The Australian bushfire disaster: what does it mean for firefighters and workers?

There are many themes amid the story of the horrifying Australian bushfires of 2019/20:  destruction of habitat and homes, the reality of climate change, and the resilience and self-sacrifice of Australians, exemplified in their unique tradition of community volunteer firefighters, or “firies”.   The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recognized their contribution in a statement which includes: “Workers in the emergency services and volunteers in their own communities are on the front lines of defending people, their homes and community infrastructure. We thank them profusely for their efforts and their courage. They are working heroes.”

australia firefightersAustralia’s Volunteer Firefighters Find It Hard to Pause, Even for Christmas in the New York Times (Dec. 24 2019) describes the self-sacrifice displayed by these volunteers, but it also questions how sustainable such a system can be in such a long-running and widespread disaster. Exhaustion is one constraint; financial necessity to earn money is another.  Only under public pressure did the government finally announce compensation for the volunteers  in December.  The Sydney Morning Herald offers a detailed “Explainer: How the Bushfire Compensation Scheme works”  (Jan. 12), which notes that some union leaders “have called for amendments to the Fair Work Act to ensure workers have the right to paid emergency services leave as part of the National Employment Standards.”  This idea is taken up in “Unions and employers join forces to demand increased bushfire relief for workers and firies”, also in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 12), which highlights the “fine print” limitations for firefighters’ :

“The federal government and some state governments have said they will provide eligible volunteer firefighters with up to $300 per day capped at a total of $6000 as compensation for time off work to fight bushfires, but firies can only claim from day 11 and the hours spent on patrol must align with their normal working hours…This means if a volunteer firefighter normally works from 9am to 5pm, but is out fighting blazes from midday to midnight, they can only claim five hours’ pay.”

Occupational health and safety concerns:

The Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a December call for change in “Laws must adapt to keep workers safe in changing climate” , focussed on the occupational health and safety issues of extreme heat and smoke for all workers.  Their call for change was accompanied by two Fact Sheets:  Smoke Haze – Bushfires and Air Quality  and Working in Heat . Another important occupational health issue, the emotional and psychological toll of such disasters, is described in “Black Saturday firefighters want you to listen to them, not call them ‘heroes‘” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  (Jan. 3).

On January 7, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released  this statement and call for government action :

  “No workers should ever be required to work in dangerous environments. Smoke levels are well beyond the hazardous range in huge areas of the country. Any workers, especially those who work outside, who have concerns about their safety should contact their union.

Workers should be aware that the NES provides for unpaid leave for the full period of time that workers are engaged in volunteer firefighting or other emergency service work. Union negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements will also often provide additional paid leave provisions.

In some circumstances, workers will also be able to access personal leave if they are unable to return to work due to being evacuated or having nowhere to live, for instance if they or a family member have suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the fires.

Under no circumstances can a worker or their employer already dealing with this devastating crisis face the added insult of being left without an income or a bill they cannot pay for a service they have not used or received.

To make sure this happens, the Federal Government’s response needs to make it clear that everyone impacted by this crisis is entitled to support and assistance and should not be left worse off.  This should include ensuring that there is comprehensive relief from debt repayments, mortgages and utility bills while families get back on their feet.

Any worker who faces issues with their bank, other lending institutions or who is fired from their job due to the fallout from these fires should immediately contact their union.”

