What would happen if energy union leaders from across the Asia Pacific region gathered to share their knowledge of the impact decarbonization policy is having on the electricity sector, renewable energy, and the struggle for a just transition? As you might expect, there was agreement on the need for international solidarity and an end to privatization, and a shared demand that a low-carbon future is public!
The workshop, entitled Fighting for Publicly Owned Renewable Energy Systems, was held as a web conference on Thursday 2 September 2021, and was attended by energy union representatives from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, The Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Japan.
Rapid action for publicly owned renewable energy
Opening the workshop, Kate Lappin, PSI Regional Secretary for Asia Pacific, noted that “the energy sector in the Asia-Pacific region will undergo a seismic transformation in the next two decades, [with] increasing recognition from governments that fossil fuels must be phased out to avoid climate catastrophe."
“While PSI supports rapid action to address the climate crisis, we are increasingly concerned that the transition is being used as a tool to privatize energy and destroy unionized jobs,” continued Kate. “A genuine commitment to decarbonize the economy requires a publicly managed and publicly owned transition to renewable energies with decent jobs.”
Kate celebrated the strong engagement and collaboration of affiliates with the campaign to influence the Asia Development Bank’s new energy policy over the last year. This resulted in an important win whereby a conditionality which would have forced any state-owned energy enterprises benefiting from ADB funding to undergo a dialogue to introduce neoliberal reforms was removed from a draft policy. Despite this victory, unions expressed great concern about the overarching focus of the proposed policy to use public money to subsidize the private sector to own and operate new renewable energy.
More outrage was expressed at the recent ADB announcement to create Private Public Partnerships for early coal closure in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. This proposal amounts to an attempt to profit from transition and has been driven by financial firms in the Global North desperate to open a new frontier of privatization. It compromises a sensible and swift publicly run phase out program which would ensure a just transition for workers and communities.
Unions resolved to continue to campaign to hold the ADB to account and struggle for a publicly-owned low carbon energy sector across the Asia Pacific.
Regional Perspectives: South Korea, India, Australia and Indonesia
Participants heard from four electricity union leaders during the workshop, each offering an update on the struggles for publicly owned renewable energy in their respective countries.
Tae Sub Nam, Head of the Federation of Korean Public Industry Trade Union (FKPITU) Strategic Planning Department/Korean National Electrical Workers Union, told participants about the ongoing attacks on publicly owned energy systems in South Korea.
Despite strong union campaigns and legal rulings to keep energy public, over the last decade public ownership has continued to be eroded. This has been exacerbated by the increasing uptake of renewable energy in the country, spurred on by the 2030 and more recent 2025 targets.
Tae Sub Nam warned that if this is to be achieved using the current private development model, more than 11,000 good union jobs would be lost in the energy sector. FKPITU and the affiliated Korean National Electrical Workers Union have been engaged with the government through social dialogue. However, Tae Sub Nam warned that this process was challenging given the flawed private development model for renewable energy that the government is committed to.
In the face of these difficulties, international solidarity is essential to building strategies for a just transition. “What we do together with affiliates is map out the just transition,” he said. “This movement must be expanded across the world. We must share our strategies. We have to involve other elements of society, not only unions. We see the relation between climate crisis and social justice inequality. That way, we can expand our campaign.”
Prema Walter, Vice President of the Tamil Nādu Electricity Employees and Contract Labourer’s Union, shared an update on the ongoing struggle to keep energy public in India, with renewable energy presenting a new frontier to push privatization.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Modi government introduced the Electricity Amendment Act, opening the door for the privatization of distribution companies, and often justified as being part of a green energy transition. Unions have responded strongly across India, with the federation of electricity unions in India, the National Coordination Committee of Electricity Employees & Engineers (NCCOEEE), organizing to oppose the parliamentary bill. On 19 July 2021, protests were held across the country, and a memorandum against the bill was handed to the Power Minister. Following a negotiation meeting between the Power Minister and the union, the bill was not placed before Parliament.
In the state of Tamil Nadu, a joint action group of electricity unions including PSI affiliates held a meeting with the State Electricity Minister and shared their concern over the proposed bill and its negative impacts, including the centralization of power, privatization and contractualization, and the ending of subsidies to farmers. The minister assured the delegation of position of the state government and affirmed that it would oppose the bill if it were tabled in Parliament.
“We will keep protesting and fighting against privatization,” Prema declared.
Michael Wright, Assistant National Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), offered an account of both the tragic failures of privatization in Australia, and the opportunities for victory the ETU has had.
From the 1990s, Australia moved from state-owned electricity systems to a fully privatized market model across most the country. This has failed to deliver what it promised. Electricity prices have soared, and household disconnections have spiked; tens of thousands of good union jobs have been lost, while armies of marketing employees have swelled; and costly government intervention is now required in order to ensure reliability and attempt to decarbonize the coal-based system.
This came to a head during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people, injured 400, and destroyed 2000 houses. “This was a disaster,” Michael said. A key cause of the fires was unproperly maintained transmission lines and a private company was found liable. “After the fire, the government built and paid compensation for victim families in a huge number, including repairing the electricity grid. It shows clearly that the private companies prioritize profit over people.”
Despite this governments have continued with the neoliberal model for new renewable energy projects which are possible with large government subsidies, and there continues to be a ‘race to the bottom’ regarding workers’ conditions and entitlements. The ETU continues to battle unscrupulous often third-party employers who are constructing solar farms using unqualified labor, and often ignoring basic worker health and safety.
On the other hand, Michael provided a positive example in the state of Queensland, where public ownership of electricity had been maintained until it was threatened in the 2015 state election. Unions held campaigns at grassroot level to fight against this policy. The campaign was called ‘Not for Sale’ and included a demand for the government to directly own and operate new renewable energy.
“It was a big campaign. We got the government on our side. But it turned out having someone in the government who was on our side was not enough. Electricity is not only for the unions, but also for the people,” he said.
The campaign was successful, and the government committed to maintain public ownership of electricity. A new agency, Clean Co, has been created to develop publicly owned renewable energy and ensure workers in coal assets have transition opportunities.
Andy Wijaya, General Secretary of Persatuan Pegawai Indonesia Power (PPIP) offered an account of the ongoing resistance of energy unions in the country to new attempts at power privatization.
Efforts to privatize power in Indonesia have taken many forms over several decades, and under the current scheme unions are resisting, the government establishes a holding company controlling stock and company assets, and then sells some of the shares through an Initial Public Offering (IPO).
“Today, we filed for judicial review against Employment Creation Law, especially related to electricity cluster. We are also fighting against holding-sub holding and IPO,” said Andy.
Over the last twenty years, there have been union and civil society victories against similar arrangements, including through the process of constitutional challenges, where courts have ruled that electricity must be provided as a public good.
In the recent struggle
s, the unions have also strongly highlighted the need for new renewable energy sources to be directly owned and operated by the state-owned utility, PLN, providing an opportunity to address the youth unemployment crisis across the country through creating good trade union jobs.
Energy unions must lead the struggle for renewable energy
Closing the workshop, David Boys, PSI Deputy General Secretary, paid tribute the historic strength of unions in energy sector
“We depend on our affiliates and energy sector to lead this struggle for our member and also the sustainability of our lives,” he concluded.