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Law Students on Workers' Rights Series

Climate Change and Workers’ Rights

July 14, 2021

By Danya Moodabagil 

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

While workers are threatened every day by lack of enforcement, employment law loopholes, and unequal power dynamics, the gravest threats that workers of the future will face are those brought on by the worsening state of our planet. 

Workers’ rights have always been in opposition to the needs and wants of capitalism, but in the decades to come, the values of our capitalist economy will show their true colors. As resources continue to shrink, liveable and arable land recedes, potable water vanishes, extreme weather events plague more of the globe, and key strongholds for climate stability erode, what will be left is a desperate scramble for what little remains of the Earth’s offerings. We know workers today are confronted with threats of many sizes and shapes, but how those conditions worsen will be determined by the weight of our environmental devastation. 

In my work with Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, I have become intimately aware of the lack of staffing, funding, and coordination within federal and state enforcement agencies. Often when health and safety issues are surfaced by workers, they are either retaliated against or told the problem will be addressed, and then never is. If workers feel empowered enough to file a complaint or request an inspection with their state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there is still no guarantee that an inspection will be conducted or that it will result in real change in the workplace. Funding and staffing at these agencies continue to be corroded by budget cuts and ongoing pressure from business interest lobbyists. 

Moreover, there is a core problem with how the law applies to and defines workers. The independent contractor has been used for years as a way to avoid the employment protections guaranteed to workers. Working with misclassified workers has illustrated for me the true power of business interests in the U.S. Through this classification loophole, workers in old and new industries face unsuitable pay and working conditions and do not share in the protections against discrimination and retaliation that employees do. 

As the gig economy roars ahead, I see little hope that the expanding role of technology and gig work in our society will be anything but catastrophic for workers. We see evidence of these threats when companies such as Uber and Lyft can successfully lobby to kill legislative efforts to secure protections for independent contractors, as they did with Proposition 22 in California in 2020. 

In addition, certain corporations, such as Amazon, which employs almost 800,000 workers, will continue to wield extraordinary power over our economy and society. The failed unionizing effort in Alabama this April 2021 is just one of many attempts by Amazon workers to secure better protections for themselves in an industry and company notorious for abuse and mistreatment of workers. There are several signs that Amazon may have legally and illegally influenced the union campaign and caused a no vote. There is also a profound interest in new antitrust regulations to reign in the technology industry. However, these companies have outsized power and control over the very tools of communication and social interaction that can be used to persuade the public against this kind of action. 

Immigration status is another of many factors that employers often exploit. As a paralegal with an immigration law firm, I saw firsthand the number of Central American migrants who fled simply because their ancestral land was not cultivable anymore. Then, when undocumented individuals come to the U.S. and encounter our job market they often only find low-paying, dangerous, and exploitative jobs. 

Already, the fastest-growing segment of migrants around the globe are climate refugees. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 143 million more climate migrants. By the year 2050, the dangers and obstacles for workers, in the U.S. and across the globe, will exist in this context of diminishing resources and exacerbated demand. These conditions will lead business owners and large corporations alike to turn desperate in their attempt to make a profit and magnify the workplace abuses already at play. 

We should expect to see a worsening of worker treatment, whether by hiring more migrant workers with the intention of exploiting their labor and subjecting them to perilous work conditions, paying even lower and more unlivable wages, or by cutting corners and ignoring health and safety regulations in the workplace. 

We have already seen what the scarcity and desperation of the COVID-19 pandemic led workers to accept and employers to exploit. There is a basic misunderstanding that must be addressed about what work is worth and what workers should have to endure to earn a living. 

Following a legal education, I hope to become a fighter for workers across the country who suffer and will continue to suffer from these threats. Workers and their advocates are gaining strength and power, and there is cause for optimism as we reimagine what a world built by and for workers will look like.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

When we discuss workers’ rights, we often start with the right to a workplace free from discrimination and sexual harassment. Workers deserve wages for all hours worked and protections against retaliation. But what about global issues – like climate change – that threaten working conditions?

In a sharp, insightful essay, Danya Moodabagil reminds us how climate instability will drive climate change refugees across borders and create less safe working conditions. If society continues to place corporate profits above workers’ rights, climate change will hurt more than the bottom line – it will also imperil workers.

Danya Moodabagil holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of San Diego. She will join the class of 2024 at Loyola University Chicago School of Law in the fall. Contact Moodabagil on LinkedIn.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.

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