Voices of workers throughout plastic cycle

An overview of the session: “Equitable Transition towards a Green Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers’ Rights in South Asia” at the 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights

“South Asia is being a dumping ground of the waste from the developed countries, and in this waste management, workers are forced to work in dirty and poor conditions,” a participant shared an ugly truth which in too many cases is proved to be a contributing cause of health issues found in workers in Nepal, India, and other countries in Asia.

“Workers don’t have access to regular health check-ups, and we can’t expect them to have access to a specialized healthcare system that will take care of their toxic pollution or exposure,” he said.

His message was clear and resonated the key points that the session titled: “Equitable transition toward green economy: challenges and opportunities for worker rights in South Asia” aimed to convey – a transition based on fairness, equity, and a responsibility to ensure that all those affected are being given voices and listened to is needed, as reflected by Dr. Pichamon Yeophantong, Chairperson and Member from Asia-Pacific States on the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights at the closing of the session.

The session was part of organized by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), International Organization for Migration (IOM), United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Kathmandu, Nepal from 20-22 March 2023. The theme of the forum this year focused on the ongoing challenges and opportunities for workers in the sub region.

Sharing her experience on how plastics have adverse impacts on fishermen and farmers during its lifetime, Swathi Seshadri, the team lead of the Oil and Gas Team at the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA) said that untreated waste – the last stage of plastic lifecycle – dumped into the sea affected not only the health of the sea but the livelihoods of fishermen in a larger scale.

The impacts also expand to farmers as agricultural lands are taken away for the expansion of petrochemical refineries which produces petrochemical and plastics – the first and the second stage of plastic lifecycle. Many local people including farmers inevitably entered the factory workforce due to limited career opportunities at home and are left to the mercy of working for these factories or facing a tough choice of moving away to find a better job in the city.

Representing waste pickers, who are the closest and play the most crucial role to plastics in its last stage of lifecycle, Suman Mariba More, Chairperson of SWaCH, a wholly-owned cooperative of self-employed waste collectors which provides front-end waste management services to the citizens of Pune, India said that it is important that waste pickers and their representatives are at the table when laws and policies related to the management of plastic waste are formulated.

“We do understand the effects of plastic because we put our hands in waste every day,” said Suman during the session, echoing her point that waste pickers are one of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to waste recycling.

“It is important to understand that waste pickers are not part of the problem but are part of the solution,” Aditya Vyas, Managing Trustee at Kashtakari Panchayat, overseeing programs that promote social security for waste pickers in Pune, India, reinforcing the point that Suman made. He highlighted that a just transition means that waste pickers have their say at the table where laws and policies are being decided and framed or else an injustice will be done for 30 million waste pickers around the world.

A just transition[1] is a concept coined since the 1980s and has gained traction in recent years with reference to meeting climate goals by ensuring the whole of society – all communities, all workers, all social groups – are brought along in the pivot to a net-zero future. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines it as: “Greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind[2].”

Informal sector like waste pickers’ is among the most vulnerable when a just transition is being discussed and it is crucial to ensure their meaningful participation as we are finding solutions to plastic pollution.

To effectively address the global plastic crisis, common rules and standards need to be agreed on to tackle plastics throughout its entire lifecycle. In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) endorsed a landmark resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding instrument with the ambition to complete negotiations by the end of 2024.

Andrés Del Castillo, Senior Attorney of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said that the discussion in the session is timely following the statement delivered by 33 States at the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council. “For the first time, within their statement, they called for the negotiation of plastic treaty to be firmly rooted in a human-rights based approach and also supported the idea of disproportionated impact on the specific groups like indigenous peoples, frontline communities and workers including and the occupational risk to waste pickers, especially women and girls,” he elaborated.

[1] https://climatepromise.undp.org/news-and-stories/what-just-transition-and-why-it-important

[2] https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/green-jobs/WCMS_824102