There is no just transition without social infrastructure

Katie Gallogly-Nelson lays out what a just transition must mean to the wider array of workers.

While the temperature is projected to increase by only decimals of a degree, global warming’s impacts are already catastrophic and irreversible, wiping out ecosystems, communities and ways of life. While many of us in Scotland imagine these impacts to be far off, whether in time or geographically, they are already unfolding here and now in our waters, lands and communities.

Changing course will require heavy lifting from those countries and regions that bear the greatest responsibility for historic and current high emissions. For relatively rich and high-emitting countries like Scotland, this should mean a radical transformation in every dimension of how we live: how we eat, travel, manufacture and work. A further question, however, is whether large-scale action on climate change is better or worse for the working class.

The union movement developed the idea of a ‘just transition’ to recognise that the social and economic costs of responding to climate change would fall heaviest on workers and the world’s marginalised people if led by capital. Instead, transitioning to a low carbon economy and society should be guided by justice, whether upholding the ‘polluter pays’ principle in deciding who bears the cost of transition, or ensuring that benefits of transition are fairly distributed to advance common social and economic goals.

Like many concepts that have been borne from workers’ movements, the ‘just transition’ moniker has been subject to capture by elite interests to greenwash their own speculative ambitions. But the emancipatory potential of a ‘just transition’ has also suffered from reductive approaches closer to home, for example, shrinking it to mean only that job losses will be minimized, thus, constricting the horizons for more transformative visions.

To comprehend the stakes of a ‘just transition’, it’s crucial to look beyond the immediacy of narrow demands – as important as they might be – to the broader injustices of our current economic system. An increasing proportion of the working class do not have well-paid, permanent and stable employment to protect, but get by on informal and temporary contracts, are paid below the living wage or are unpaid for the caring labour they provide. Many of these workers are not in ‘hard’ sectors, and a significant number are employed in social infrastructure.

Social infrastructure comprises all of the life-sustaining work of care, health and education that underpin economic performance and sustain the entire workforce and our society. Without the efforts of workers in these sectors, whether paid or unpaid, the whole economy would come to a standstill. Yet these sectors are chronically underinvested in and are overlooked in just transition imaginaries. There are two primary reasons social protection and infrastructure are critical components of climate action.

First, social infrastructure helps decarbonization efforts. As well as decarbonising carbon-intensive employment, decarbonisation will entail enlarging low carbon sectors like care, health and education. Bringing more people into the sector is, thus, an effective mitigation strategy. But social infrastructure, as a feminised sector, continues to be systemically undervalued in terms of its economic multiplier potential. The Women’s Budget Group in 2020 found that investing in care creates 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction. If the Scottish Government is serious about the role social infrastructure can play in boosting climate, social and economic outcomes, it will need to reverse plans to cut public sector 30,000 jobs.

Second, social protection is critical to manage oncoming shocks. However carefully planned our transition to a greener future, we must anticipate negative shocks. If the pandemic is anything to go by, we are not prepared. Meaningful protection from these impacts demands a major renewal of Scotland’s approach to social protection to enhance resilience and adapt to a climate-changed world. The Scottish Government should undertake an appraisal of our current social safety net to ensure it is fit for a just transition future, including considering new social protection measures that target unpaid carers and workers affected by decarbonization efforts.

But job creation and a stronger social safety net alone do not safeguard a just transition. Workers in social infrastructure jobs are critically undervalued, and the lowest paid of these workers tend to be women, migrants and ethnic minorities. A new deal for social infrastructure workers is necessary to deliver a package of condition-enhancing measures to indicate their value to the economy and solidify these sectors as promising career pathways. Raising pay in social care to £15 per hour and putting in place a system of national sectoral collective bargaining would be a good place to start.

Investment in the creation of skilled and well-paid jobs in social infrastructure will effectively pay for itself in the long run, helping to stabilise public finances as expanded employment in relevant sectors increase household income and tax revenues and lead to multidimensional positive outcomes for communities.

But as it stands, too much of the money going into these services is being siphoned into profits instead of being reinvested into improving delivery and working conditions. A recent STUC report (see last issue, 131) showed privatized care services had lower wages, more complaints about care quality, and higher levels of rent extraction than public and non-profit care providers. The National Care Service Bill must place caring infrastructure firmly in the public sphere, with a robust public investment plan and a human-rights-based delivery approach.

None of this will happen with squeezed budgets, depressed wages, and a ‘National Economic Transformation Strategy’ from the neo-liberal playbook. Real-term cuts must be abandoned in favour of an expansionary strategy that embraces public ownership and redistributive fiscal measures.

If a just transition is to deliver, it must respond to the material realities of all of the working class. This does not mean abandoning the mission to protect transition-affected workers. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to widen our tent: enhancing working conditions, investing in public goods, and nurturing a greener and more resilient future for the working class everywhere.

Katie Gallogly-Nelson is the Economic Affairs Officer in the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)