and the job losses in traditional businesses can be offset by environmentally sustainable ones (see Consoli et al., 2016, Blazejcak et al., 2014, for example), these changes can be expected to come with job and income losses for some groups of workers. As such changes meet with an already bifurcated and polarized labour market (e.g. Autor & Dorn, 2013; Kalleberg, 2013), it may well be expected that combating climate change even deepens these inequalities in the labour market further. Hence, no big wonder that for example unions are divided over the issue of how to struggle best against climate change (e.g. Stevis & Felli, 2015).

Others see the win-win situations of the business case. In such a view, initiatives for more sustainable work are taken just because of their advantages for all sides, businesses, workers, and the climate. In brief, sustainable work has a business case because there are benefits from avoiding the indirect costs of low working and employment conditions (e.g. Meuris & Leana, 2015; Rubery et al., 2016, see also ) while internalizing societal demands for more sustainability, at the same time (e.g. Dyllick & Muff, 2016). Examples are the avoidance of costly safety failures in work organization, operations, and performance, or the reduction in work-related health costs (Camuffo et al., 2017); of course, also potential emission savings through remote work count (e.g. Greenpeace 2020).

On these grounds, human resource management specialists have begun to think about how to redefine various management practices from recruitment, pay, and job design, to training, careers, and participation for creating a sustainable workforce management (e.g. Aust et al., 2019; Kossek et al., 2014; Kramar, 2014; De Stefano et al., 2018; Pfeffer, 2010; Wilkinson et al., 2001). In these accounts, a sustainable management is thought of as being a holistic approach to workforce management which aims to preserve and develop workers’ capacities for the long-term performance of organizations and takes responsibility for its socio-ecological impacts. Among others, potential initiatives may include stress-reduced work organization and health protection, working time reduction, work-life-balance, equal opportunities and diversity, responsible restructuring, and, of course, the dissemination, implementation and enforcement of global labour standards.

However, the realization of such a positive scenario for all workers, and not just a happy few (e.g. for worklife-flexibility see Kossek & Lautsch, 2017), also depends on making a deeper connection to societal concerns by social dialogue with internal and external stakeholders as well as on a proper regulation and enforcement of labour standards. Using Sengenberger’s typology of protection, participation and promotion, a couple of potential positive feedback mechanisms between lifting up labour standards and meeting the challenges of the climate crisis can be identified. As far as protection through health & safety standards is concerned large environmental disasters often come along with work accidents and vice versa, especially where precarious and contingent forms of work are practiced (already Kochan et al., 1994; Underhill & Quinlan, 2011). And as we learn from the Covid lesson this holds for other standards in the fissured workplace as well. Also, the indirect environmental costs of unprotected work are huge, especially in terms of environmentally unsustainable use of resources and pollution in poor countries. A proper labour inspection can push firms into upholding standards reducing such risks. Similarly, participation through workers’ voice, co-determination and collective bargaining might be important to shift corporate strategizing towards sustainability (Vitols, 2011), for example, by redistributing working time and reducing work intensity through collective agreements. And in terms of promoting workers, initiatives for work-life-balance and worklife-flexibility would assist in moving forward to a more sustainable balance between production and consumption.

If it is true that responses to the climate crisis cannot be successful if there is no change in what and how we work, it is high time to consider how work is to be organized in the future and who should have a say in how work is made more sustainable, economically, socially, and ecologically (e.g. Elkington, 1999). Obviously, a transition towards a more sustainable world of work does not just fall from the sky but must be negotiated in and between organizations responsible for managing the conflicts around single initiatives. In this process, new camps might form in which traditional conflict lines resolve or are given a new direction. In any case, policy initiatives to combat climate change need a serious engagement with the labour dimension as well as with the obvious conflicts and struggles around upholding labour standards and workers’ rights. Like with the enforcement of labour standards more generally, also in the case of lifting labour standards to support the struggle against the climate crisis, network-specific multi-stakeholder dialogue, collective worker voice and the enforcement of individual rights and entitlements need to support public labour inspection in realigning responsibility and protections for promoting sustainable work; regardless whether work is performed in a worksite, on a platform, from abroad or on remote. This way better standards of work also work for survival.

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