Developing an economy which maximises job creation, job security and improves workers living standards while at the same time is environmentally sustainable for the future. Jennie George, ACTU Assistant Secretary.

The VTHC and Ellena Galtos should be thanked for the initiative they have taken in organising this forum on an issue of importance not just for trade unions, but for society generally.


We need to acknowledge the important contribution of the environment movement in making us all more conscious about the way our patterns of consumption and production are affecting the environment both locally and globally. There is a growing understanding of the significance of the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, the need for minimisation and treatment of waste, soil degradation, the dangers of hazardous chemicals and pollution and a host of other environmental considerations.


The growing support for the notion of sustainable development reflects a heightened community recognition that in the past insufficient value has been placed on environmental factors in the pursuit of material welfare and improved living standards. Quality of life issues are becoming central concerns for our community.


The ACTU accepts that the essential interdependence of the economy and the environment has not previously been properly recognised and incorporated into national decision-making, and that as a result, there have been instances of public policy failure, private sector mismanagement and consequently environmental degradation and loss. The lack of integration has encourage the development of some practices and trends in economic activity that are unsustainable, in their current for, in the long term.


The ACTU Congress policy on the Environment and Sustainable Development states in the introduction that “Congress believes that the long term interests of workers and the community depend upon developing an economy which maximises job creation, job security and improves workers’ living standards while at the same time is environmentally sustainable for the future. Any policy must recognise that the environment and economic development are closely inter-dependent”.


Sustainable development recognises the importance of the interdependence of the environment and the economy. We do need to learn from the mistakes of the past. We recognise in our policy that “the present generation must ensure that the next generation inherits an environment and economy that are more ecologically sustainable, diverse and productive than the one we now have”


When coming to terms with new challenges and change, our experience in the union movement proves that there are usually no easy answers, nor easy solution. Unfortunately, some of the debates now occurring are posed in simplistic terms – which often fail to give due regard to the economic and social consequence of implementing “pure environmental solutions.


Let me take as an example, the rather unproductive pro-development or pro-environment debate. The ACTU is committed to a policy of economic growth as a key issue in addressing our economic constraints, our increasingly high levels of unemployment and as a means of maintaining the standards of living aspired to by the community. But we do not believe that such economic growth has to be at the expense of environmental considerations. That is not to say that the models of economic development of the past were not without their shortcomings. Increasingly, attention is being devoted to new models of growwwth based on more sophisticated social and environmental accounting. Economic growth is fundamental and necessary, but the qualitative side of growtth must be emphasised and it must be growth that is sensitive to our environment. So, in this regard the union movement is at odds with those who argue a halt to economic growth – with those who argue that an environmentally sustainable future must be based on zero or even negative growth. Such a policy is not in the interests of our constituents, and on an international scale it would continue to condemn millions of people to a life of abject poverty.


Nor can I support those proponents of jobs and development, at any cost. If one of the principal goals of our movement is ensuring social useful, individually fulfilling, fairly rewarded and secure employment it means that inevitable the movement will have to come to terms with the notion of environment sustainability. It is impossible to see how employment can in the long term be socially useful if it is environmentally damaging; and by the same reasoning, it is impossible to reconcile secure -–meaningful long term employment with environmental destruction.


So what has often been missing in the debate has been a balanced approach, which analyses all the potential impacts in striving for rational and tenable solutions.


Let me take as one example some of the complex factors that need to be considered in dealing with the Greenhouse effect – a topical issue. We all know that the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming. One of the simple solutions might be to argue that we need to phase out the use of coal fired power stations. Well that would be fine if our economic and social structure was not so heavily based on intensive fossil fuel use, if coal was not a major export, if we did not have a balance of trade problem, if we had alternative employment opportunities for those now employed in the coal mining industry and if we had other solutions for regional economies and communities dependent on coal. This is not said as a defence for “no change” position, but rather for change that anticipates future trends, is planned, integrated and underpinned by adjustment programs that take into account employment and social impacts.


At a more general level this has been one of the criticisms made by the ACTU of the recent ESD process. While we saw positive benefits in bringing together people from different perspectives to address important environment issues, we felt that social equity and employment implications were often disregarded, or given only scant attention.


