What’s the connection between environmental legislation, climate change – and workers’ rights? Heschel staffer Aviva Shemesh explains the idea of “just transition” illustrated by the very current example of the announced closing of the toxic petrochemical industries of the Haifa Bay.

The BAZAN Group, or ORL (Oil Refineries Ltd.) is an oil refining and petrochemicals company located in the Haifa Bay. It operates the largest integrated refining and petrochemical facility in the country, with a total oil refining capacity of approximately 9.8 million tons of crude oil per year. And the new Minister of the Environment, Gila Gamliel (Likud) has just announced that it will be closing its doors.

After a protracted struggle over many years by environmental groups, and local citizens’ organizations, Minister Gamliel announced the ministry’s decision to close the plant over the course of the coming decade, ideally by 2025. This decision was based in part on the government comptroller’s report (June, 2019) which revealed a deeply disturbing situation of illegal air pollution, lack of enforcement of environmental regulations, and high rates of morbidity and mortality in the area. The comptroller advised that an independent public review board be established to make recommendations to the government regarding the complex issue or closing or removing the petrochemical industries, including to insure fair treatment of the workers and their families who would lose their livelihoods.

The Heschel Center and others congratulate the minister for her bold decision, but have reiterated the need for public participation to insure adopting the principles of what is increasingly being referred to as “just transition.” This approach emphasizes the social aspects of environmental policy decisions, and in particular, providing an appropriate response, based on social justice and equity for those populations (such as factory workers) that will suffer from the closings of industries which are polluting or significant contributors to climate change. These principles are formulated in the declaration that was adopted at the UN Climate Change Conference held in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018, known as the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration.

The closing of the polluting factories will of course be devastating for the workers and their families, most of whom live in close proximity to the sites. These workers are paying the price of pollution twice over: first they paid with impaired health, having been exposed to dangerous toxic materials over the course of many years, and now in losing their livelihood.

The plan must include components such as monetary compensation for workers, and retraining with up-to-date skills for those who wish to remain in the workforce; a clear timetable for cleaning and reclaiming the land where the factories are sited (and the nearby beach and the ocean area); allocation of public housing units, with preference for factory workers who have been evacuated, and more. We can learn from similar cases in other countries where it is customary to make decisions based on public participation with input from all stakeholders, reaching a consensus that is acceptable to all concerned – government, business interests, workers’ groups, environmental watchdogs, and citizens.