UN environmental agency and organized labour work to keep environment clean

17 January 2006

Leaders from more than 150 trade unions representing millions of workers around the globe agreed today to wrap environmental rights – such as access to water and energy – into their definition of traditional workers’ rights at a meeting hosted in Nairobi by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The move to place access to basic resources like water and energy on par with more traditional workers’ rights as freedom of association and collective bargaining was enveloped into a multi-prong action plan hammered out during the first World Assembly on Labour and the Environment. The three-day meeting concluded today.

Known as The Workers’ Initiative for a Lasting Legacy, or WILL2006, the pact that emerged from the session also included action on climate change and the promotion of sustainable production and consumption patterns.

In addition, union leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation between unions and organizations such as UNEP, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as government ministries – all with an eye to strengthening health and safety standards on the job while achieving broad environmental goals.

“Trade Unions and their role in the work place can be a catalyst for positive environmental change while bearing witness to occupational practices that have the potential to harm or improve not only workers and their families, but planet Earth as a whole,” Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said at the Assembly’s close. “I am sure that many case studies, presented here on chemicals and climate change up to cleaner production initiatives, will be taken forward and replicated across the developing and developed world.”

Organized labour’s growing role as a catalyst to improve the global environment came into sharper focus as union leaders pledged to work towards government reforms that recognize environmental rights and to watch programmes that deliver safe and environmentally friendly industrial, manufacturing and production processes.

Held with the support of the UN Global Compact, the Assembly re-affirmed that decent and secure jobs, crucial for sustainable livelihoods, are only possible in an environmentally healthy world. One specific goal was working towards a complete ban of asbestos and its safe disposal as outlined in the Basel Convention, a global agreement that addresses the problems and challenges posed by hazardous waste. The Convention’s Secretariat in Geneva is administered by UNEP.