Depending who you believe, the great green industries gold rush - which will see the creation of eco-villages, more sustainable energy production, and a dizzying array of other ambitious plans - could result in anything from 400,000 to well over 1 million new 'green collar' jobs in the UK. But while politicians wax lyrical about the wonders of these new jobs, there is little attention being given to their quality.
Far from being our economic salvation, left to its own devices the green economy could deliver the same unhealthy mix of hire-and-fire, poison-and-pain jobs that remain a blight on the reputational landscape of the not-so-green economy. This isn’t paranoia. It’s already happening, and it is happening on a grand scale.
The recycling industry is the waste industry in green clothing. But while the waste wagons have new livery, the old habits have remained unchanged. Working in the waste sector is about the most dangerous job you can have on land. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures rank the waste and recycling industry 10 times more deadly than other jobs (Hazards 106).
What’s green and makes you sick?
If the safety breaches don’t get you, then the health hazards of your green job just might. Several workers at Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd’s Huddersfield operation suffered mercury poisoning, one of them hospitalised as a result. After HSE required urine tests on the whole workforce at the lead and mercury contaminated work site, the firm was served with a prohibition notice. The notice, and several improvement notices, put an immediate stop on reclamation of fluorescent lamps and required the introduction of proper health surveillance.
Wind turbine blademaker Vestas Blades UK Ltd was also the subject of a green collar by the health and safety police. It was fined £10,000 in June 2009 and ordered to pay £25,000 costs after 13 employees developed occupational dermatitis. The workers had suffered symptoms including severe itching and swellings and rashes on their arms, wrists, hands and face, caused by epoxy resins used in slapdash fashion in the production of the blades.
Green jobs are certain to have all the hazards of old jobs, and could have unforeseen new hazards all of their own. Problems likely to be encountered in “green jobs” include exposure to lead and asbestos in the course of energy efficiency retrofitting and 'weatherisation' in older buildings, and respiratory hazards from exposure to fibreglass and other materials in re-insulation projects. Workers could also face ergonomic hazards from the installation of large insulation panels and fall hazards in the installation of heavy energy-efficient windows and solar panels, or in the construction and maintenance of wind turbines.
And they will face one other traditional hazard; bad management.
Vestas Blades, a world leader in production of wind turbines, was supposed to provide the jobs of tomorrow. Instead, in July 2009 it provided the redundancy notices of today, for 600 plus staff at its Newport, Isle of Wight factory. In a distinctly un-green move, it will instead ship production to the US and China – and if UK government plans to expand wind power are to be realised, it will have to import the blades right back again because Vestas was the only blade manufacturer based in the UK.
Not just jobs
Unions in the US, where President Barack Obama has announced a multi-billion dollar green jobs plan, have started to address the issue of job quality as well as quantity.
‘High road or low road? Job quality in the new green economy’, a February 2009 report commissioned by several US unions and environmental groups, found green jobs were often bad jobs, with low wages, exploitation of immigrant labour, poor health and safety standards and gross violations of employment rights.
Creating good green jobs is not something that will happen by accident. AFL-CIO, the US national union federation, has invested $1m in a Center for Green Jobs.
It says its mission is to influence public policy and assist unions to 'implement real green jobs initiatives - initiatives that retain and create good union jobs, provide pathways to those jobs and assist with the design and implementation of training programmes to prepare incumbent workers as well as job seekers for these family-sustaining careers.'
Whereas there is a long history of alliances between union and environmental groups in the US – organisations like the Blue Green Alliance, for example, linking blue collar workers with green groups – initiatives in the UK have tended to be ad hoc and impermanent.
Bad jobs are not a green solution for the UK. It will take a concerted union effort to make sure the green jobs agenda doesn’t save the environment but cost lives.
Find out more: www.hazards.org/greenjobs
This article first appeared in Hazards online magazine. Rory O'Neill is the magazine's editor.