If people whish to argue that particular processes or even certain industries are ecologically unsustainable then in our view the costs of social and economic dislocation must be integrated into the process before any decisions are taken. That is the costs to labor, to the wider community, to the Government must be treated as an integral post in achieving ESD, and not simply as consequential problems to be solved by the market. In particular planning in relation to employment impacts should be a key future of any set of ESD principles applying to any industry or sector. For its past the trade union movement has an obligation to promote alternative jobs, training and re-training for workers facing change must be borne by society at large and not entirely by the individuals affected.


Environmental sustainability can not be market-led. Even in the view of the OECD (a proponent of the virtues of the free market). “-market forces if left to themselves would not necessarily address the urgent need to combat widespread poverty and environmental problems. Government action is also needed”.


From a trade union point of view, it is important that our members do not see more stringent environment requirements as being necessary development and a change that has the potential to secure jobs in the long term and to create new ones. It is possible to generate employment within the context of ecologically sustainable development and it is in this area that the trade union movement can and should play a more decisive and productive role. In fact green technologies, processes and products can open up new market opportunities, enhance business performance and competitiveness, create new jobs and provide us with new export industries.


Take for example the issue of renewable sources of energy – which we all know is a consideration for the future. Australia is one of the leaders in the development of solar energy technology. In fact last weekend there were reports that scientists at the ANU are on the verge of new technology – the Big Disk – which may provide the worlds first cheap, pollution free source of power, capable of meeting the energy demands of a city the size of Canberra, and on a comparable cost to a coal-fired power station. If ever there was a case for the Government to back a winner! Particularly because of the export potential of such technology in the Asian region.


Australia is also a world leader in many environmental services, both low and high tech and is currently under-utilising export potential. The global market for such products and services is expected to be $US300-400 billion worldwide by the year 2000. The Australian Trade Commission estimates that Australia’s exports of these products and services will be $500 million by the year 2000, with little Government support – that is, only about 0.1% of the expected market.


Incentives should be provided as part of an industry strategy for the export of low tech environmental services such as reafforestation, rehabilitation, water treatment, land care technologies and high tech services such as waste elimination and toxic waste control technologies. Australia is a world leader in many of these fields, but it does require some Government intervention and support to ensure that Australia will benefit and share in the growing global market for environmental products and services.


It is within our collective capacities to begin the process of “greening” industries we now have and those which we have potential to excel in. Central to the elimination of unsustainable impacts on the environment will be the need to lessen our demand on it for any given activity. Thus improvements in energy efficiency and reductions in materials throughout will be necessary in every area from the household, and the office, to the factory. Full cycle waste management, featuring waste prevention, waste minimisation and recycling must become a standard practice.


In this new era of enterprise bargaining consultative mechanisms at the workplace and company level will be crucial to achieving integration of ESD considerations. Already a number of large and progressive firms are moving to make environmental management a core objective of their operations. And like the leading role unionists have played in the area of health and safety at the workplace, so too can it be the case in regard to the environment. The workplace and outdoor environment are really two sides of the same coin. The tragedies at Bhopal and Chernobyl were graphic illustrations of that. The development of a “safety culture” at work is an important element in the education and involvement of workers in environmental issues.


There are some significant parallels between the earlier campaigns on occupational heath and safety and the emerging environmental considerations. It took a lot of effort to convince a reluctant establishment that a gram of prevention was better than a kilogram of cure, and that in the matter of workplace health and safety, no one was better placed than the trade unions to organise and monitor preventative strategies. There is no reason why this pattern of involvement by union members cannot be repeated in so far as environmental considerations apply.


As a union movement we take pride in being a movement with a social and moral conscience. We care about our society and the shape of its future, as well as the plight of our colleagues in developing nations. It is these same qualities and traditions that we can bring to bear in shaping a future that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.


I look forward to an interesting days discussion and the practical outcomes from this Forum which will be given further consideration by the ACTU’s Environment Committee.


Jennie George, ACTU Assistant Secretary. [1992]