Asia’s huge pool of informal workers must not be left behind in the global push for greener economies, officials and experts said, warning of social repercussions if the transition away from fossil fuels leaves unprotected labour more vulnerable.
Despite decades of economic growth, Asia-Pacific accounts for about two-thirds of the world’s 2 billion informal workers, in sectors from industry to agriculture, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The rate of informal employment across the region, including those in part-time and temporary jobs without social protection, is on average 68% of the workforce.
That poses a challenge to Asian governments seeking to shift to a low-carbon economy and employ a larger share of labour in areas such as renewable energy, officials told an ILO forum on the theme of “just transition” this week.
Amina Maharjan, an expert on livelihood and migration in Nepal with the non-profit International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said it was important to ensure informal workers do not simply lose their traditional livelihoods.
In coal-dependent countries like India and Indonesia, for example, many local communities earn a living from coal mining – work that is set to disappear as the world steps up efforts to ditch fossil fuels and curb climate change.
Workers need help – including social safety nets and skills training – to benefit from “quality jobs” in new, greener areas such as solar power or clean transport, Maharjan added.
How to achieve a socially fair, green transition emerged as a top priority when countries met in Scotland last month for the COP26 climate talks, working to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times.
Broadly, a just transition seeks to ensure the benefits of a green economy shift are shared widely, while supporting those who could lose out economically in the move away from fossil fuels and other high-carbon industries.
Some developing countries have said they will struggle to transition without international support in the form of finance and technology, while in parts of Asia, the highly informal workforce could further complicate efforts, officials say.
In the Philippines, for example, a government push to phase out jeepneys – hugely popular, cheap passenger trucks – for more environmentally friendly public transport has met strong opposition.
The operators and drivers of some 200,000 jeepneys in the Southeast Asian country of 105 million people have called the move “anti-poor” and a threat to their livelihoods.
Paola Alvarez, an assistant secretary at the Philippines’ Department of Finance, said jeepneys provide an “informal means of transportation” for a majority of the rural and urban poor.
“The factor we need to look into is: How do we properly capacitate the drivers and the labour force that will be affected when we make this transition?” she told the ILO forum.
In Indonesia too, which has about 70 million informal workers – from motorcycle taxi drivers to farmers – ensuring small and medium-sized businesses, its main economic pillar, have the capacity to transform and retrain workers is key.
“The skilling programme will be critical,” said Anna Amalia, a specialist at the environmental affairs division of Indonesia’s National Development Planning Ministry.
Smaller enterprises usually have limited capacity to provide good working conditions and labour rights protection, she added.
At the Glasgow climate talks, developing nations pushed for more support for a “just transition” from wealthy governments, which made a series of financial pledges towards that goal.
They included a $2.5-billion funding programme to help South Africa, India, Indonesia and the Philippines wean themselves off coal power and onto clean energy in a swift, socially just way.
South Africa will also be able to tap a further $8.5 billion from a separate donor partnership that plans to assist the world’s 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases to move away from coal power and drastically reduce its emissions by 2030.
Kate Hughes, a climate-change specialist at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, said that while there is a consensus on the need for a just transition, the discussion now is how best to go about it, urging the ILO to produce clear guidelines.
“There’s good recognition that we need to do it, but limited practical examples,” Hughes said, adding that in Asia especially, a big swathe of the economy will likely be affected.
“Fishing, transport, forestry, agriculture – there are so many industries that will be impacted, and we need to push that just transition conversation to be broader than the energy sector,” she said.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; editing by Megan Rowling. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters)