In 2022, we’re already seeing how the impacts of the climate crisis are wreaking havoc on communities. And while a new band of tech billionaires are quick to make pronouncements about broad-sweeping fixes, tackling the climate crisis in a socially just way means putting workers’ rights at the core of solutions.
In October 2021, Friends of the Earth launched the Climate Impacts at Work project with RMIT University and six Victorian unions. Its aim is to conduct pioneering research into the ways that climate impacts are already affecting workers in different industries.
On the campaign trail, I frequently meet community members who say that they aren’t qualified to talk about climate change, because they're not scientists or economists and the problem is so wide-ranging and complex.
While we may not be able to speak about every aspect of the climate crisis with the detail of those who study it, what we are equipped with are our own stories. With climate change already hitting us here and now, we can speak to it from experiences in our daily lives - like in our workplaces.
With this understanding, the Climate Impacts at Work survey has sought to draw out workers’ local knowledge of climate impacts, and gather their ideas for the climate solutions they want to see. The research will give a picture of how climate change on the ground looks different for transport workers compared with health workers, or for people in Northern Victoria compared with Gippsland or Melbourne. So, what have workers already told us? The responses so far capture detailed accounts of how workers are having their health and safety put at risk as a result of climate impacts like intensifying heatwaves, storms, floods, and bushfire smoke.
For Hannah, a disability support worker, the anxiety of working through extreme weather is doubled as she becomes responsible not just for herself, but her vulnerable clients. Hannah notices the ways that climate change intersects with socioeconomic inequality, and how that affects her clients.
"Specialised housing [isn’t built] in gentrified areas where the rent’s expensive," she explains, "so a lot of disability homes and day programs are being built in suburban areas where the radiant heat effects are really high and the tree planting on the streets is really low."
We’ve heard from hospo workers who become sick and worn out while working in poorly ventilated kitchens during heatwaves. As they work multiple days in a row during extreme heat, they become more and more exhausted, which results in further risks to their safety. Monique, a cafe supervisor, says, "When I imagine a future working in this industry, I fear a summer full of 40 degree days. I fear a workplace that still has no OH&S procedures even as we start having to send people home with heat stress - or to hospital with heat stroke."
It’s clear that workers across different industries are already struggling to battle the impacts of climate change. It is these same workers who will be crucial to our communities’ resilience as climate impacts intensify. As Health and Community Services Union member Hannah puts it, "As we move away from fossil fuels, care work will remain as important as ever."
The survey findings will be released as a report in mid-2022. The report will give a comprehensive understanding of how the impacts of climate change are already hitting workers on the ground across Victoria, and arm unions with this crucial data to push for stronger climate action from governments and employers.
As a unionist, I see taking action on climate change as core union business. It will be a key part of fighting for workers’ justice - for our own and future generations. If unions lead the charge in workplaces when it comes to climate action, we can ensure that workers’ rights are protected, and social justice is baked into the solutions we fight for.
Hospo, retail, fast food and health workers can take the Climate Impacts at Work survey through this link until April 3.
By Anna Langford @AnnaSLangford
Community campaigner, Act on Climate collective