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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 22:08 GMT
Labouring for a greener planet
Klaus Toepfer (Unep)
Klaus Toepfer

The trade union movement has a critical role to play in building a cleaner and more just planet, argues the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) in our new series of opinion pieces on the BBC News website entitled The Green Room.

Factory stack (BBC)
A few decades ago the relationship between the environment and the trade union movement was characterised as one of suspicion

In Nigeria, a campaign has been launched to consign health hazardous, outdated and obsolete chemicals to the history books. It should eventually benefit an estimated five million factory workers along with the wider West African environment.

A joint Norwegian and Russian programme is educating and training staff at Russian factories in areas such as health and safety and cleaner production techniques.

Gains are expected to include healthier working conditions and reduced emissions to land, water and air.

Meanwhile in Germany a project is underway to make 300,000 apartments energy efficient under a renovation scheme. It should generate 200,000 jobs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by two million tonnes.

The common thread running through these and numerous other pilots in both the developed and developing world is organised labour.

Indeed, they underscore the growing enthusiasm and commitment of trade unions to embrace sustainable development for the benefit of the workplace, communities living nearby and the global environment as a whole.

An enthusiasm also evidenced in the UN Global Compact, the initiative of the Secretary General, which has brought together a broad collation of private business and civil society.

Shared interest

A few decades ago the relationship between the environment and the trade union movement was characterised as one of suspicion.

Some in organised labour were concerned that environmental protection might jeopardize jobs by placing an undue burden on business and industry.

Environmentalists suspected that trade unions were bent on defending the status quo of heavy, and in many cases, polluting industry.

Those days are gone and these cobwebs of suspicion have been blown away by the realities of a modern globalised world.

Both sides now recognise the multiple benefits of reaching out in common cause.

There are obvious areas of mutual self interest, for example in the field of reducing exposure by workers and their families to harmful and dangerous substances.

International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates indicate that some 300,000 workers are killed each year as a result of exposure to chemical agents. This should and must be dramatically reduced.

Poverty targets

Other areas include a joint recognition that fighting environmental degradation is a win win battle. Take climate change.

Overcoming this most serious of serious threats will deliver not only a more stable and less wasteful world but one in which new, cleaner and more sustainable jobs can be generated in areas such as renewable energy systems and cleaner fossil fuel generation.

Meanwhile, organised labour can be a powerful catalyst for change, persuading employers and companies to be more environmentally responsible and resource efficient.

This should not only make firms more competitive - thus helping to maintain and boost employment prospects - but reduce the environmental footprint of such firms or sectors on forests and wildlife, up to water supplies and the Earth's protective ozone layer.

This blossoming relationship will come into sharp focus this month when 150 trade union leaders representing millions of workers meet at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Together, under the umbrella of the first World Assembly on Labour and the Environment, we will chart a new and forward-looking agenda aimed at taking organised labour and the global environment into a new sphere of cooperation.

The ultimate goal behind all of our aims will be a new push towards realisation of the Millennium Development Goals covering poverty eradication up to gender equality and environmental sustainability.

We are determined to make this unique event more than a mere talking fest.

United approach

A multi-pronged action plan, to be known as the Workers' Initiative for a Lasting Legacy or WILL2006, is set to be agreed in collaboration with Unep, the ILO, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the Sustainlabour Foundation.

Unep will also be looking to see how we can, in concrete terms, assist trade unions in replicating the more than 20 case studies scheduled to be presented at the Assembly.

Other areas of mutual self interest include training and educating on the latest developments in international environmental law in areas such as the newly adopted chemicals treaties, for example the Persistent Organic Pollutant or Stockholm Convention.

Over recent years, Unep has been reaching out to civil society from business and industry up to traditional environment and sustainable development groups, indigenous peoples and women.

The time for forging closer ties with trade unions has been long overdue. An estimated three billion people, or half those alive on the planet today, are classed as being in the global work force.

It is high time we made our manifest and mutual self interests work. Work for the man and women on the factory and office floor and in the fields of agriculture - and work for a cleaner, healthier and more dignified world for all.

Klaus Toepfer was Germany's Environment Minister before taking up his position at the UN. Unep hosts the World Assembly on Labour and the Environment in Nairobi, Kenya, 15-17 January

The Green Room is a new series of environmental opinion articles running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Klaus Toepfer? Do Greens care more for animal welfare and habitats than for the living standards of workers? Or can the Green movement and organised labour find common cause?

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