By: Melissa Rary, Events & Outreach Coordinator
As COHRE wraps up the academic year in the coming weeks, the Center’s focus on labor rights is coming to an end, despite the vast range of important topics left to be discussed. We cannot touch on every aspect of labor rights, though it is important that the international community remain vigilant in advocating for increased respect of labor rights, particularly as we enter into an uncertain age of technological advancement and a changing climate.
With this blog, I aim to shed some light on labor issues in relation to climate change, a topic often left out of academic discourse. Population increase and decreasing availability of shared resources including water and land are exacerbated by the indisputable climactic changes the earth is facing. Climate change will also affect respect for labor rights in significant ways, and if the international community is aware of these vulnerabilities, adaptation and mitigation mechanisms can be more effective in addressing the issues.
How climate change affects labor
In April 2016, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report, Climate Change and Labour: Impacts of Heat in the Workplace, in conjunction with international bodies including the UN Development Program and World Health Organization. The report’s key findings emphasize that increased heat in the workplace creates a health and productivity danger for the labor force. Workers are increasingly vulnerable to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Furthermore, workers might be less productive due to these working conditions, which would reduce their pay and family income, perpetuating the cycles of poverty that exist. This is true for both agricultural workers subjected to outside elements as well as factory workers in non-climate controlled conditions.
The report also reiterates that low-income work, such as heavy labor within low-skill agriculture and manufacturing, are most vulnerable to these adverse effects of climate change. Furthermore, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report, production outputs might decrease by as much as 20% in the second half of the century. In the US, the EPA projects 1.8 billion labor hours to be lost to increases in extreme temperatures in year 2100, costing over $170 billion in lost wages.
Climate-induced migration and the labor force
In addition to affecting existing systems of labor, climate change will also affect the size of the labor force itself. While those who flee their homes as a result of environmental changes are yet to be considered refugees under international definition by the UNHCR, the UNHCR supports the Platform on Disaster Displacement provides a framework for recognizing those forced to leave their homes as a result of the phenomena associated with climate change. The questions associated with “climate refugees” range from what & how many people are fleeing, where will they flee to, and how can the international community support them entering into the labor force in their new countries? These questions are largely unanswered. Countries like Australia are creating frameworks for accepting climate refugees from small island states, though the terms of migrants entering into the labor force are up for negotiation.
Labor force size will increase in countries with less extreme temperature changes and decrease in small island states and countries experiencing longer, hotter dry seasons. Because there are few channels for environmental migrants to migrate under refugee status, some organizations have proposed using labor migration frameworks as a solution. Migrants are able to fill labor shortages in countries they migrate to, and by understanding these labor trends, it is possible to use environmental migration to bolster the production gaps in economies. In Australia, for example, existing bilateral labor mobility agreements with small island states allow for workers to enter seasonal labor programs. These programs have the potential to be extended and provide a legal pathway for migration. This doesn’t come without its downside, however, as labor migrants are often exploited and are subjected to labor rights violations.
The obvious approach to addressing climatic change’s effect on labor is to mitigate climate change at its core. This includes supporting the initiatives of the Paris Agreement as well as other international and local mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions. Because many of these environmental changes are already being felt, however, adaptation policies are just as important to securing labor rights.
By increasing access to healthcare, adequate water, frequent breaks, and protection of income, it is possible to reduce the impacts of heat in the workplace for low-wage workers. Further understanding of labor market needs will create pathways for migrants to legally enter into the workforce. In addition, bilateral and regional agreements can aid in the protection of migrant’s labor rights by creating legal mechanisms and channels for labor mobility. The international community can also provide training programs to address the skills needed for migrants to be successful in a new labor force.
There is no time left to wait to make a decision about supporting labor rights in the context of climate change. As the world warms and ecosystems change, livelihoods of entire communities and regions are being altered forever, and targeted mechanisms should be created to ensure these rights be protected.