Will the circular economy be an economy with no workers? 

Safe jobs in the circular economy

(10 February 2020) Does the European Parliament think that the circular economy will be solely operated by robots, machines, and artificial intelligence? One can wonder after today’s European Parliament plenary session vote on the ENVI (INI) report – a response to the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan – which largely ignores workers. There are some weak references to the skills agenda, just transition and involvement of social partners. But despite the efforts of the left leaning minority in the chamber, the Parliament has failed to consider the need for high occupational health standards in the design of products or safe working conditions in recycling processes. 

One year ago, during the first lockdown that deeply shook European society, many of us joined the applause every evening to support front-line workers. All of us were grateful to nurses, care workers and police forces. Many of us also thought of the essential role played by water, sewage workers, waste collectors and sorters on which our societies heavily rely on a day-to-day basis. Yet it seems that one year later, the essential role of workers in these sectors has been forgotten. 

The invisible labour behind the circular economy is often performed by vulnerable and marginalised groups of workers, who receive low salaries and few employment rights, despite the hazardous conditions and health and safety risks posed by the job. The high-risk nature of the jobs the circular economy depends upon was made devastatingly clear by the deaths of three workers in the waste sector in February 2020, one in Portugal and two in Spain. 

Europe and the rest of the world are facing a climate and biodiversity emergency. Deeply transforming the way we produce and consume goods is essential to ensure the sustainability of our societies and environment. In that sense, we strongly support the European Commission’s effort to shift to a circular economy. Nevertheless, for EPSU which organizes workers in the waste and water industry, it is vital that policies and legislation are enacted to ensure safe and decent jobs to prevent any more tragedies. 

We urge the European decision-makers to take bold actions to protect circular economy workers’ health and safety. It's time to acknowledge that a shift to a circular economy will be a success only if we collectively ensure: 

  • High standards of workers’ occupational health and safety  
  • Quality jobs and decent pay and conditions through strong collective bargaining processes 
  • Improved quality of jobs through up-skilling and the fight against social dumping 
  • Publicly owned and democratically controlled waste and water services 

For more information on the work of the EPSU of circular economy contact [email protected]g