Sustainable BuildingsConstructionA Just Transition: Raising Workers’ Rights in the Built Environment’s Transformation

A Just Transition: Raising Workers’ Rights in the Built Environment’s Transformation

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

As the construction and manufacturing industries undergo a transformation to new and better ways of delivering the built spaces we need, a hidden majority is often overlooked: the sector’s workers. It’s right that we are decarbonising housing stock, increasing our renewable energy uses, and sourcing eco-friendly raw materials – but is this at the expense of those who make it possible? Unions are mobilising to demand the change is a ‘just’ one. We explore what this means, how it’s being implemented, and why workers’ rights are an important consideration for building cities of the future.

In Europe alone, the construction sector employs 15 million people, with an additional 3 million that contribute indirectly, including migrant workers. It is the continent’s largest industry, and accounts for 7.5% of the EU’s total workforce.

Despite these huge numbers, workers in the construction industry have not historically been well listened to. This has led to poor working conditions for millions – for many, closer to exploitation.

To understand the importance of workers’ rights, we only need to think back to the recent Football World Cup in Qatar and the stories of migrant labourers dying due to heat stress and unsafe conditions as they built the infrastructure; or the 500 Vietnamese workers exposed to trafficking and inhuman conditions in Serbia while employed by a Chinese energy construction company, and denounced by the BWI.

There are plenty of other examples, too.

In Prague, research by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) found that migrant workers from countries including Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria are subject to wage theft and in debt to agencies for their recruitment fees. Across the United States, informal workers from Mexico, and Central and Latin America are often reluctant to speak out against injustices – from unpaid wages to dangerous jobs sites, and intimidation. Worker centres play an important role helping to organise these workers and secure their rights – this includes aiming to balance the risks and challenges with a sense of possibilities for change, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the national umbrella group for local worker centres.

As with all sectors, construction needs to clean itself up to help us reach climate goals. The built environment produces close to 40%  of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As well as using more sustainable materials and repurposing waste, energy efficient retrofits will play a huge role in decarbonising the industry.

With the advent of this green transition – switching to sustainability in construction practices, materials, processes, professions, and supply chains – a new wave of concerns has emerged. But so too has the opportunity to solve some deep-rooted inequalities and injustices.

This chance to improve socioeconomic matters in line with environmental protections is a core part of what is known as the ‘just transition’.

Job Security

Possibly the most widespread and well-known challenge of the greening transition for construction is the threat to jobs. But is there any basis for this concern?

“If we want to transform the construction industry, we will probably lose 30% of the work we have today”, warns Ambet Yuson. He is the General Secretary of Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI), an international organisation representing 361 trade unions across 117 countries and 12 million members in construction, cement, wood, and forestry jobs, and allied materials.

Workers in high-carbon sectors, like the fossil fuel and mining industries, are naturally suspicious of a decline in their professions. So too are those who work in the construction supply chains: the concrete, ceramic, brickmaking, glass, steel, and timber industries.

Workers feel threatened.

Ambet Yuson, BWI

Modelling from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) estimates about 660,000 jobs in high carbon manufacturing industries are at risk in the UK alone. Their future depends on timely decarbonisation and protection against offshoring.

The Changing Nature of Work

At the same time, though, there is hope that we’ll see a rise in new, cleaner jobs. Ambet points out that we still need engineers – in a zero-carbon world, to develop and build the infrastructure – the wind farms, solar installations, and hydroelectric dams – that powers our cities. Rewiring America predicts that the USA will need one million more electricians over the next 10 years as retrofitting takes off, and it’s estimated that Portugal requires an 80,000 additional skilled workers for green construction projects, such as carpenters, electricians, and supervisors.

Some work security is evident, but it’s not only about numbers.

There’s a question of access. An alteration to your profession requires retraining. There needs to be a commitment at a national level for “skilling, upskilling, and reskilling” the existing workforce, notes Ambet. He also draws our awareness to multiple layers of subcontracting, which multinationals often use to greenwash their portfolio. The dirty work is done by the smaller actors, and, like the examples we’ve seen, the workers’ conditions can be extremely poor.

It’s a sentiment seconded by Mika Minio-Paluello from the TUC, which represents more than five million members across trade unions spanning all sectors in England and Wales. The TUC works to influence policy at a UK-wide level and, Mika says, “empower workers to safeguard their jobs and decarbonise their workplaces”. But years of experience has made members weary.

“Change means that life can get better or change means that life can get worse.”

Repeatedly, change has meant more work and less pay – or job losses. Mika cites the coal mine closures of the 1980s as a “targeted attack on mining communities” that left a scar: a suspicion of change and of those who impose it.

Resistance to the Green Transition

New jobs might not be as attractive, adds Mika. “People often make the assumption that a green job is a good job. It’s not always. Workers who are particularly at risk of job losses [from decarbonisation] need to know that they will receive an equivalent quality job.”

That means a geographically relevant and appropriate role, with a similar level of pay. Someone employed in manufacturing may be reluctant to retrain as, say, a heat pump installer or to move into a role in the service sector.

It hasn’t helped that a lot of the ‘green’ jobs that were predicted have not yet emerged in Europe.

The climate movement has made many very bold promises on job creation.

Mika Minio-Paluello, TUC

Unions are working to overcome the risk that green policies threaten workers’ livelihoods, points out Annabel Short, who developed the Built Environment Programme at the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

With this in mind, workers, unions, their affiliates and migrant worker organisers are advocating for attempts to green the sector to be intertwined with attempts to safeguard workers’ roles and rights. Working in these spaces, Annabel explains, the likes of IHRB, BWI, and TUC ensure that construction workers are “engaged, supported, financed, and brought into conversations about the green transition”.

