ASEAN National and Regional Frameworks for Promoting Green Jobs
Southeast Asia (SEA) is one of the regions that has suffered the most from unchecked environmental calamities caused by climate change. This has forced SEA countries to adopt new environmental sustainability strategies to face the challenges of climate change. These policies are arguably represented as creating green jobs, yet at the same time eliminate jobs in traditional and climate-affected sectors. The big losers are likely to be working- and middle-class people, who make up a large proportion of the SEA population. Protection of low- and mid-income workers is needed for an effective and fair greening of the economy. This article examines the labour market strategies that individual countries have put in place in order to protect their citizens in face of the transition. It also looks at an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) approach to a green labour market and a balance of multiple goals that ASEAN has to juggle amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. ASEAN recognizes the importance of a collaborative and holistic approach that encompasses both economic recovery and mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Promoting green jobs at the country level
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the employment implications from climate change arise in two main areas. Firstly, due to the decarbonisation of economic activities to meet commitments for the Paris Agreement, jobs are likely to arise in new green industries and the demand for labour shrinks as certain industries reduce in size. Secondly, adverse climate impacts contribute to employment disruption (ILO, 2021).
ASEAN policy instruments that make specific links from promoting green growth to the job market encompass four areas: (1) promoting job creation in the environmental sector; (2) tackling job losses; (3) facilitating skills for green jobs; and (4) assistance of climate-affected workers. ASEAN Member States (AMS) have specific, and fairly recent, strategies that focus on the green transition of economies.
Within this framework, individual countries emphasize job creation. They set out solid targets for the generation of new jobs in the environmental sector. Brunei’s Energy White Paper targets a total of 40000 jobs in the energy sector by 2035 (Government of Brunei Darussalam, 2013); the Eleventh Malaysia Plan targets 15300 jobs (Government of Malaysia, 2015); whereas Singapore mentions in their Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 14000 high value-added jobs in the water sector (Singapore Government, 2014). These nearly universal [JO3] measures aim to provide and strengthen support mechanisms such as investments in green sectors, financial incentives in the form of tax reduction and import duties exemption. Some countries seek to establish and accelerate the building of climate-resilient infrastructure (Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, Vietnam) (ILO, 2021). Others also emphasize the importance of research and development activities (Singapore).
The means in place to address job disruption are less evident. The Philippines’ Green Job Acts recognizes concerns for job losses and the country has in place an unemployment insurance programme (also known as Involuntary Separation Benefit), and an emergency employment programme that supports displaced workers (Republic of the Philippines, n.d.). Thailand’s Master Plan on Climate Change 2015-2050 aims to promote a low-carbon industrial environment while also calls for the protection of domestic manufacturing and industrial jobs (Government of Thailand, 2015).
As development of green technologies is intensified for transition, skills better suited to a greener economy are needed. ASEAN countries are closely aligned in measures to prepare for green skills. The strategies all conclude the creation of professional training programmes, courses and certifications. Both Malaysia and Singapore have relevant authorities that offer accredited training and promote research and development activities. Malaysia makes a clear reference to skills in biomass, biogas, mini-hydro and solar photovoltaic systems. Thailand aims to cooperate with the private sector for the training of its labour force. Cambodia is ambitious in planning to mainstream green growth into the education system.
Agriculture contributes to a large proportion of many lower-income countries (and 28.8% for average ASEAN), yet it is also vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. On the other hand, agriculture is one of the sectors that have the greatest potential for green job opportunities (ILO, 2019). The Cambodian Climate Change Strategic Plan and Lao DPR’s National Adaptation Programme to Climate Change prioritize the promotion of resilience in this sector by encouraging the adoption of animal and crop varieties that are better suited to the changing climate (ILO, 2021; Royal Government of Cambodia, 2013). Myanmar’s climate-smart sector-wise responses consider agriculture, fisheries and livestock sectors and Thailand also pays attention to tourism. Cambodia, Lao DPR, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand provide financial measurements such as access to microfinance, provision of additional support in the form of capital to diversify income-generating resources. AMS seek to improve social protection mechanisms and insurance schemes (ILO, 2021).
Regional Framework and Covid-19
Pre-existing collective ASEAN approaches to green jobs include the ASEAN Declaration on Promoting Green Jobs for Equity and Inclusive Growth of ASEAN Community. ASEAN commit to coordinating on researching and developing TVET on green skills, working with relevant stakeholders, and facilitating sharing of knowledge and practices amongst AMS. The Declaration marks a significant step for a regional response to a need for mitigation and adaptation measures, from a labour market perspective.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, AMS have experienced greater job loss and more severe impacts are found for vulnerable groups such as youth, women, ethnic minorities. However, experts at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have suggested a 4.4% growth rate in 2021 and a projection of 5.1% in 2022 (ADB, n.d.). Given a clearer sign of recovery, AMS have the capabilities to face the challenges and opportunity to accelerate green job promotion.
In light of the pandemic, the key policy issue that ties to the green economy is whether countries can implement a fiscal recovery package while still meeting their commitments to a greener future. In a fiscally constrained environment, policymakers could consider regulatory models that offer fair returns to encourage investment in these sectors.
Regional frameworks are relevant for reference when governments face challenges. It can provide clear guidelines which are common to all AMS as well as a reference for the assessment of national and regional readiness for disruptions. Being one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, Southeast Asia needs to double its economic policies as adaptation policies. A green recovery offers ASEAN long-term competitiveness in a global economy that increasingly requires green practices. It seems that on the job market front, ASEAN still has a lot of work to do.
In the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF), there is no broad strategy or direct link between the framework and greener job markets (ASEAN, 2020). ACRF does, however, emphasize the need to build green infrastructure and promote sustainable investment in the energy sector. These measurements are assumed to stimulate growth and employment. Policymakers and companies are encouraged to look past the urge for short-term measures but instead take into account resilience, inclusion, and sustainability. While good progress has been made about greening the economy in general, the specific framework related to green jobs needs further strengthening.
What is more, important elements are left for national interpretation. For example, the need for a common and workable definition of green jobs has been addressed by ILO in the pre-pandemic period but has not been incorporated elsewhere (ILO, 2021). Additionally, as each AMS works at their own pace, they leave knowledge gaps at the regional level. Since green policies encompass many fields including development and employment policy, training and skills development, sector-wise policy, coherence and coordination are critical issues in the successful implementation of green policies. ASEAN needs to work on establishing a knowledge-sharing platform, making data and assessments of their policy implementation transparent, and establishing a coordination mechanism to replicate success and prevent policy failure. This might call for a more proactive ASEAN role to push its member states towards a coherent strategy.
Green jobs are a high priority in ASEAN. As the adverse effects of climate change begin to intensify, it is important that ASEAN countries ready themselves in terms of adaptation and mitigation measures, as well as ensure that countries’ capabilities are on par with their partners. AMS have made progress in policymaking and successful implementation of their strategies, yet more work needs to be done to create a level playing field between countries.
Without regional regulations and efforts that directly target the labour market, AMS is likely to fall short in a global community that increasingly requires greener practices. ASEAN may find itself stuck in the trap of rising unemployment and poverty, thus might consequently opt for policies for short-term returns. This is especially true during disruptions, such as with the current pandemic, that cause mass job loss and hinder the progress of a green transition. It is crucial that ASEAN take on a more proactive role and pragmatic approach to green job strategies, which not only ensures policy coherence but also boosts the countries’ and the region’s readiness to face challenges.
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