Green jobs in construction: Small changes – big effect

Construction was the first specific sector of the economy to be addressed in the ILO’s Green Jobs Initiative. The sector is responsible for 25-40 per cent of global energy use, and 30–40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Andrew Bibby, a London-based journalist, reports from the suburb of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest informal settlement, where the Kuyasa Initiative has targeted 2,000 homes for basic energy-saving measures, creating jobs at the same time.

The project, the first African initiative registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, is designed to produce a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and to improve local air pollution. The work undertaken includes the installation of insulated ceilings, solar water heaters (to replace expensive electric water heaters) and low-energy lighting. For the residents, there is an immediate saving: a reduction of up to 40 per cent on electricity costs.

The Kuyasa Initiative has also created jobs and helped community cohesion. Seventy-six jobs have been directly established, primarily in the task of installing the solar water heaters and ceilings, whilst indirectly South African companies manufacturing the technology are looking to success in Kuyasa to lead to a rapid growth in demand for their products and to employment creation. The community itself has been affected “dramatically”, according to site manager Zuko Ndamani: “It has brought together the community, something you don’t necessarily see in the townships,” he told the local West Cape News.

The modest venture in Kuyasa is a small indication of the potential significance which can come from the development of so-called “green jobs” in the construction sector, a subject tackled in detail in a report just published by the ILO. This focus on construction is part of the broader Green Jobs Initiative (see World of Work, No. 69), the unique partnership between the ILO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched in 2008 which also brings in the International Organisation of Employers and the International Trade Union Confederation.

As Elizabeth Tinoco, director of the ILO’s Sectoral Activities Department, points out, construction has been recognized as a significant contributor to global warming. “Construction is the main sector of the economy in regard to climate change impact – and hence in regard to potential for improvement. New buildings and refurbishment of existing buildings alike give the opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions and energy consumption, and to encourage the development of new professional skills leading to employment opportunities,” she says.

It is a message which deserves a wide audience, given the importance of the construction sector worldwide. The workers who are improving houses in Kuyusa are part of an estimated 111 million people who, across the globe, earn their livelihood in construction. The sector provides work for 7 per cent of the world’s formal workforce, and contributes 5–15 per cent of national GDP. The actual figure, including the informal economy, is much higher but difficult to estimate.

The evidence shows that green jobs do not automatically constitute decent work.

Three-quarters of these workers are in developing countries, and – as the new ILO report makes clear – there are particular opportunities in these countries to take practical steps to address environmental problems and to create new green jobs.

Whilst it is vital to ensure that new buildings are built to high environmental standards, appropriate retrofitting and refurbishment of existing buildings is even more important, given that most of the world’s building stock for the medium term has already been built. The challenge is to work with what we already have, to make it better.

According to Edmundo Werna, the ILO official with particular responsibility for green jobs and the construction industry, research suggests that construction is responsible for 25–40 per cent of global energy use, and 30–40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings overall contribute 33 per cent to CO2 emissions.

“The environmental impacts of the construction industry have been well documented. There are impacts related to the choice of sites for construction, to the construction process, and to the choice of building materials and equipment as well as to the products of the industry (e.g. the types of building). Construction has a significant role to play in the mitigation of climate change,” he says.

The ILO report, entitled Green jobs creation through sustainable refurbishment in the developing countries, offers case studies from Brazil and South Africa as well as an overview of good practice in the Netherlands. It points out that 2.3 million workers already work in renewable energy such as solar photovoltaics and solar thermals. It also suggests that there are significant opportunities for creating additional green jobs in sustainable refurbishment in developing countries.

An emblem of a more sustainable economy

Edmundo Werna echoes the report’s message. “Green jobs have become an emblem of a more sustainable economy and society that preserves the environment for present and future generations and is more equitable and inclusive,” he says. New green jobs in construction are particularly important, since the sector makes use of low-skilled workers and tends to attract entrants to the labour market. But he warns that the quality of these new green jobs is also an important issue.

“The evidence shows that green jobs do not automatically constitute decent work. Many of these jobs are dirty, dangerous and difficult. Employment in construction and other industries such as recycling and waste management tends to be precarious, and incomes from them are low. If green jobs are to be a bridge to a truly sustainable future, this needs to change.”

Data from a number of industrialized countries already show that construction workers are three to four times more likely than other workers to die from accidents at work, and the risks for workers in developing countries are greater still. Unfortunately, there are already examples collected by the UK-based NGO Hazards ( of accidents and poor safety and health practices in areas of industry related to energy saving and recycling. Hazards has challenged the use of toxic materials in technologies such as solar photovoltaics. “Green jobs are not necessarily risk-free jobs. Many green jobs are old jobs in green livery. The waste industry morphed into the recycling industry, and it remains many times more deadly than industry as whole,” claims Rory O’Neill of Hazards.

But green jobs are not necessarily decent jobs

For Edmundo Werna, issues like this underline the importance of linking together the Green Jobs Initiative with the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda. “Just because jobs are green doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be better for workers,” he points out. He adds that new technologies are likely to mean changes in the labour process which need to be taken into consideration. He also expresses concern that existing labour problems in construction, including the use of casual labour, poor working conditions and weak social dialogue, could be transferred to the new green jobs in the sector.

There are opportunities here to be taken, however. “The creation of green jobs entails an opportunity to provide training for specific target groups such as women, who have had limited openings in construction. Youth can also be targeted, and training in green jobs can give them specialized skills to enter the market. Specialized training for migrant workers can give them more power to negotiate better working conditions,” he maintains.

Certainly there are grounds for optimism. Many employers and governments have shown enthusiasm for the idea of green construction, and UNEP has built up through the Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative a valuable partnership with building-sector stakeholders including leading construction companies such as Skanska and Lafarge, professional associations such as the International Federation of Consulting Engineers, property investors and building managers.

There are also many opportunities for synergy between the different sectors of the built environment, including construction, infrastructure, utilities and waste management, and recycling. “There are linkages with regard to labour in the sectors of the built environment and there are benefits from addressing them in an integrated way. Green buildings are not an end in themselves. They are a foundation for sustainable cities and communities,” explains Werna.

And Elizabeth Tinoco also stresses the opportunities which are here for advancing the UN’s agenda for development. “Decent green jobs effectively link Millennium Development Goal 1 (poverty reduction) and Millennium Development Goal 7 (protecting the environment),” she says. “It makes them mutually supportive.”