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Just transition: Protecting jobs, workers and the environment
[Hazards 63, page 17, July-September 1998]

Industrial countries must undergo a total policy re-think to protect workers' safety, jobs and the environment, a top US trade union leader has urged.

Robert E. Wages, President of the US Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), warns that global trade is reducing jobs and environmental standards.

Writing in Hazards' sister publication Workers' Health International Newsletter (WHIN), he says his union has teamed up with safety and environmental campaigners to promote "Just Transition", where toxic production is phased out - but jobs and communities are protected.

"This program proposes that workers who lose jobs due to international trade agreements or as a result of the environmental phase out or ban on toxic substances should suffer no net loss of income," he says.

"In fact, none of them should be asked to pay a disproportionate tax - in the form of lost wages - to achieve societal goals concerning global trade or environmental regulation."

When the threat involves banning or phasing out a toxic substance, says Wages, dissension can break out between environmentalists intent on preventing pollution and workers clinging to their toxic-dependent jobs. "Jobs don't grow on trees."

"The result is that natural allies like organised labour, environmentalists and community activists have too often clashed instead of uniting against corporations that are blackmailing workers with the threat of dislocation."

Endorsed last year by OCAW's annual convention, Just Transition "would require at least two years notification so that workers and communities have time to prepare for the upheaval that occurs when a company slashes jobs or pulls up stakes altogether."

Wages adds that a fund would be necessary to provide displaced workers with: full wages and benefits until the worker retires or finds comparable employment; up to four years of tuition grants to attend vocational schools or colleges - plus full income while studying; post-educational stipends or subsidies if no jobs at comparable wages are available after graduation; and relocation for displaced workers who choose to move for employment reasons.

He says this fund would receive revenues from a surcharge on the production of toxic substances targeted for elimination. It would also receive funding from a small corporate tax on international financial transactions.

According to Wages: "Just Transition provides an alternative vision of social, economic and environmental justice. Rather than deny that widespread job displacement and damage to communities will continue to occur as a result of trade agreements and environmental regulation, Just Transition acknowledges that, like it or not, these policy decisions will inevitably cost jobs and harm the places where we live.

"It may sound pie in the sky, but if anyone thinks that the shift to a global economy can take place without job dislocation, or that profit-driven corporations will voluntarily generate enough decent non-toxic jobs to go around, that is really pie in the sky."

Workers' Health International Newsletter, issue 54, July-December 1998. From Hazards.

Take precautions

The UK government is to investigate a radical new "precautionary" approach to the protection of workers and the environment from chemical risk.

Launching a new consultation paper on sustainable chemical production, Environment Minister Michael Meacher said chemicals were economically and practically important but added that "public concern is growing about the effect which chemicals could be having on human health and the environment."

He added: "There are too many areas where our knowledge is incomplete. For example, possible effects on the reproductive health of humans and wildlife have been found which may be a result of chemical pollution. We don't know.

"The precautionary principle state that where potential risks are serious or irreversible we must not use imperfect knowledge as an excuse for postponing action. Application of this principle is something I want to explore in our review." The Health and Safety Commission and occupational health and safety come within Meacher's departmental brief.

Sweden is one of an increasing number of countries using the precautionary approach. Swedish law states: "Anyone handling or importing a chemical product must take such steps and otherwise observe such precautions as are needed to prevent or minimise harm to man or the environment. This includes avoiding chemical products for which less hazardous substitutes are available."

The law states that "a scientifically based suspicion of risk shall constitute sufficient grounds" for the government to take measures against a chemical. The onus is on the company to show this suspicion is unfounded.

Sustainable production and use of chemicals. DETR. Enquiries, tel: 0171 890 3333. The consultation ended on 27 October 1998.

Good sources:

The precautionary principle - a commonsense way to protect public health and the environment. Science and Environmental Health Network, Rt.1 Box 73, Windsor, North Dakota 58424, USA.


The precautionary principle by Joel Tickner and Jennifer Penney, in Workers' Health International Newsletter (WHIN), issue 54.

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