The right climate for jobs

We are about to celebrate Workers’ Day. There are important connections between this May 1 holiday and the proposed amendments to key labour laws, as well as unemployment and climate change.

Note labour’s very public outrage at some of the proposed amendments to the two main pieces of labour legislation, the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Yet labour was silent about a particular omission from the proposed changes to the latter.

Most people know that the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 set 45 hours as the standard work week. Few seem to know that it also requires “the progressive reduction” of this to 40 hours a week and eight hours a day. After almost 15 years on the statute book, one could expect the government to be saying something about the progress of this mandatory reduction. But the amendments say nothing and neither do the unions. Why? And what has this to do with Workers’ Day?

Workers’ Day, or May Day as it is known in some countries, is the internationally recognised labour day. It also commemorates the 1886 massacre of American workers and the hanging of a worker leader. The workers were striking for an eight-hour day, a claim first lodged in the United States in 1866. International endorsement soon followed. Karl Marx championed the idea in Das Kapital, published in 1867.

One hundred and thirty-three years after US workers first mooted an eight-hour day, trade federation Cosatu took the lead, during the parliamentary process of the Basic Conditions Bill, in opposing the 45-hour week. This led to compromise on “the progressive reduction” to eight hours. But little has been achieved since and nothing is being said, despite the manifest failure of the statutory requirement.


The most likely reason for labour’s silence is the sheer scale of unemployment and its apparent permanence. Unemployment was still high in 1997 — at 22.9% — but the economy, as measured by gross domestic product, was growing. Only in mid-1998 did the economy contract. Labour had still to come to terms with the fact that “jobless growth” was a structural feature of our economy. The daunting reality of a seemingly fixed “normal” unemployment rate of about 25% and a more accurate unofficial rate of 40% probably discourages unions from demanding a 40-hour week, without any reduction in pay and loss of hard-won benefits, or both.

Climate change enters this picture as a crisis that, in world terms, is even more serious than unemployment. Joblessness is devastating for the unemployed and their families and has a host of other deleterious psychosocial and economic consequences, but climate change threatens life as we know it — all life.

It demands climate jobs — those specifically required to reduce the greenhouse gas that increasingly covers the world and, like a greenhouse, allows heat in while preventing trapped heat from escaping back into space. Above all, it means greatly reducing coal, oil and natural gas as primary energy sources. It will also entail adapting to the global warming that has already occurred and is getting ever more alarming.

Thus, creating a large number of climate jobs is urgent. These jobs, which must be created to preserve our future, simultaneously affect our present. Having 40% of South Africans of working age without work — 70% among the youth — has an impact on all of us in diverse ways.

Just how many climate jobs are needed in South Africa remains an open question. Further research will allow for more accurate “guesstimates”, but the precise number is not a major issue. We know enough to know that the number is large.

Preliminary research by the national One Million Climate Jobs Campaign shows that the largely symbolic “one million” is more than attainable. Climate jobs that have already been identified include the following:

  • Renewable energy: 150 000 plus (over 10 years)
  • Manufacturing (in relation to renewable energy): 38 000
  • Housing (retrofitting): 22 000 (over five years)
  • Housing (200 000 RDP houses per year using ecological methods): 8 700
  • Ecological restorations: 400 000
  • Rainwater harvesting: 65 000
  • Transport: 460 000
  • Waste: 400 000
  • Tourism: 220 000
  • Health: 1.3-million.

These are indicative numbers, not precise ones. Not all these jobs are full time, but all are envisaged as being “decent”. The most likely way to ensure they are decent is for them to be public. In most cases, this means municipal jobs.

Decent wages are central to decent work. So can we afford climate jobs? The simple answer is that we cannot afford not to have climate jobs. How does one put a price on saving our species and an unimaginable numbers of other species? Ultimately, it boils down to political will. The Gautrain and the World Cup are examples of the cost being secondary to the goal.

Research by the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign provides evidence of how easy it could be to pay for a million climate jobs. Using a somewhat arbitrary wage of R6 000 a month and adding a further 40% to cover the other expenses of employment (including expenses not related to wages), the research comes to a figure of R92-billion a year. Readily available funding sources far exceed this amount. Among the many sources identified are:

  • Idle corporate bank deposits: R54-billion (10% of the total available)
  • Financial transaction tax (of 0.25%): R48-billion
  • Carbon tax (at R165 a tonne of carbon dioxide): R82-billion
  • Halting capital flight: more than R100-billion

The factor common to making all this realisable is political will — which ultimately means the involvement of the government. Only governments, acting on behalf of humanity, have the power and authority to do what science says, with increasing confidence and despair, must be done in the face of climate change.

What must be done is far too important to leave to the market. The world is now experiencing the consequences of a market driven by profit maximisation and short-termism. Those who take pride in South Africa’s having escaped the worst ravages of market madness forget that one million more South Africans have already joined the ranks of the unemployed as a result of the global economic crisis.

Moreover, 18 years of investor-friendly macroeconomic policies first doubled unemployment and then mostly failed to reduce it, despite employment being a constant government priority.
We need much more than a so-called green economy that, whether by default or design, is little more than the greenwashing of capitalism.

Climate change demands climate jobs that simultaneously reduce unemployment. The private sector is not suitable for these very public matters.

Dr Jeff Rudin is a board member of the Alternative Information and Development Centre.

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