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What does an inclusive just transition look like?

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Image: Scott Lewis/Flickr

Right now, Canada is desperately trying to reconcile the environment and the economy. For many, a just transition is a way forward, as it includes a shift from an economy that is primarily dependent on resource extraction to a green economy. At the same time, it provides support for workers whose livelihoods depend on the carbon-intensive industries. 

But some of our thinking on just transitions have left out the most marginalized voices in Canadian society.

In 2015, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that a just transition can act as a driver of a nation's "job creation, job upgrading, social justice and poverty eradication." Meanwhile, Environment and Climate Change Canada says that its just transition approach aims to integrate "workers and their communities in decisions that would affect their livelihoods." A just transition strives to ensure that green jobs enable people to thrive and obtain a decent quality of life. 

A significant part of Canada's just transition goals revolves around respecting the tremendous contribution of fossil fuel workers to our economy, who are at risk of losing their jobs. Research by the ILO suggests that globally we can expect to see an initial loss of 6 million jobs. Fortunately, global just transition strategies will result in an additional 24 million new jobs in renewable energy generation, electric transportation and energy efficiency. The current conversation around just transition strategies focuses on ensuring that workers in carbon-intensive industries receive effective training for a successful transition into a zero-emissions economy. This includes relocation apprenticeships, increased income support, pension bridges for older workers and continued formal education programs. 

However, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) notes that the main recipients of the federal government's current transition policy benefits are Canadian-born white males working in oil-dependent industries, who earn an average median income of over $130,000 per year. Racialized Canadians, women and Indigenous peoples are far less likely to benefit from the tremendous long-term profits brought by a zero-carbon economy, given their very limited representation in oil and gas industries. 

Racialized, gendered and Indigenous experiences of work 

Racialized immigrants from the Global South face barriers to work in Canada. Due to a lack of professional networks, discriminatory hiring practices and inadequate financial resources, it can be difficult for them to get apprenticeships and find employment in skilled trades. As a result, they often need to resort to low-skill, low-paying jobs that do not match their skill sets or their education. 

Over 19 per cent of racialized immigrants face household food insecurity in Canada. Labour researchers Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster found that low-skilled workplaces tend to possess higher rates of systemic racism. This leads to a negative cycle of discrimination as racialized immigrants are considered undeserving of better employment opportunities in an advancing economy. 

The CCPA's research suggests that female workers in energy industries earn significantly less than their male counterparts: 17 per cent less in coal mines and 23 per cent less in the electricity sector. A government report found that over 75 per cent of oil and gas workers were identified as males even though females occupy almost half of the total workforce in Alberta. Females make significant contributions to the total labour market. However, their underrepresentation in skilled trades prevents them from being integrated equally into a greener workforce. 

A green transition brings new employment opportunities particularly for Indigenous workers who are often over-represented in construction industries. Popular belief says that a shift away from oil and gas is detrimental for those employed in primary and secondary sectors, like construction. But construction work is actually anticipated to experience some of the greatest profit increases through decarbonization. 

But Indigenous workers are faced with a different set of barriers and difficulties in the transition process. A 2016 Amnesty International report states that, "Indigenous peoples whose lands and resources provide the basis for the wealth generated in the region, are excluded from a meaningful role in decision-making and bear a greater burden" compared to non-Indigenous workers. Indigenous workers are 12 per cent more likely to be precariously employed and earn 7 per cent less than non-Indigenous employees among full-time construction workers. Although there are high apprenticeship enrollment rates among Indigenous people, they also have the highest dropout rates due to financial burdens and pressures. The evidence suggests that there is a high disparity between Indigenous and white workers that must be addressed, as the economic and physical precarities faced by Indigenous workers are clearly not prioritized in just transition policies. 

An inclusive transition

Racialized Canadians, women and Indigenous peoples historically have had limited access to economic development in the labour force. And so the federal government's just transition policies must address these environmental and socio-economic inequalities. 

As we shift towards a more stable, secure and diversified economy, an inclusive just transition means moving away from the systems of oppression that are central to Canada's extractive industries. The federal government must invest in stronger initiatives on anti-oppressive work environments, diversify the skilled-trades workforce and implement an intersectional lens in policy frameworks. These actions will help amplify the rights of marginalized workers and those excluded in the transition process. 

With inclusive social protection programs and united action from our governments, we can ensure that our policies, funds and structures for a just transition are accessible to all workers, employers and communities. Through such combined efforts, we can work towards creating a sustainable economy built on social solidarity and climate justice. 

Only then will we move towards an inclusive just transition -- one that truly leaves no one behind. 

Keira Kang is the ecological justice intern at Citizens for Public Justice.

Image: Scott Lewis/Flickr

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