This is one of the foundations of a just transition in our cities.

Just Transition - CityChangers.org
Image credit: BWI

Introducing the Just Transition

The just transition seeks to bake in solutions to myriad inseparable environmental and socio-economic challenges, at a systemic level, as we transform our cities into more environmentally-sustainable, even regenerative, places to live.

Looking with a human lens, it aims to protect “the full spectrum of human rights”, Annabel explains, from safe working conditions and dignity in the workplace, to realising the right to housing, to embedding meaningful participation and combatting discrimination.

An IHRB explainer outlines “just” and “unjust” transition pathways for the built environment in the three interconnected areas of materials, energy, and climate resilience. It details that a just transition ensures diverse groups have agency in decision-making – including women, children, and indigenous peoples – and that employers are held accountable for the working conditions they provide.

If you start with a social lens, you are going to have a better climate impact.

Annabel Short, IHRB

The Just Transition in Practice

So, how can the just transition really change the face of construction for both workers and the planet?

Our CityChangers and their organisations represent the power of a united front to represent workers’ needs and rights. They bring together dispersed groups to advocate for financial and policymaking decisions that do not operate in green-only mode. As Ambet says, we need to “clean” (not just ‘green’) the sector.

IHRB’s Dignity by Design framework is a useful reference for how to align every stage of the construction life cycle with human needs and workers’ rights: starting with the definitional stages of policy and financing. It reminds us that a green transition must put an emphasis on participation, non-discrimination, transparency, and accountability, and that all actors have specific roles and responsibilities in advancing the transition.

BWI’s ‘100 Union Actions on Climate Justice’ report compiles an impressive collection of real-world examples of workers themselves partnering with others to advance the transition.

Case Studies

Back in Qatar, BWI led a decade-long campaign for and with migrant workers in the country. Through agreements with companies and local authorities it has managed to improve the working conditions of thousands of migrant construction workers performing work in extreme temperatures and unsafe conditions. BWI also works with companies and workers in the UAE and other Gulf Countries to improve the safety of workers as temperature continue to rise and put at risk the work and lives of millions of workers.  They have now launched what Ambet calls a ‘heat up workers’ rights, not the planet’ campaign to nudge the UN to address the issue of heat stress for workers COP28 in Dubai. “Delegates should speak about it,” he says. “They will be staying in buildings with high climatic standards, built by millions of workers toiling under extreme heat, without voice and representation”. They’re using the precedent set by Germany collective agreements for roofers and Austria’s Construction Workers’ Bad Weather Compensation Act and leverage elsewhere to set a maximum safe working temperature.

Looking forward, BWI is cooperating with the Paris city government to ensure that the building site for the 2024 Olympics athletes’ housing facilities is safe, doesn’t involve undeclared work, and uses alternative building materials to reduce embodied carbon emissions.

Ambet recalls how the city of Oslo provides an example of proactive efforts of municipalities and unions that use their ownership of land and property to influence improvements in procurement and in the operation of facilities. They use this as leverage to include labour and climate clauses in their contracts. Similarly, Stockholm’s housing cooperatives are leading a widespread retrofitting transformation by switching their stock over to renewable energy.

In Mauritius, construction workers are proud of a new train line they have built which will bring people and goods from rural to urban areas via clean transit, connect construction workers themselves more quickly to their workplaces, and reduce pollution from congested roads.  As Mika reminds us, “transport systems will be rebuilt or transformed” in line with other sectors. Transport has a very direct relationship with construction – given that it involves building infrastructure, and also because workers often travel far to construction sites.

IHRB’s migrant workers program has a specific focus on working with companies to reduce the exploitation of migrant workers, including through the “Employer Pays Principle” that no worker should pay for a job – the costs of employment should be covered by the employer.

The Future of the Just Transition

There’s a long way to go before we get the just transition right, but we’re making great strides.

Not least because, despite some reservations, a great number of workers in the construction sector recognise that the green transition will benefit them directly.

Manufacturing plants in high-carbon industries like steel can be a massive employer for a community. Mika has seen cases where the workers, more so than the business and factory owners, see the need to decarbonise to protect jobs in a greening economy.

Trade unions like those at Tata Steel, Rolls Royce, and GKN Automotive have leveraged their power as collectives to integrate negotiations in favour of decarbonisation into existing bargaining processes in line with wages, health and safety conditions, production plans, and investment.

Workers want to be at the forefront of saying we can build a sustainable society.

Mika Minio-Paluello, TUC

In a political context, too, workers recognise their power. In industrialised regions especially, they have a significant sway at the polls.

Where national governments struggle to approach workers’ issues at the appropriate scale – such as the right to housing, transit access, physical and mental health provisions, public open spaces, and participation – local decision-makers can work directly with citizens, workers, and industry to get it right.

“The art is ensuring that the actions by influential actors are as grounded as possible in what workers and communities need and say,” Annabel explains.

This is why showing them the vision of what is possible with a green transition is so important, Ambet explains.

“So, when we talk to them, we tell them it will create new jobs, better jobs, better paying jobs, and that you have the chance to reskill or upskill yourself. There’s a lot of practical discussion on the ground, in the workplace, on how this will save the Earth, but it will also save our jobs, and maybe we can have a better job.”

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