Unity on climate change has never been more urgent

Learning from the devastation in the Philippines

The rising death toll from Typhoon Bopha which hit Mindanao in the Southern Philippines this week highlights the vulnerability of communities around the world to the impact of climate change and serves as a timely reminder to government representatives currently at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha of the need for urgent collective action.

I witnessed myself the devastation that such violent storms can cause during my visit with UNICEF UK to Mindanao just a year ago in the aftermath of Typhoon Washi which killed thousands of people. Seeing the devastated area and talking with the government, NGOs and survivors in the refugee shelters it was clear that despite the tragedy reconstruction was already underway. During my visit I was told that typhoons and tropical storms were less common in the south of the country but climate change means that more areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable. I can’t help but think about the people I met who had lost everything and were trying to rebuild their lives. As a result of climate change those same people may now be facing situations such as this with increasing regularity. 

It is the most vulnerable in society who are likely to be the ones who will be the most affected by these events. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 756 million children living in the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change and at least half of all people who die in disasters are children. They experience unimaginable fear and confusion as they attempt to deal with the loss of the most stable aspects of their lives, whether that is family members, their home, regular meals or schooling.

The Philippines is listed as the sixth country in the world most vulnerable to climate change and the response to Typhoon Bopha has been a good example of how preparatory measures can save lives. The people in affected areas had been warned by phone messages, the media and the government. It is vital to ensure the most vulnerable, including children, are adequately prepared and the new global institution for finance, the Green Climate Fund, should be constructed in a way that ensures it helps to deliver protection for children in the most vulnerable countries.

As international leaders meet this week at the 18th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP18) ambitious action is needed to ensure global emissions are reduced. We cannot afford not to recognise the impact of climate change on the lives and wellbeing of those in developed and developing nations alike. Governments must also ensure that they mobilise new and additional funds for 2013 and beyond to meet the global goal of $100bn a year by 2020. It is essential that the resources are available for the adaptation measures needed to ensure that children in all nations do not grow up in a world of further climate extremes. I hope that COP18 will put the needs of children at the heart of initiatives to limit the damage of climate change.

As people in the UK battle to save their homes from floods, families in America seek to repair the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy and this latest typhoon claims further lives in the Philippines the importance of our commitment to address climate change has never been clearer. It has confirmed to me once again how we are united in our differences. The capacity of people to weather the storm must be equal no matter on what continent the storm lands and the current UN negotiations provide an important opportunity to demonstrate a united response to the global problem of climate change.

Tony Cunningham is Shadow International Development Minister, MP for Workington

Damage wrought by Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines (Getty Images)
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.