Why a Green Upheaval is Set to Leave Workers Behind

Copied from the Imagine Newsletter 31 January 2024

Tata Steel, the largest private-sector employer in deprived south Wales town Port Talbot, will cut 2,800 jobs by closing its last two coal-powered blast furnaces. Instead, the steelworks will invest in an electric arc furnace that can run on renewable power but at the cost of fewer workers, the company says.

Steel is one of six “foundation industries” said to be essential for an emerging green economy capable of churning out wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy-efficient homes. A lot of work is needed to decarbonise society – so why aren’t workers themselves benefiting?

You’re reading the Imagine newsletter – a weekly synthesis of academic insight on solutions to climate change, brought to you by The Conversation. I’m Jack Marley, energy and environment editor. This week we’re asking why a green upheaval is set to leave workers behind.

Chris McLachlan (Queen Mary University of London) has researched what happened to steelworkers in the UK, Sweden and Australia after they were made redundant. He says that a place on the scrapheap is not inevitable and that mass layoffs need not follow a switch to cleaner means of steelmaking.

A fair deal for steel?

“Planning for such transitions is not new to the industry,” McLachlan says. Unionised Dutch workers in Tata Steel Europe negotiated job guarantees and tailor-made employability plans that cushion the course away from coal-fired operations.

While melting scrap metal in an electric arc furnace is less labour-intensive, McLachlan argues more jobs are needed in making the end products of greener steel.

“Scrap steel can create blooms, billets and rods for use in construction and the production of industrial equipment,” he says. “Other possibilities lie in learning new digital skills to help with robot-assisted production in the steel sector.”

None of this is guaranteed without industrial planning, he says. The state must intervene with funding and a strategy to match the skills of redundant workers to new roles. Sometimes, retraining is necessary.

Without this guidance and support, the closure of a large steel plant in Redcar, north-east England, saw those earning £30,000 a year drop from 80% to 35%.

The idea of planning for the future of workers in shuttered high-carbon industries is known as a just transition, and it has a long history in the trade union movement. In McLachlan’s words, it involves a common effort between the government, trade unions, workers and the local community to ensure the latter two are no worse off within the transition to a greener economy.

For so many workers left at the mercy of global markets though, the reality is very different. And even where demand for supposedly green technologies is creating new jobs, the people doing that work may be subject to harrowing exploitation.

Neocolonial exploitation

A rash of cobalt mines has erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One site, Kamilombe in the south-east of the central African country, employs 11,000 people to risk their lives hundreds of metres beneath the earth in pursuit of a metal that’s almost certainly powering your smartphone.

Creuseurs, as these workers are known, are also the unsung heroes of the battle to bury the combustion engine. The cobalt they mine is ubiquitous in batteries. Batteries can propel things without using fossil fuels – or store electricity generated by the sun and wind so that there’s enough to go around during a lull.

“The creuseurs that I met on site at Kamilombe, and the stories they shared, haunted me,” says the University of Bath’s Roy Maconachie.

As a professor of natural resources and development, Maconachie journeyed to Kamilombe to see if organising into cooperatives had given workers in the cobalt mines a collective voice that could wrest better pay and conditions from wealthy owners.

Instead, Maconachie lamented, “the severe environmental damage and social harm caused by the rapidly growing extraction of cobalt, and the unequal terms of trade [had] cut them off completely from the wealth being generated”.

“Even with our much greater awareness of global supply chains and volumes written about fair trade and sustainability, neocolonial exploitation is as much a part of the fabric of mineral extraction in the DRC as it ever was,” he says.

Same as the old boss

Can we address the climate crisis without changing the economy that generated it in the first place? Let’s look at another sector: food and agriculture.

“Transforming the world’s food system through large-scale reduction in meat production is essential if we are to preserve the planet’s natural ecosystems,” says Benjamin Selwyn, who researches inequality and global value chains.

This month you have probably seen adverts exhorting you to try vegan alternatives to the meat and dairy you’d usually buy (maybe you even read this hack’s tired pleas).

Well, Selwyn isn’t convinced that customers should be the ones driving the shift to plant-based food. In fact, without shaking up the global food system, he worries the growing market for vegan sustenance will only strengthen the companies that continue to hawk more and more animal products.

He highlights a Dutch firm that sells vegan hot dogs and plant salmon fillets – but also happens to be owned by the world’s largest meat producer. Then there’s the popular plant-based yoghurt provider that doubles as a world-leading dairy brand.

“While the planet desperately needs a major shift away from meat production and consumption, mega food corporations probably won’t be the ones to lead the transition to a greener planet,” he says.

Jack Marley, Environment commissioning editor

 

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