Header image for news printout

25th Conference of the Parties
Unions 4 Ambition Strategy Day
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


8 December 2019

Secretaries-General of the Confederacion Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, the Unión General de Trabajadores and the International Trade Union Confederation,

Executive Secretary of ECLAC,

Distinguished panellists,

And to all of you,

I thank you for your invitation to be a part of this strategy session, this discussion of climate priorities for action by the labour movement, globally, regionally and in countries.

I honour the long-standing struggle of your movements to ensure the rights to decent work, to social security, and to many other labour rights. Workers' rights are human rights; your struggle for social justice and dignity is fundamentally a human rights struggle.

In just two days, it will be Human Rights Day, which marks the universal acceptance that all human beings are born equal, with rights. The right to health. To be free of torture and discrimination. To decent housing, food, education, social protection. To live – and to work – in conditions of decency.

We have shared these struggles for decades. And now we are meeting to face yet another challenge: climate change and its impacts the daily life of millions of human beings.   

The climate emergency makes your activism and your advocacy more crucial than ever. It will leave no country untouched. Inequalities are already on the rise: 820 million people go hungry every day; 70 million young people are unemployed; and 1.3 billion children – in 2019 – are not covered by any social protection measures.

Climate change will make things worse. It is the people with least protection who are most at risk from climate harms: the poor, people subject to discrimination, informal workers without social protection of any kind, the unemployed. People who live in vulnerable, tidal areas; or on land that is being burned and swept away – and people whose voices have been made inaudible.  

But with this terrible threat comes opportunity. The effort to address climate change has the potential to bring us together to find common cause. The investments needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change have the potential to create new jobs and lift people from poverty. And the innovation, infrastructure and technology needed to mitigate climate change and build climate resilience have the potential to improve lives. 

Your struggle for dignity, and your expertise, will be invaluable in the task to meet the challenges of climate change and realize the potential benefits of climate action. In collective bargaining, and in representing the needs of so many people, you have gained real insight into the measures that are needed to protect us all.

Your participation is vital to the development and implementation of climate policies that are effective, to ensure a planet that is healthy and can nourish life.

In the transition to a green economy, your presence and support is needed to ensure that economic and industrial restructuring becomes a strong driver for inclusive growth, job creation and poverty eradication – and that it does not deepen inequalities, driving more people into misery.

Achieving a just transition is key – because if the process of transition is not just, then its outcomes will not be just, either. There must be focused social policies to mitigate and protect against the difficulties of industrial and economic change – including measures such as low and zero-emission public transportation, as countries shift to renewable energy.

A just transition can help societies create new industries and quality jobs. It can develop policies which effectively address the human rights challenges faced by people whose lives are being affected.

A just transition can build social inclusion and give people a sense of security in a world of rapid change. From fishing workers affected by the acidification of oceans to coal miners and workers in fossil fuel industries, workers, their families and their communities are affected – by climate change, and by the measures that are needed to address it. We need climate action that leaves no one behind, creates new opportunities for decent work, and helps to eradicate poverty – not deepen it.

Building a more just world, ensuring decent work for all and promoting ecologically sustainable growth must be common goals, for all of us. A just transition will require detailed and transparent planning, and social dialogue among all key actors, to fully explore opportunities for a more equitable and sustainable future.

The fundamental principles and standards of human rights, including the principles of equality, meaningful participation, transparency and accountability, are a guide for sustainable development and social protection systems. We can work together to make these principles the benchmark for all climate action.  

My Office is proud to have worked with trade unions for several years in the context of climate negotiations. We supported demands for a just transition in Paris at COP21, the Silesia Declaration in Katowice at COP24, and work on social and political drivers, including the climate and jobs initiative at the Climate Action Summit this past September.

We also continue to strengthen our work with ILO, to uphold and promote the right to social security – which is a fundamental right for all human beings, laid out in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our human rights struggle is about creating a world where all human beings are free from fear and from want: a world where people are not left unprotected in times of environmental disaster, hardship or crisis, be it unemployment, injury, ill-health, disability or old age.

The human rights approach means building inclusive, participatory societies that benefit from the skills of everyone. Societies where essential services are provided, such as adequate and accessible health care, education and housing – so that everyone reaps the benefits. It means constructing policies which strengthen peace, security, social resilience, and the public trust.

Many trade unions are our allies in countries where we work together to defend decent work and social security, the rights to assembly and association, and more. And the gains we have made, in many countries across the world, are a testament to the power of social justice in mobilising entire nations for the common good. We need to unite and strengthen our collective action for a just and ecological transition.

The struggle for human rights is crucial to effective climate action of the people, by the people and for the people. Because the ambitious and coordinated global action that we need will not be achieved if people lack decent work and social protection; if their participation in decisions is limited or non-existent; and if they suffer from deepening discrimination in their daily lives.

In recent years we have seen growing inequalities exacerbated by climate change contributing to social unrest, governance failures, inaction, suppression, and climate denialism. To exit this vicious cycle, we must realize the promise of the 2030 Agenda and support climate actions that will leave no one behind.

A just transition will include climate actions to fulfill the rights of those who are most affected by climate change. Upholding women's equality and rights should be a priority for all of us. Women are underpaid and over-represented in precarious jobs with no access to social protection. Climate change will create additional burdens for women, who are so often made responsible for the subsistence and daily survival of their families.

To address these challenges, we must encourage States to promote equal rights and opportunities in agriculture. To strengthen women's land rights and labour rights – including improving working conditions. To ensure women's access to financing and technological tools. To empower women to participate in shaping climate action. We need more ambitious nationally determined contributions. We need Article 6 mechanisms to adopt fundamental human rights protections, such as stakeholder consultations, environmental and social safeguards, and grievance mechanisms.

We also need a more equitable approach to loss and damage that guarantees access to effective remedy for all those affected by the climate crisis. And we must ensure that climate funds and policies benefit the countries and people most affected by climate harms.

Trade unions should have a key role in shaping these policies, including at COP25. This year we've seen young people, trade unionists, youths, indigenous peoples and countless others taking to the streets to demand justice ­– and climate justice. This is the power of collective bargaining: together, our voices are stronger. I am proud to see that our visions for justice in climate action are closely aligned, that our combined voices will reinforce and strengthen our shared demands for action.

It will not always be easy. But despite many obstacles – and often, danger – your movements have fought and won many struggles to ensure workers' rights and freedoms. I thank you all for stepping up once more, to meet the climate emergency's challenges to our fundamental human rights.

Thank you