Can Collective Agreements Play A Role Against The Climate Crisis?

Collective bargaining and nature

The right of collective bargaining is a fundamental right which covers legally binding and enforceable collective agreements empowering labour rights. Among working conditions, collective agreements can include provisions related to nature. Even though the climate crisis may not be related with work at first sight, workplaces are part of nature. When we work inside or outside of our workplaces, we interact with nature as both workers and employers.

Collective agreements can play an important role in proliferating the awareness, action and responsibility towards ecological sustainability in terms of participation, consultation and solidarity at work. Their collective dimension links social justice, equality and intergenerational solidarity with the protection of nature in the employment relationship. Accordingly, possible nature-friendly clauses and contents for collective agreements can be established.

For example, the provision of adequate green skills and knowledge to workers through collective agreements contributes to the creation and improvement of climate jobs, which do not harm nature, in sectors like transportation, energy, tourism, construction and service. In this respect, material and/or moral incentives for workers with green skills can be regulated besides establishing sustainability training, education and life-long learning programs for workers in order to reduce the negative ecological effects.

Collective agreements may also cover occupational health and safety recognising that workers’ health and safety at work must include the protection of nature since neither the workplace and natural environments, nor occupational and ecological risks can be separated completely.

The establishment of representative bodies with ecological competences and/or creation of additional ecological competences for the existing representative bodies could also be part of collective agreements. Ad-hoc or advisory bodies, committees or delegations can be set up for the management of ecological issues at work through workers’ representatives. They may gain competences in monitoring the compliance of work-related activities with ecological regulations, encouraging the cooperation and participation of workers in ecological matters, collaborating with the company’s management in the design and improvement of ecological actions, and promoting the reduction of ecological risks by the adoption of adequate measures.

These ecological examples (among many others like sustainable procurement policies, eco-friendly material use and waste minimisation) can be incorporated in collective agreements as programmatic declarations, offenses or genuine commitments due to the differences in power relations, resources, awareness and attitudes at workplaces regarding ecological problems. There is no doubt that real ecological protection requires genuine efforts, mechanisms and commitments. Therefore, collective agreements should include more genuine commitments instead of focusing on general and vague declarations. Sanctions are also needed but they should cover employers as well and derive from transparent and equitable disciplinary policies.


Profit over planet?

Even though collective agreements have the potential to become a significant instrument against the climate crisis, they cover a limited number of eco-friendly clauses in practice. As a pioneering project which focuses on the Netherlands, Italy, France, Hungary, Spain and the UK, Agreenment- A Green Mentality for Collective Bargaining confirms the difficulty of incorporating ecological clauses in collective agreements in all the countries analysed. Although social partners share the idea that protection of nature is necessary with opportunities for employment, trade unions are calling for reforms in legal systems for the incorporation of ecological measures in collective agreements. According to the Comparative Report of the project, when ecological clauses are in place, only very few of them tackle climate crisis seriously by containing strong and fair mechanisms and aiming to reduce the negative ecological effects.

In addition, collective bargaining fails to establish representative bodies to promote the protection of nature since employers still consider ecological management under their exclusive competence for decision-making as many other issues. Employers continue to ignore the necessity of workers’ participation in the decision-making processes at work. In a similar vein, there are barely any clauses related to the monitoring and assessment of the employer’s ecological commitments in collective agreements. Furthermore, new legal regimes of collective bargaining approved after the 2008 crisis has not provided improvements in most countries either. As a crucial danger, the Comparative Report also warns that the lack of power balance between trade unions and employers can convert collective bargaining into a means for the legitimisation of corporate mentality based on greenwashing.

Within this context, despite the positive changes in the attitudes of workers, trade unions and employers towards the protection of nature particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, collective agreements have still little impacts on the mitigation of climate crisis.

On the employer side, profit remains over planet backed by the addiction to growth and short-termism without accountability. On the union side, lack of bargaining power, limited resources, continuing domination of the employer in decision-making, legal impediments deriving from unjust and human-centred legislation and overshadowing of ecological degradation by traditional issues like wages and employment lead to decreases in the power of collective agreements regarding the decarbonisation and democratisation of work. Although there is a consensus on the need for a just transition, there is lack of action, political will and solution as we have recently witnessed during COP26 in Glasgow.

On the other hand, corporate social responsibility (CSR) does not constitute a substitution or alternative to the collective agreements in terms of ecological sustainability for most companies. Having corporate self-regulation at its core without social dialogue, CSR is not sufficient for increasing the protection of nature particularly in multinational corporations and industries with high levels of emissions. When collective agreements have limited role against the climate crisis, CSR can solely have the minimum capacity despite the presence of mandatory schemes at national, regional and international levels. Without the support of collective agreements, CSR mostly ends up as window-dressing due to the market-oriented nature of corporate policies.


A nature-friendly future of work

All in all, collective agreements urgently need strong, progressive and innovative trade unions with a nature-friendly agenda to be more capable of contributing to a future of work without ecological degradation. Also, their recognition and reinforcement under national and international legal instruments is essential. Awareness of workers and compliance by employers must be increased, whereas courts and states must ensure planetary wellbeing. Moreover, racing against time to mitigate the climate crisis requires mentality change based on valuing social justice and abandoning human-centrism. All of these may seem difficult to achieve, they really are in a world where nature and labour are commodified. But it is time for more struggle and hope rather than pessimism and denial.


Selen Uncular is an attorney at law and PhD candidate in labour law at Pompeu Fabra University working on data protection, ecological sustainability, labour rights and legal design.


Image credit: Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash