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Steel workers demand better working conditions and a clear plan for navigating the green transition

26 September, 2023The reconstruction of Ukraine, the need to pay workers fairly amid the cost-of-living crisis and preparing clear socially just and inclusive plans for decarbonising the steel sector were issues raised by trade unions TUAC, IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll Europe at the OECD Steel Committee.

A large trade union delegation from 15 countries took part in the OECD Steel Committee in Paris on 25 and 26 September which speaks to the rising concerns and challenges that workers in the industry face including low wages, job quality, health and safety and the need to protect employment as the industry prepares for decarbonisation and green steel.

On Ukraine, the discussion encompassed the role of the OECD in supporting the country’s reconstruction once the war ends. The Ukrainian delegation presented their “Green Marshall Plan” for the iron and steel sectors and TUAC raised the importance of social dialogue and involving trade unions from the early stages of the plan, to make sure that workers are not left behind.

Veronica Nilsson, general secretary of TUAC, said:

“The original Marshall Plan showed the importance of involving trade unions in deciding how resources for reconstruction are deployed to benefit European workers and their families. The Ukrainian government must learn from that lesson, making sure that the views of Ukrainian workers are reflected in the reconstruction plan, and that social conditions s, collective bargaining and freedom of association are respected as crucial ingredients in the reconstruction of Ukraine.”

The global steel market is facing deep challenges. On the one hand, production and consumption are falling, due to increasing prices and mounting interest rates that depress investment. On the other, many countries in Asia, Middle East and Africa are insisting on expanding production capacity, leading to continuous rise in global steel excess capacity. Furthermore, the cost-of-living crisis has put additional pressure on steelworkers, whose wages have not kept up with inflation, while performing demanding jobs, sometimes at their own personal physical risk.

Christine Oliver, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, commented:

“trade unions firmly oppose cost-cutting at the expense of workers’ well-being and the environment. With substantial profits and dividends reported in the steel sector in past quarters, now it is more than time for multinational steel companies to direct significant investment into fair wages, improved working conditions, health and safety, workforce skills development and decarbonation.”

The need to reduce the carbon footprint of the steel industry poses an urgent challenge, but it is also another factor of uncertainty for the steel market and employment in the industry. Trade unions insisted that a socially just transition should be included in the to-be-revised mandate of the Steel Committee and stressed that investment and re-skilling policies will not be sufficient to preserve employment levels and guarantee decent jobs for all steel workers in the sector. OECD governments were urged to do their part, providing adequate industrial policy and economic development plans and social protection to ensure a sustainable green transition and future for steelworkers and their families.

Judith Kirton‒Darling, acting joint general secretary of industriAll European Trade Union, concluded:

“Assessing future skills needs is important to prepare for the twin green and digital transitions, but ensuring a just transition requires much more. Trade unions call for employment mapping and in-depth discussions between the unions, employers and regional/national authorities to ensure that no worker is left behind. Steelworkers are at the heart of the transition to a decarbonised steel industry, and they must be involved in the process from start to finish.”

The meeting sadly coincided with the passing of US United Steelworkers Union International President Tom Conway, a leading voice in the union movement and strong advocate of fair trade in the interest of workers. The Steel Committee remembered his work and legacy, while the US delegation re-confirmed the US Government’s commitment to work with the trade unions.