Greening our economies offers a unique opportunity to improve job quality in Europe. Justice for workers should be at the core.
Greening our economies and industries will affect the labour market dramatically. While some jobs will disappear, others will undergo transformation and many new ones will be created.
The lion’s share of the job-creation potential is connected to sustainable activities, such as renewable-energy production, housing renovation, repair, reuse, zero-emission transport and organic farming. These ‘green’ jobs are often more labour-intensive than the activities they replace.
A green job, however, goes beyond the concept of a job that contributes to preserving or restoring the environment. Jobs in healthcare, education and childcare should be considered green jobs too, as they will be key to sustaining the rest of the economy on its greening pathway. Moreover, these jobs are indispensable in the light of possible new health threats related to climate change. From this perspective, almost all jobs in all sectors have the potential to be a green job.
How to make all this happen? My report on ‘job creation: the just transition and impact investments’ was adopted in October by the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. The report will be voted on in the plenary session in Strasbourg today.
Safe and healthy
For a long time, European businesses have tried to compete globally by cutting labour costs, by lowering wages and social-security contributions. Even for those workers in old industries who remain decently remunerated, the counterpart has often been poor, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. This is not sustainable. Green jobs have the capacity to improve working conditions significantly, starting with decent wages.
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A just transition should turn all jobs into safe and healthy quality jobs, supported by guidelines on what constitutes a green job developed by the European Commission and the social partners. The criteria should be potential for greening the economy, improving energy efficiency and contributing to social security and inclusion, as well as to stable employment and lifelong learning, citizens’ health and wellbeing and excellent working conditions. We must ensure that most green jobs meet social as well as environmental requirements.
The circular economy can become a major source of local job creation: think of sectors such as repair, refurbishment or recycling facilities. Such anchored green jobs will be difficult to offshore. Hence, they will contribute to strengthening European sovereignty, resilience and competitiveness.
The ecological transition is the single biggest economic opportunity for Europe. Shying away from it would make us dependent on others, condemned to import the solutions we need from the rest of the world. The key to competitiveness is for our economies to embrace the green transformation and to support entrepreneurs who want to lead it. This is the surest route to prosperity for Europe in the 21st century.
Prosperity requires a holistic policy response by the European Union to maximise the employment potential of the transition, as well as to minimise unemployment. This will require four elements: ambitious and timely legislation, proper funding for a just transition, strong social conditionality linked to all kinds of public funding and a skilling agenda shaped together with the trade unions.
Legislation and funding are intertwined. All recent EU environmental legislation under the European Green Deal must be adopted and implemented promptly by the member states, setting a clear framework within which investors can operate. Some political forces advocate a standstill or even a backlash in climate legislation. They are playing a dangerous game: the costs of inaction today will escalate in the future.
Already we face an investment gap for climate action, estimated by the commission at €520 billion annually until 2030. Closing this gap requires public and private investment and fiscal flexibility allowing national green and social investments and reforms at the scale required.
Although we need newly allocated EU money to mobilise large-scale investments, the commission has unfortunately revoked its initial commitment to a European sovereignty fund. Such an instrument could support fiscally constrained member states, protecting cohesion and the single market against risks caused by the unequal availability of state aid, while EU industrial policy is co-ordinated.
Public investment is a strong lever to claim better working conditions, not least through public procurement. Yearly, trillions of euro spent by national, regional and local authorities through public procurement represent around 14 per cent of EU gross domestic product. All too often, these public contracts are awarded to companies based on the lowest price alone. But cheap tenders often come at the cost of lower labour and environmental standards.
Companies cutting corners on environmental and social regulation are thus financed through public money while respectable companies with high standards are considered too expensive. This leads to a race to the bottom for the people and the planet. Fixing this misallocation of public funds requires the next commission to revise the public-procurement directive, to ensure that tenders are allocated only to those companies supporting collective bargaining and workers’ rights.
Offering skilling opportunities to workers is part of what constitutes a quality job. The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan provides that 60 per cent of all adults should participate in training annually, while the current EU average is only 45.5 per cent. To encourage employers to increase investments in their workers, we need an enforceable and individual right to professional training and lifelong learning, undertaken during working hours and at no cost to the employee. This right should be reflected in national and European legislation as well as in collective agreements, but also in company mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Trade unions and workers’ representatives are well placed to assess and identify what job-, company- and sector-specific skills and competences will be beneficial to workers. They can also however advise on cross-sectoral, transferable capacities to be acquired through lifelong learning. Therefore, it is of outmost importance that the upskilling agenda is shaped in close co-operation and dialogue with the social partners.
More broadly, for the transition to be just, workers should be core contributors to companies’ decision-making. A framework directive on the anticipation and management of the transition is needed. This would guarantee timely and effective information and consultation of workers and trade unions on companies’ plans and strategies affecting workplaces, to preserve jobs and working conditions and avoid redundancies.
Skills alone are not going to fill our labour market needs, not will they fix its problems. Creating quality jobs allied to retention strategies remains the best way to attract and maintain a workforce. Labour shortages are particularly prevalent in sectors with challenging working conditions and poor job quality. Employers need to create well-paid jobs in stable employment, with healthy work conditions that enable a good work-life balance.
For the transition to be just, it should also deliver on gender equality. Most of the workers in the energy, mobility and agriculture sectors are men. A transition with a focus only on the most polluting sectors and none on gender equality would reinforce existing segregation and inequalities. We need to take all necessary measures to enable women to take part in, and benefit from, the transition—starting by increasing women’s participation in predominantly male sectors and by encouraging men to enter those with a mainly female labour force, such as care.
If the inevitable transition is well managed, it will be beneficial to all workers. But anticipation is key. In Germany, a recent agreement for the metal and electrical industries includes solutions for transformation, such as a four-day week with partial wage compensation. In Italy, a collective agreement in the oil sector for reskilling the workforce was part of a decarbonisation strategy.
These frontrunners will have a strong advantage. Just-transition plans, negotiated with trade unions and worker representatives, should be made mandatory in all companies.
It is essential for our future that we act with no delay but with great forethought. If we anticipate that future now, we can pass a more socially just Europe to the next generation. Together we can do this.
Sara Matthieu is a Belgian member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA group. She is co-ordinator of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and works on the circular economy, protection against asbestos, protection of workers, minimum income and due diligence.