In April the ETUI held a workshop exploring the interfaces between labour and environmental law, which brought together legal experts from both fields. These two fields of law and scholarship have rarely directly engaged with each other, remaining within distinct silos. Each of them has its own goals, discourses and actors. If anything, they have at times been perceived as being in conflict with each other, where environmental regulation has been cast a limitation on economic growth, and as a threat to existing jobs and future employment opportunities. This is the so-called ‘jobs versus environment’ dilemma.

However, the effects of the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic on the world of work remind us that labour and the environment are not, in fact, strictly separable. Environmental degradation and climate change increasingly affect workers, as do regulatory and policy responses to these challenges. Concepts such as ‘just transition’ and ‘sustainable development’, which have gained prominence at the international and national policy level, seek to bring together and to reconcile environmental and social concerns, including those relating to workers. They are reflected in policy frameworks such as – in the case of just transition – the ILO Guidelines for a Just Transition, the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal.

These concepts themselves, and the accompanying policy frameworks, therefore open up space to explore the interactions between labour and environmental law, but also notions such as environmental and climate justice, as well as climate law—an emerging discipline of law that is connected to environmental law but increasingly perceived as a separate subject. These policy frameworks make clear that a transition to a low-carbon economy will require profound social and economic transformations, which will have significant effects on workers and labour markets. At the same time, they mandate that this transition must address the concerns of workers and ensure that the resulting benefits and burdens are distributed in a fairway. Labour and environmental law, as well as climate law, have an important role to play in facilitating the necessary transformations and in addressing distributive concerns.

The workshop, therefore, sought to explore the possible interactions between these legal fields. The aim was to identify not just tensions, but also shared interests and goals, common narratives, and spaces for productive synergies between labour and environmental law – and not just in the context of climate change. Central to the conversation was the question: how do we connect these different fields of law? The discussion showed that this is a complex and multi-dimensional question that can be approached from many different angles.

A common narrative

One way to put labour, environmental and climate law together is to see them as forming part of and intersecting within the just transition discourse, unifying around a common goal, or at least a common narrative. This is in some ways a logical place to start. ‘Just transition’ was first coined as a term by trade unions but has become a tenet of the climate discourse today. As Navraj Singh Ghaleigh (University of Edinburgh) noted, just transition is one of the very few areas where workers have a particular space in this discourse. David Doorey (York University) argued that there is a role for labour law to play in implementing just transition policies, in relation to the protection of labour rights, collective bargaining laws, unemployment benefit schemes, or the establishment of labour standards during the transition – such as rules regarding hiring, including priority for displaced workers.  That is, labour law and regulation can contribute to addressing some of the social and economic concerns arising from the effects of environmental and climate law and policy, and thus to making these (more) socially and politically acceptable.

Of course, many more areas of law, policy and scholarship (could) form part of the just transition discourse. The concept of just transition can be understood in different ways – more or less narrow in scope, and more or less radical and transformative in its aims – as can the notion of ‘justice’ as it relates to that concept – as distributive and procedural justice, but also environmental and climate justice. Furthermore, as Lovleen Bhullar (Birmingham Law School) pointed out, what a just transition means and how it takes shape can vary across different economic, social and labour market conditions. The fact that there are so many moving parts poses challenges to defining the role of labour law in the just transition discourse and how it relates to environmental and climate law.

A somewhat different angle on the nexus between labour and environmental law was provided by Sanja Bogojevic (University of Oxford). She argued that issues falling within the domain of labour law—such as precarious work conditions, low wages or in-poverty work—can fuel populist movements, which tend to be inimical to environmental law. To frame this in a more general way, perhaps, is to say that the effects of exploitative work relations can lead to resistance to measures to protect the environment, especially where they affect the same groups. There is also a growing recognition of the linkages between the phenomena that the two fields seek to address—the exploitation of labour and the exploitation of the environment—as stemming from social hierarchies, and as products of a capitalist economic system. In the post-pandemic world, questioning this system and, as Bogojevic pointed out, the significance of ‘growth’ and ‘recovery’ could be a task for both labour and environmental law scholars.

