South Africa: Labour in Peril As Just Transition Hits Cul-De-Sac

(File photo).

In moving to a low-carbon economy, South African workers may lose out as unions weaken and renewable energy components continue to be imported at the expense of local jobs.

After years of promises but still no guarantee of jobs in renewable energy, unions hoping that their members will retain their employment if they cling to fossil fuel industries might miss the chance to negotiate a just transition.

An estimated 92 230 people are employed in coal industries, according to the Minerals Council South Africa figures from 2019.

Climate change labour experts have warned that a just transition from a carbon-intensive economy to a low-carbon economy will devastate hundreds of thousands of workers in the energy and fossil fuel sectors. This is unless workers bargain collectively for binding contracts that put each of them on "a pathway to an equivalent job of good quality" in the renewable energy sector.

"Many of our [union] members are worried about climate change, but they are more worried about keeping their jobs, and being able to feed their families and have a roof over their heads. Our advice is that change is coming ... and we have to be ready as trade unionists.

"When we are not ready and change comes anyway, we lose our jobs and we don't have new jobs to go to, and no one is really ready to negotiate with us once the decision for restructuring has been made," said Samantha Smith, an activist lawyer and director of the International Trade Union Confederation's Just Transition Centre in Norway, at a meeting between Cyril Ramaphosa's Presidential Climate Commission and union federations Fedusa, Cosatu and Saftu in late October.

Recently, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said it supported Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe's call not to let coal mining go extinct.

"South Africa has an abundance of coal reserves. The NUM is opposed to the R131 billion offered to South Africa by developed countries so that it can accelerate the closure of coal power stations," said acting general secretary William Mabapa.

This R131 billion is a mixture of loans and grants, agreed at the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow, that the United States, United Kingdom and European Union will pay the South African government to transition away from fossil fuels.

However, the NUM and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which together organise the majority of workers in the fossil fuel and energy sectors, have long held that the countries responsible for climate change must pay all costs related to the transition in developing countries.

Worker reluctance

The US, China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, the UK, Japan and Canada have generated the largest amount of carbon dioxide between 1850 and 2021 from their fossil fuel, cement, forestry and land use industries.

Because a just transition has not been fully funded, it is becoming heavily privatised. Billions of rands are flowing to multinational companies that have already developed the expertise and factories to make renewable-energy components.

Under these circumstances, labour has been performing the "pendulum swing" that Smith cautions against - away from renewable energy and back towards supporting fossil fuels - say former Numsa climate change researchers Dinga Sikwebu and Woodrajh Aroun.

In The Palgrave Handbook of Environmental Labour Studies, published this month, Aroun and Sikwebu discuss how several solar panel factories closed down after the government pulled back on renewable energy projects such as the national solar water heater programme.

They also found that most jobs in renewable energy were created during the construction phases of these projects. In one wind and solar undertaking, only 10 in 189 jobs created were long-term, for operating the project. The rest were temporary construction jobs, 128 of them low-skilled and low-paid, so it is unsurprising that workers are "reluctant to embrace renewables as an alternative energy source", they say.

The private problem

In other projects, private companies that bid said it would be necessary to import skilled staff for the majority of jobs, including operating and maintenance, with only low-skilled work set aside for locals.

"As the promised jobs did not materialise with the renewable energy independent power producer procurement (REIPPP) programme, the initial anxieties [of workers] morphed into opposition. The dominance of multinational corporations in the REIPPP programme, the failure of the localisation programme and the dismal building of a local sector producing renewable energy technologies meant that there were no new battalions of workers that were joining unions and that had a stake in the emergence of a clean energy sector," say Aroun and Sikwebu.

An unjust energy transition can only be avoided if the government includes workers in its plans. These must include establishing renewable energy component factories to which workers in fossil fuel industries will be transferred, they say.

Instead, affluent people are migrating away from the grid and installing their own solar power systems, Sikwebu told Old Mutual's Tomorrow publication this month. "The migration will rob municipalities of revenue that is used to cross-subsidise other services and poor households. What we have here are the makings of an unjust transition."

He recommends that older power stations be turned into shopping malls, to retain jobs and prevent these areas from becoming "ghost towns", or converted them into gas-fired power plants using gas from Mozambique.

'A lack of preparation'

Labour could also be taking steps to improve its position in the looming and inevitable transition, says University of the Witwatersrand emeritus professor of sociology Jacklyn Cock. Unions have failed to align with mining-affected communities and other social movements, which continue to mobilise against coal mines on their own.

In the Palgrave handbook, Cock says labour has not had any formal working relationships with community organisations for the past 10 years.

"The NUM is resuscitating the old jobs-vs-environment binary. But a lack of preparation is also evident in the labour movement. Some unions, such as the Fedusa affiliates and Solidarity, are largely silent on climate change," she says.

The unions generally fail to organise power station workers who are on short-term contracts or working through labour brokers. There are an estimated 2 300 such workers at Eskom's Hendrina power station alone.

Unless labour "reclaims its power and establishes closer connections with the environmental justice movement, coal workers and mining-affected communities, the case of South Africa could demonstrate what an unjust transition looks like", says Cock.

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