Photo credits: kitbinan

On 6-7 October, the international symposium ‘The Labour-Environment Nexus: Legal Perspectives and Beyond’ – co-organised by the ETUI and the University of Aix-Marseille – brought together scholars from a range of jurisdictions and disciplines to reflect on the relationship between labour law and the environment. The aim of the symposium was to stimulate discussion of this emerging topic in the field of labour law, and contribute to the creation of an international community of legal scholars interested in questions of labour law, labour rights, just transition, sustainability and environmental protection. The full programme of the symposium and list of participants can be found here.

The symposium was structured around three main themes: conceptual and theoretical implications of the labour-environment nexus, regulation of labour and the environment, and Global South and vulnerable groups’ perspectives on the labour-environment nexus. Some of these themes were explored in the ETUI workshop ‘Exploring interfaces between labour and environmental law’ held online in April 2021 (a summary of this event can be found here).

One of the central tenets of the discussion throughout the symposium was the need for a fundamental rethinking of labour law – and law in general – in light of its co-evolution with capitalism and the market economy, as Simon Deakin (University of Cambridge) put it. Deakin pointed out that the law plays a central role in capitalism, for example by defining property rights and by determining liabilities for social and environmental harms. If we understand the environmental crisis as a crisis of capitalism, he argued, then law has a role in engendering and perpetuating this crisis.

Ania Zbyszewska (Carleton University) and Flavia Maximo (Federal University of Ouro Preto) pointed to the grounding of labour law in capitalist modernity and the enduring mark of coloniality, arguing that this has limited the scope of labour law to certain types of ‘productive work’. Elise Dermine (Université libre de Bruxelles), on the other hand, traced the roots of social law (labour and social security law) to productivism – the idea that productivity and economic growth are a central aim of human organisation. If (labour) law were to engage in a meaningful way with the environmental crisis and labour-environment relations, then it would need to be disentangled from the prevailing, and environmentally and socially damaging, capitalist paradigm.

The papers presented at the symposium also considered more specific challenges that labour lawyers need to think about in the context of the environmental and climate crises, as well as policy efforts to ensure a ‘just transition’ towards a low-carbon economy. An issue that received particular attention was that of informal work, which is widespread in countries of the Global South, but generally falls outside the scope of protection of labour law. A study by Ana Gomes (University of Fortaleza), Anil Verma (University of Toronto) and Dieric Guimarães (Fluminense Federal University) considered the position of waste-pickers in Brazil, arguing that these workers make a significant contribution to waste recycling in cities in the country, yet are often highly precarious, informal workers exposed to considerable environmental hazards. Sandra Fredman (University of Oxford) focused on the issues facing informal waste-pickers, as well as informal workers in the flower industry, highlighting the disproportionate impacts that environmental factors have on women workers, and arguing that just transition policy frameworks need to significantly step up efforts to address women’s disadvantage in this regard.

One of the clear conclusions of the two days of productive discussion and inspiring ideas was that further research and reflection is necessary to understand how labour law needs to be reconsidered and reshaped to nurture positive human-nature relations and take into account environmental considerations, as well as how ‘sustainable’ labour law can contribute to addressing the social and environmental challenges ahead.