A Just Transition perspective would integrate ecological sustainability and social justice. Photo: Worker’s helmet and fresh fruit bunch, North Sumatra, Indonesia © RAN/OPPUK/Nanang Sujana.
Steps towards a Labour Perspective on Just Transition
We have seen how companies instrumentalise unorganized workers who are dependent on them to oppose indigenous farmers or environmentalists along the supposed conflict of jobs vs. environment. We have also seen that some trade unions in the palm oil industry have joined palm oil corporations to argue for a continued and unfettered expansion of the industry. The labour movement in the palm oil industry lacks an independent position and strategy vis-à-vis the challenges of environmental destruction and land conflicts that plague the sector as a whole.
At the same time, we have seen that a social-ecological transformation of the palm oil industry could be very attractive to workers and trade unions, both in the immediate and in the long term. However, the labour movement can only develop such a position through a process of discussion, education and reflection. A Just Transition perspective for the palm oil industry needs to be developed by workers themselves. Environmental Justice and Indigenous organisations are key allies that could help to initiate and facilitate this process of reflection.
A labour perspective for Just Transition cannot be left solely to trade union officials but must start from the experience of palm oil workers on the ground. The first step would therefore be to organize discussion groups of workers around issues related to the environment. These discussions could start from the ecological problems affecting workers in their day-to-day work, such as the health impacts of harvesting, pesticide spraying or fertilizer spreading or the lack of clean water. On the basis of workers’ knowledge about these very fundamental issues, a discussion of wider issues related to the environment should be initiated – also to balance the perception that workers don’t care or know about biodiversity loss or haze pollution etc. The environmentally destructive operation of companies leads to the pollution of their water, displaces people from their land and leaves whole regions contaminated or infertile which leaves workers, rural and indigenous communities with nothing to go back to when companies withdraw from certain regions. A third step would be to reflect on work-related demands that could relate to an ecological transformation of the industry (pay, skills, training, collective bargaining, contracts etc.).
Bringing environmental justice groups together with interested trade unions to organize, document and analyse these discussions, would be an important step in creating a ‘red-green alliance’ in the palm oil industry. By bringing out the voices of workers in these discussions, full-timers would avoid ‘talking down’ to workers and could tap into their immense experience on the ground. A Just Transformation, that is socially just and environmentally sustainable, must be anchored in unions and workers minds through mutual education, organization and mobilization.
After workers have reflected on their own situation and demands regarding social-ecological issues in the industry, a second phase could bring members of indigenous communities and environmental justice groups together with workers to discuss ways of overcoming divisions and developing common strategies. Through a meaningful exchange and share of experience, workers might understand the anger when the company seizes the people’s land—which could possibly relate to their own history of being landless. On the other hand, the local communities could also understand the huge stakes of a worker when he/she loses his/her job. A continuous dialogue between these groups while identifying mutual interests will facilitate solidarity and possibility lay the foundation for a strong Just Transition movement.
A series of this kind of grass-roots discussions organized in different places and countries, reflecting a diversity of contexts and experiences, could provide the basis for a generalization of ideas for a Just Transition in the palm oil industry. A conference bringing workers from the discussion groups together with trade union officials, environmental justice activists and representatives from indigenous communities could develop a position paper for the social-ecological transformation of the palm oil industry. This could then be used to create an alliance of several trade unions with smallholders, indigenous communities and the environmental justice movement behind a common perspective.
In the mid-term, an alliance is a realistic possibility because workers, indigenous communities and the environment are all victims of the same transnational palm oil corporations. The land-clearing and expansion of the plantations destroys the environment by displacing people from their land. This landless labour force then becomes the object of exploitation in precarious working conditions. Workers are both alienated from their work and from the land. Unity on the basis of collective land ownership or around a food sovereignty perspective might be a possibility.
Workers and indigenous communities are not just victims, but are the living agency at the frontline of creating the mosaic landscape. At the moment, both plantation workers and local communities are largely unorganized and fragmented. To develop a realistic strategy for Just Transition, the trade union movement still needs to come together to organize across the industry and to have the power to push for transnational collective bargaining and social-ecological transformation for the whole industry. A debate on Just Transition and a dialogue with local communities around environmental and land issues could be helpful in this project, e.g. by developing political consciousness, especially for workers. The very reason why workers tend to be more focusing on economic demands—while seemingly ignoring environmental demands—is precisely because the only means of immediate survival is by selling their labor. Workers can go beyond their immediate interest if they are able to reflect on the root of the deprivation they experience and their potential power to change their situation. A process of reflection and discussion of Just Transition strategies could thereby become a way of empowering workers in the palm oil industry.
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