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Economic Precarity, Climate Change, and Mobility - Part II

In this new series, CDPI Researcher Azin Emami will establish some of the linkages between climate change, displacement, various forms of mobility, and economic precarity. Part II explores labour migration as an adaptation strategy more directly, and how it links to economic precarity.

Filipino farmers out in the field. The Philippines is ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. (Source: Phillipine News Agency, 2022)

  • Climate change impacts are being felt in many low-income and subsistence communities, leading to labour migration as an adaptation decision around both slow- and sudden-onset events;

  • Because many labour migrants leaving economically depressed regions have few options, they can find themselves in dangerous occupations, or in precarious work arrangements

Throughout the world, climate change is threatening the livelihoods of low-income and subsistence communities. Marginalized communities are often disproportionately impacted by climate change. For many farmers and fisherfolk, they are not only often the first to be physically impacted by climate disasters, but also often the hardest hit in economic terms as well. Faced with crop failures or other losses, these populations seek to diversify their incomes, often through migration to urban centres or neighbouring countries with labour shortages. However, as this blog post will uncover: multiple challenges arise as economically disenfranchised people seek new opportunities amidst the urgency of climate change, and the predatory instincts of many economic actors.

When Opportunity Turns to Danger

The Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, collapsed on 24 April 2013, killing at least 1,132 people and leaving more than 2,500 injured. Only five months earlier, 112 workers had lost their lives, trapped inside the Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Rana Plaza shortly after its collapse as rescuers work to remove still-trapped workers. (Source: Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, 2013)

These disasters were unfortunate reminders of the poor labour conditions faced by workers in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh. Every day, millions of people, mostly women and girls, are exposed to unsafe work environments with a high incidence of work-related accidents and death, as well as occupational diseases, making these tragedies all too frequent.

The Rana Plaza was located in Dhaka's outskirt Savar. Communities like this within Bangladesh, which are some of the fastest growing in the entire world, are significantly driven by the influx of rural labourers - many of whom are leaving behind declining economic conditions in their home communities.

Bangladesh has historically been impacted by tropical storms, flooding and other natural disasters. However, climate change is accelerating extreme weather events, resulting in new patterns of displacement and rapid, chaotic urbanization. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the State Department and other foreign aid agencies have not done enough to combat climate change-induced migration in developing countries, and highlighted Bangladesh as particularly vulnerable. In many ways, Dhaka foreshadows what could happen as global centres of commerce increasingly are looked to as “refuge cities” from the impacts of climate change, and declining local economies. But this only need be true if greater action is not taken.

Iran has been experiencing a massive drought for years. These images of Lake Orumiyeh, the bottom taken in 1998 and the top in 2011, show just how water-stressed some regions are. (Source: NASA, 2013)

As another example: In Iran, farmers across the country are lamenting a loss of a way of life, as they deal with the effects of drought. In June, Iran’s Meteorological Organization said 72% the country’s 80 million people were living in “prolonged drought” conditions. Lakes are drying up and cities like Tehran have considered rationing water. Iran’s worsening water crisis has spread desperation, with younger family members leaving villages in search of scarce work in overcrowded cities, often in factories. The elderly and those left behind often forego medical care and have very little to survive. One trend that is consistent throughout these examples is that agricultural workers whose livelihoods are increasingly challenged by environmental factors often end up in exploitative industries that are degrading to the environment.

These more vulnerable countries make up some of the largest migrant labour-sending countries in the world, a trend that, sadly, is only likely to intensify unless greater climate action is taken.

The construction industry is one of the largest employment sectors in the Gulf Cooperation Council of the Middle East and workers predominantly come from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines, all places that are deeply affected by environmental disasters.

The search for a higher income or better jobs can be traced indirectly to environmental factors, which have deprived many of their traditional livelihoods. The upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar and related projects have required the recruitment of thousands of new migrants from the aforementioned countries in a short time frame. Tragically, the Guardian revealed in 2021 that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup. The vast majority of these migrant workers had been involved in low-wage, dangerous and extremely difficult labouring work.

Halfway across the world, the Pacific islands have been experiencing the existential threat of climate change. Here as well, temporary migration schemes were introduced to recruit migrants from climate change hotspots. Although not formally recognized as climate change adaptation strategies, the Recognized Seasonal Employers Scheme (RSE) was introduced to assist employers from particular industries in New Zealand attract seasonal workers from the Pacific islands. These seasonal workers are often recruited to fill seasonal shortages in destination countries, especially in the agricultural sector, usually lasting a few months, during the harvesting periods. The contracts typically last 7-9 months, and the recruits are usually young males, with unfair discrimination favouring married men who are seen as being more stable and less likely to run away than single men. Low skilled migrant workers often have to accept below average wages and conditions in the destination. By comparison, skilled temporary ‘expatriate’ temporary migrant workers often have conditions that are above average for workers at their destination.

Similarly, through the Pacific Access Category program, 75 citizens of Tuvalu, 75 from Kiribati and 250 from Tonga could immigrate to New Zealand prior . However, as discussed by Cohen and Bradley at the program's start, it was not designed to respond to the protection needs of the citizens of small island states struggling with the impacts of climate change. The initiative is considered a migration program and access to the program requires that workers be 18-45 years old, have a job offer, speak English, pass a health check and have no criminal record. It does not meaningfully consider the behaviour of predatory employers towards those who are most deeply impacted, and made economic precarious, by climate change and environmental degradation.

Embracing Mobility, Protecting Against Precarity, and Respecting Rights

These patterns of degradation and precarity show how tightly linked environmental degradation is to the livelihoods of threatened communities, and how labour migration can be part of their climate adaptation decision-making. Proponents of using labor migration policy as a tool for climate change adaptation argue that if high-income states were to open their borders to more labour migrants from climate change hotspots, then the most at-risk populations would be more likely to protect themselves against its worst outcomes, through remittances and income diversification, for example.

Observers, particularly from the Global North, have to be careful here to both recognise the agency of migrants in deciding to move, whilst also critiquing and responding to the unjust systems within which that movement takes place. A collective approach is required to both make sense of the complex patterns of mobility that are at play, as well as to build safe, dignified and just systems of mobility in the age of climate change.

Mayors from around the world in Copenhagen to announce the push for a Global Green New Deal (Source: C40, 2019)

Fundamentally, something like a Global Green New Deal is essential. Our global economic system is badly broken and not only leaves billions out of hard-earned prosperity, but is rapidly depleting the fundamental ecological systems we depend on.

Where labour migration does become a preferred livelihood strategy, receiving states must work much harder to respect international labour standards and uphold human rights. At the same time, we must be mindful of the fact that labour migration is not a viable strategy for many and we must concurrently focus on creating more inclusive approaches for those who are unable or unwilling to leave their homes and livelihoods behind.

CDPI’s work highlights the need for a multipronged agenda for zero-carbon, just, and resilient mobility. In the context of international labour migration challenges laid out here, it is crucial that all states adhere to the principles and recommendations of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Global Compact on Migration, and Article VI of the Glasgow Climate Pact.

As the International Labour Organization has said, well-managed, rights-based labour mobility and adaptation policies can provide an opportunity to boost resilience and enhance development while reducing the risk of future climate displacement. Countries like Canada must play an active role in ensuring that the rights of migrant workers are protected while creating more sustainable and equitable job opportunities for those who seek to diversify their incomes. In the next blog, we turn to climate change and labour migration patterns in North America. Stay tuned!

Written by CDPI Researcher Azin Emami, with editorial support from George Benson.

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