The ACTU has established a Bushfire Relief Fund here , where donations can be made to support union members who may need more than the government support, and another campaign, here, for Australians to volunteer their skills and time in the rebuilding effort.   The National Construction Division of the CFMEU also announced their own $100,000 donation to the bushfire recovery effort in a press release .

australia nasa smokeA few other recommended articles about the Australian Bushfires :  from The Guardian, “We are seeing the very worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires” (Jan. 3); “Australia’s fires have pumped out more emissions than 100 nations combined” (MIT Technology Review, Jan. 10) ; “Terror, hope, anger, kindness: the complexity of life as we face the new normal”  (Jan. 11, The Guardian);    “In Australia, the air poses a threat; people are rushing to hospitals in cities choked by smoke (Washington Post, Jan. 12); “Australia’s bushfires offer heated view into longstanding misinformation on climate change” (National Observer, Jan. 7); “Bushfire emergency leads thousands to protest against PM and climate change policies “( Australian Broadcasting Corp.,Jan. 10) , and the latest political development: “Scott Morrison to take proposal for bushfire royal commission to Cabinetreported on January 12 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also reported as  “Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires” in the New York Times (Jan. 12).  

Australian companies are moving to renewable energy to meet employee expectations for climate action

reenergizingREenergising Australian business: the corporate race to 100% renewable energy was released by  Greenpeace Australia Pacific on December 4.

Drawing on public information as well as 34 responses to a survey sent to 80 “big-brand” companies, the report presents analysis of the corporate move to renewable energy, covering seven major industry sectors, as well as case studies of individual companies. Of the 80 companies profiled: 30% have committed to move to 100% renewable energy ;  26% have signed a corporate power purchase agreement , and  65% have invested in rooftop or onsite solar.

Regarding job creation: The report estimates the impact if companies moved to 100% renewable energy to power their operations: for 3 of Australia’s largest companies  (Woolworths, Coles and Telstra)  it would create 4194 construction job-years and 232 ongoing jobs ; the 10 largest companies in the property and construction sector would create more than 1000 construction job-years, and the 14 largest telecommunications, IT, and technology companies would create around 2000 construction job-years.

What is driving the corporate move to renewables? “The UComms polling found 67% of Australians would prefer to work for a company that uses renewable energy, rather than one that doesn’t, while 100% of companies surveyed by Greenpeace reported that a key reason for shifting to renewable energy is employee expectation. In 2019, the Edelman Trust Barometer found 67% of employees “expect that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues” and 76% say “CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.”

Australian unions support offshore wind development as a means for Just Transition

Putting the ‘Justice’ in ‘Just Transition’: Tackling inequality in the new renewable economy  is a report released on November 7, co-written by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council and the Victorian Trades Hall Council . This is the latest development  in a union campaign to promote Australia’s offshore wind industry  , focusing on the Star of the South project, Australia’s first proposed offshore wind farm.  The report calls Australia offshore wind campaignfor government policies to support the emerging industry and to make the Star of the South “ the best possible example of a just transition” by diversifying the job opportunities for workers and communities currently reliant on coal, oil and gas.

Specifically, the new report recommends:

  • the Commonwealth establish an energy transition authority to work with states and regions, develop a stand-alone Offshore Renewables Act, and create an agency responsible for facilitating the development of offshore renewable energy in Commonwealth waters;
  • the development of offshore and onshore renewable energy master plans that incorporate assessments of supply chains, procurement and infrastructure;
  • ensuring renewable energy financing, targets, contracts, licensing and approvals require the maximising of local jobs, including planning for direct redeployment of workers from fossil fuel industries;
  • the Victorian Government establish a just transition group to ensure a well-planned energy transition with the best possible social outcomes by formally consulting with relevant stakeholders including trade unions, employers and communities;
  • maximising the social benefit of the Star of the South project by requiring local design, manufacturing, and construction;
  • funding of appropriate training and retraining through local TAFEs, along with minimum apprentice ratios; and
  • maximising the number of jobs available by ensuring good rosters and reasonable hours of work.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) represents seafarers supplying the offshore oil and gas industry, as well as workers in Newcastle’s coal terminals, and port and tug workers in coal export ports in New South Wales and Queensland.  The MUA is  part of the Offshore Alliance ,which works to organise workers and improve conditions in the offshore oil and gas industry. The MUA position on renewable energy and a discussion of the Just Transition campaign are available here ; the MUA maintains a petition here .