Another place to start exploring the connections between labour and environmental law is by questioning their separation into distinct silos in the first place. Ania Zbyszewska (Carleton University) argued that the jurisdictional constitution of labour and environmental law as separate—and even oppositional—is related to a historical development of a disjuncture between society and nature during the Enlightenment period, wherein the two are constructed as separate from one another and nature is conceived as subject to human mastery and control. This development, she argues, found synergies with other political and ideological developments that prepared the ground for spread of laissez faire capitalism in Europe. ‘Nature’ was constructed as labour’s ‘other,’ and so excluded from the scope of industrial relations and labour law systems when these emerged. The role of regulating society-nature relations was later taken up by environmental law. This separation creates or reinforces conflicts between the two fields and the interests they seek to protect, such as the conflict between jobs and environmental protection.

This perception of labour and nature as separate contributes also to fragmentation in the treatment of problems that are materially connected, by labour and environmental law regimes. An example of this is the area of occupational health and safety (OSH). As Alexis Bugada and Mathilde Hautereau-Boutonnet (Aix-Marseille University) pointed out, OSH is a meeting point for the two disciplines, which share a concern for protecting human health and risk management. The Covid-19 pandemic, Bugada pointed out, has shown us different ways in which environmental factors and worker-related concerns are connected, including in the sphere of OSH. A shift away from fixed workplaces and the spread of telework could lead us to further question the boundaries between labour and environmental law in this sphere. OSH offers an opportunity for exchange between the two disciplines, and, as Bugada argued, for integrating concerns about human health at work with concerns about the environment.

Recognising that labour and the environment are not strictly separable can, as Consuelo Chacartegui (Pompeu Fabra University) put it, deepen the protective function of labour law, benefitting both workers and the environment. For example, she argued that the integration of ecological issues in the tasks and aims of trade unions and within the scope of collective bargaining and collective labour rights contributes not only to diminishing the negative effects on workers of a transition to a low-carbon economy, but also the attainment of ecological objectives as such. We are seeing this process of integration already, with the incorporation of ‘green clauses’ in collective agreements and the involvement of trade unions—particularly at European and international level—in the climate change debate. Collective worker voice and social dialogue will be crucial to the just transition process.

This was only a first attempt at starting a conversation between these different fields, and as such left many questions open. It did not, for example, consider some important dimensions of the jobs versus environment dilemma, such as how to reconcile short-term (protection of jobs now) and long-term goals (future effects of environmental degradation and climate change) and local (effects on workers in a particular locality) and global (effects of climate change across the world) concerns. However, the discussion did point to ways of reframing this challenge and engaging with it in ways that do not see worker and environmental protection as conflicting goals. It made clear that these fields could benefit from a more engaged relationship, and that to this end labour law, environmental and climate law and justice scholars should continue talking to each other.

Other participants in the workshop who contributed to the discussion were Paolo Tomassetti (University of Bergamo), Margherita Pieraccini (University of Bristol) and Chris Hilson (University of Reading).

Further reading:

  • A Zbyszewska, ‘'Regulating Work with People and Nature in Mind: Feminist Reflections' (2018) 40 Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal 9 – with contributions from P Tomassetti and C Chacartegui in the same Special Issue on ‘Work Regulation and Environmental Sustainability’
  • DJ Doorey, ‘Just Transitions Law: Putting Labour Law to Work on Climate Change’ (2017) 30 Journal of Environmental Law and Practice 201, available here
  • NS Ghaleigh, ‘Just Transitions for Workers: When Climate Change Met Labour Justice’ in A Bogg and A Young (eds), ‘The Constitution of Social Democracy: Essays in Honour of Keith Ewing’ (Hart 2020), available here

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