On the last weekend of November, over 600,000 people took to streets all over the world to demand action on climate change. 60,000 people marched in Melbourne and 45,000 in Sydney, and thousands more in cities and towns across Australia.

Among this number were union workers – including many NUW members – who know that climate justice must be union business. Jobs of the future rely on a transition to a sustainable economy. Our community is going to find it difficult to exist peacefully if we don’t act to create opportunities for access to affordable renewable energy.

Just as we cannot have a sustainable economy without transitioning to an economy that takes climate action seriously, we cannot have a sustainable economy without secure jobs now and in the future. Well-paying and secure jobs will drive a decent way of life for every citizen.

As part of the ACTU’s campaign for the next federal election, there have been over 250,000 conversations with union members about what matters to them. Overwhelmingly, the number one issue for Australian workers is job security.

The issue of insecure work has been largely ignored in Australia, even though an estimated 40 per cent of our workforce is in precarious employment.

Insecure work is not unique to Australia, but we have been complacent about permanent jobs being eroded over time, and our industrial relations system is incapable of properly addressing even the most basic loss of workplace rights. For example, collective workplace agreements do not automatically cover workers employed indirectly by a labour hire company at a workplace – a common feature of many Australian workplaces.

There has been a lot of focus on the abuse of workers by dodgy labour hire companies in the agricultural sector, but it would be a mistake to think that unlawful treatment and the general indignity of precarious employment is isolated to particularly low-skilled and vulnerable environments.

In almost every workplace around the country, there are workers who are in insecure work. These are not workers who fill in for a short stint to meet a seasonal surge in business, but are long-term casuals, working regular hours but with no certainty of whether they’ll get another shift. These zero-hour workers have no security, no sick leave, and live with constant anxiety for years.

A growing underclass of workers means that we cannot build a sustainable economy for the future. Simply, if people cannot earn enough or cannot plan their lives, they are unlikely to participate in their communities, or in the economy. And with the buzz around the so-called ‘sharing’ economy of which Airbnb and Uber are leaders, precariousness is only going to increase.
So with the dual threats of climate change and increasing job insecurity, what can be done to give hope to people and build a sustainable future?

It is clear that we must change our federal industrial relations laws to better respond to zero-hour workers, such as including indirectly employed casuals in agreements, and making sure workers have power when it comes to rostering and entitlements.

This will be good for the economy in a number of ways: firstly, we suddenly have workers who can plan their spending. Secondly, workers are in a stronger position to fight for higher wages. Thirdly, higher wages will drive the technology we need to achieve a zero carbon economy.

Workers find it hard to engage in conversations about the future – and this includes talking about climate change – if they are being forced to only ever focus on their lives from minute to minute, day to day. This is one of the impacts of insecure work.

Climate change needs action and we need to create affordable renewable options for ordinary people.

Workers also need to have secure jobs in industries that have energy sustainability at its core, whether this is in distribution, manufacturing or a range of other areas. But conversations and actions will stall if we don’t actually address insecure work.

As impressive as the climate rallies were, they would be more impressive still if the millions of workers in this country were able to engage deeply in issues outside their immediate survival. We need union workers and environmentalists to come together around an agreed vision for our country and commit to fighting side-by-side for it. We need a secure life in order to create the opportunities for political engagement and activism. And we need secure jobs so we have an economy that can invest in people and in the environment.

I believe that every community, every generation and every worker counts. We need to ensure that we are able to sustain these not only now, but in the future.

Image: USAID / Flickr

Tim Kennedy

Tim Kennedy likes to ride his bike on the weekend. He is the national secretary of the National Union of Workers. Over Tim’s twenty years at the union, he has worked as an organiser, industrial officer, assistant national secretary, Victorian branch secretary and national president. His time at the union has seen increased worker-led activism and the creation of the NUW’s Community Membership, which is beginning to build links between NUW industrial activists and community activists for equality, decent and secure jobs, and a Fair Australia.

More by Tim Kennedy ›

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  1. Nailed it! Environmentalists and unionists are working together at the community level through Earthworker Cooperative to create meaningful, dignified work in renewable energy manufacturing in the outer suburbs of Melbourne: http://earthworkercooperative.com.au/

    Cooperative enterprises are a great way to give back control of working conditions to employees. They inject democratic decision making into the workplace, which benefits meaningful discussions around sustainability and addressing environmental concerns that result from production.

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