Scientists, engineers, doctors protest the climate emergency

Scientists captured global attention with dire climate warnings in November when the mainstream media amplified their message contained in an article published in the academic  journal BioScience.  The article itself is clear and direct, beginning with:

“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.” On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

On the issue of The Economy, the article states: “Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain long-term sustainability of the biosphere. We need a carbon-free economy that explicitly addresses human dependence on the biosphere and policies that guide economic decisions accordingly. Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

The Alliance of World Scientists invites scientists from around the world to sign on to the message. Summaries about the warnings appeared in The Guardian here  and in Common DreamsWarning of ‘Untold Human Suffering,’ Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency” .   A Canadian viewpoint  appears in an article in the  Edmonton edition of the Toronto Star ,“5 Alberta scientists tell us why they joined 11,000 scientific colleagues in declaring a climate emergency” .

Engineers:

Like the scientists, other professionals recently spoke up about their “moral obligation” to do what they can to fight the climate emergency.  “Leading Australian engineers turn their backs on new fossil fuel projects” in The Guardian reports: “About 1,000 Australian engineers and 90 organisations – including large firms and respected industry figures who have worked with fossil fuel companies – have signed a declaration to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change”.  The article focuses on  a new group, Australian Engineers Declare  , which issued an Open Letter in September 2019,  acknowledging that their professional organization, Engineers Australia, has a strong policy regarding climate change, but calling for faster action to address climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.  Engineers Declare states that engineers are connected to 65% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that “engineering teams have a responsibility to actively support the transition of our economy towards a low carbon future. This begins with honestly and loudly declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency…we commit to strengthening our work practices to create systems, infrastructure, technology and products that have a positive impact on the world around us.” The declaration continues to list specific actions, including: “Learn from and collaborate with First Nations to adopt work practices that are respectful, culturally sensitive and regenerative.”

Physicians:

doctors DXR-logo-webOn November 1, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious  medical journals which has published a Countdown Report on Climate Change and Health since 2016.  As reported in “Protesting climate change is a doctor’s duty” ,  the most recent remarks were made in a video  which calls for health professionals to engage in nonviolent social protest to address climate change. The video cites the British professional standard, Duties of a Doctor, and lauds  Doctors for Extinction Rebellion , four of whom have been arrested in London. The website of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion chronicles recent activities including that on October 17th 2019, the Royal College of Physicians committed to Divest from Fossil Fuels.

Recommendations for Just Transition coal phase-out in Europe

Bela Phasing-out-coal-a-just-transition-coverPhasing out coal – a just transition approach  was released as a Working Paper by the European Trade Union Institute in April – the latest of several publications on the topic by ETUI Senior Researcher and ACW associate Béla Galgóczi . Following  a summary of the role of coal in the European economy and the current employment structure of the broader coal sector, the paper provides an up-to-date summary of energy policies and just transition policies in France, Germany, Poland and Spain, and also looks at lessons learned from past phase-out experiences in the Ruhr Valley of Germany, Hazelwood coal plant in  Australia, and ENEL, Italy.  He notes that  a clear distinction should be made between hard coal regions, like the German Ruhr or Silesia in Poland, which are strongly-industrialized regions with a high level of urbanization and  a greater economic diversity,  and brown coal regions  such as German Lusatia or the Polish Lodzkie region, which  are rural areas with low population densities and employment concentrated in the mining and energy sectors.  The paper concludes that successful just transition requires, amongst other things: specific and targeted just coal transition policies with government involvement at the central and regional level; a properly-funded, specific mine closure agency, or a specialized agency for employment transitions for several years; individualized active labour market policies and personal coaching; and active EU-level financial support.

The author has made similar arguments  in a 5-page ETUI  Policy Brief,  From Paris to Katowice: the EU needs to step up its game on climate change and set its own just transition framework  (2018), and in his detailed  report  published by the ILO in October 2018 : Just Transition Towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies  and Societies for All, previously summarized in the WCR.