Workers’ Rights = Climate Action

Speech at SG Climate Rally’s May Day 2021 Conversation, 1 May 2021, 3pm

Source: SG Climate Rally

Hello everyone, happy May Day!

I am Anthea, pronouns she/her. I’m wearing a black hat with a grey jumpsuit. I am Zooming from my living room, behind me to my right is a print version of Klimt’s famous painting called Water Serpents II — to my left is a row of windows that look out to the sea.

We are here today to honour our workers on this Labour Day because without labour, nothing prospers. We are also here to hold members of our working class front and centre in our climate actions because without climate equity, everyone suffers. There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.

The Budget announcement of the petrol hike to take immediate effect was a shock to many. What baffled me was that the policy premise seems to run contrary to existing studies that have found driving behaviour to be insensitive to fuel price changes in the short run. Yet the economic burden on our working class is certain, immediate and long-tail.

Notwithstanding the rebates extended to cushion the hike, this is a deafening reminder that we must make sure that our climate policies and actions do not end up widening further our social inequality by disproportionately penalising those who are making an honest living yet contributing the least to our carbon emissions.

How can we do that? By not excluding them from the planning.

The SG Green Plan 2030 announced during Budget 2021 is a whole-of-nation movement to advance Singapore’s national agenda on sustainable development. Even though I think we could be bolder with our goals, I was thankful for the multi-agency intention to reframe the climate crisis as a systemic effort.

Unfortunately, the agencies that represent our workers and vulnerable communities were missing from this multi-agency list! MOM and MSF should also, in my view, be co-creating and co-leading because our Green Plan cannot only be about carbon emissions, built environments and the economy without intentionally integrating the interests of our workers and the vulnerable into these goals and actions.

For example, under the Green Economy goal, MOM could lay out clear strategies to prepare our workers, especially the low wage ones but also the 28,000 or more workers in the petrochemical industry, to acquire ‘green’ skills beyond MTI just creating green jobs. MSF could lead the charge for a paradigm policy shift for the green economy to lift low income families from poverty. Under Energy Reset, MOM must consider the undignified plight of our workers in the back of lorries and push for safer and cleaner energy transport options to be included now and not later. Under Resilient Future, MOM could give our workplace safety & health standards more teeth and relevance to climate change in order to build resilient workers by including heat stress, mental health, transport safety etc. MOM could create more protection for self employed persons and migrant workers as the future of work changes.

Also, we can’t talk about workers’ rights and climate action without including NTUC. Beyond the good work by NTUC Fairprice with plastic bags and food waste, and NTUC Income with the EcoRun, I invite NTUC to step up with a deliberate strategy to address the impact of climate change on all workers and ask for a seat at the table for our workers. In fact, the NTUC Chief had already made a clarion call in his National Day message in 2019 that “workers must be at the heart of policy-making”. He was referring to the changes that Singapore faces with industry 4.0 and automation in that speech but I am sure he believes this to be true for our efforts to arrest the climate emergency as well — yes, workers must be at the heart of policymaking.

Sorry that I am busting my 5-minute limit but I want to make sure that you don’t go away thinking I’m saying we just leave this work to the Government and institutions, not at all. We must do our part with what we have from where we are. We can join groups like SGCR to volunteer and speak up for our workers and other vulnerable groups. But also push ourselves to go beyond just staying in a single group or cause to embrace intersectionality so we truly have a chance of changing the system (come join A Good Space!). Eco-anxiety mustn’t become ego-anxiety because we think our way is the only or better way! As employees, we can do our part too to make sure that our low wage colleagues’ needs are better supported as sustainability efforts are being made.

Lastly, we must remember that we do not make change for, but with the very people we are supporting. Because we will be amazed at the strengths that exist within each community when we don’t see people as problems to fix but as possibilities.

(I didn’t get to finish this last bit below because I was cut off by the Chair of the event)

When the petrol hike was announced, I was thinking of Michael* (not his real name), a 39-year old private hire driver, whom we supported last year through the Mind the Gap collective. This allowed him to clear the remaining 40% of his Medisave liabilities (he had worked hard to save for 60%) so that he can then renew his PHDVL and resume his livelihood.

For Michael and many like him, I signed the petition by SGCR. Because, as the late anthropologist Margaret Mead observed, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Thank you all for listening, and speaking up.

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Anthea Ong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (A Good Space, Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, SG Mental Health Matters), Leadership Coach and Author of 50 Shades of Love. Anthea initiated the Mind the Gap Collective in mid April 2020 as Chairperson of A Good Space Co-operative Ltd. www.antheaong.com

Here’s a link to my long and short bios.