The squeeze on workers
Work is often loaded with all kinds of moral and social significance to justify its centrality in our lives. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a more essential aspect into sharp – and desperate – focus: that throughout history work has meant strategic action to ensure survival.
There is no way of getting past this bare and rather basic fact when confronted with the reality of multitudes of labourers who, it is generally supposed, should not be working at all (or at least not full-time): children.
Ahead of the World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June, UNICEF announced that progress towards ending child labour had stalled, with a rise of 8.4 million in work over the past four years. Of the total 160 million working children, half were in hazardous work (defined as ‘likely to harm their health, safety or morals’). And there were dire warnings – of an additional 9 million being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 due to the pandemic, with the possibility of this number ballooning to 46 million without ‘critical social protection coverage’.
Some days earlier, a report by Human Rights Watch had recorded the testimony of a few of these children, such as 13-year-old Florence from Uganda, who said: ‘I started working because we were so badly off. The hunger at home was too much for us to sit and wait.’ And 15-year-old Kiran from Nepal, whose family had borrowed money after being out of work for months during the pandemic: ‘If I go back to school now, my family will go further into debt. We have a lot to repay and I cannot add more expenses to what’s already there.’ Fourteen-year-old Gita, also from Nepal, described working at a carpet loom from 4.00am to 10.00pm: ‘My fingers hurt from knotting the threads… my eyes hurt from looking at the design map… and I sit down for hours so it really hurts my legs.’ Back-breaking work, exposure to toxic materials, long hours, beatings and ridiculously low pay were all recounted in a grisly parade of stories.
There have of course been civil society responses, like teachers’ unions and NGOs in Malawi attempting to persuade parents to return their children to school, and some governments in the Global South offering basic material support. Unsurprisingly it has been nowhere near enough. Low-income countries spend only 1.1 per cent of GDP on social protection (compared to 16.4 per cent for high-income countries), while often shelling out eye-watering sums to service foreign debt. More than half the world’s people – 53 per cent – can expect no social benefits whatsoever from their governments.
The supreme irony here is that children are being forced into work because the adults they depend upon have either been forced out of it or did not earn enough to survive. If we return to the UNICEF announcement, we notice this rising trend of child labour was underway before the pandemic; Covid-19 accelerated it.
A wide margin
The disruption caused by the pandemic has been seen by many commentators as offering a moment of revelation in the world of work (among other things), laying bare the shortcomings of how things were, and still are, and offering an opening to imagine how things could be.
Among the many tragedies it exposed was the shocking conditions of those supposedly working on the margins – who in fact form the majority of workers of the world (six out of every ten). These are the people whose work is classified as ‘informal’ (as opposed to jobs offering fixed terms and wages). They scratch together a living doing an assortment of tasks but have no contracts or legislative protection, relying instead on their wits and circumstance. Numerous agricultural workers now fall into this capacious category, as do the legions of displaced rural workers seeking whatever work they can find in cities. As human geographer Will Monteith puts it: ‘Populations subsisting outside of wage labour continue to be characterized through notions of deviance and surplus; as informal workers, “dangerous classes” and “wasted lives” – as peoples without history or future.’ With gig and piece-work expanding in wealthy nations as well, this informality is a global phenomenon, although the vast majority of such workers remain in the Global South.
When the pandemic hit and lockdowns became evident, these were among the first workers to lose their livelihoods in cities – street vendors, rickshaw pullers, domestics, construction and day labourers, all kinds of people hired to do short-term jobs with no employment guarantees. Scenes of the wretched exodus of millions of informal workers from Indian cities as a result of a snap lockdown flashed across television screens worldwide. But similar movements, albeit smaller in scale, were taking place in many other countries as well, with people returning to the rural places from where they had originally been uprooted due to the critical lack of agricultural income.
Migrants who had gone further afield to new countries suddenly found themselves abandoned. An estimated 400,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers had returned empty-handed by February 2021, with no jobs waiting for them back home. The impact of the loss of their remittances was calculated to affect up to a third of the country’s population.
And then there are workers at the tail-end of global value chains, subcontracted into exploitative conditions to squeeze the maximum profit from the fruits of their labour – for the benefit of the corporate giants of the West. Again, in Bangladesh, over a quarter of the four million workers in the garment sector felt the fall-out from cancelled orders – when they were either fired or furloughed.
Such scenes of devastation, along with the landslide loss of jobs among the lowest-paid workers in numerous wealthy Western nations, revealed fault-lines of insecurity and precarity that were evident well before the pandemic. There were calls to reimagine work, to ‘build back better’, for just transitions, for supporting the big state that could step up and provide the social security that employment had clearly failed to deliver for so many. But as the gears are changed to get economies moving again, the tone has shifted. It is looking increasingly like a predictable race to get back to normal. Only problem is, normal was already going down a dark path.
Abundance and scarcity
Work precarity is now almost a given in contemporary employment even in the West, and not just for gig economy workers. Through the neoliberal decades since the 1980s, job security has been eroded both by technology and the attack on labour conditions. Unionization was actively driven down by policy (although the pandemic’s fall-out has brought a surge of people wanting to form and join unions).
As adequate welfare becomes a distant dream, property prices (whether mortgage or rental) inexorably rise, student debts pile up and services get privatized; workers are finding that work precarity is matched by an overall precarity of circumstance – at any given moment something could give and your life could go down the pan. This is increasingly becoming the narrative of middle-class millennials. As Anne Helen Petersen puts it: ‘The promised security of adulthood never seems to arrive, no matter how hard we try to organize our lives or tighten our already tight budgets.’ Work-related stress accounts for over half of days lost to illness and, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. If large numbers of the Western middle classes feel they can barely keep their heads above water, what of those who have experienced much worse precarity for considerably longer – those born into and unable to rise above poverty, or forced into statelessness?
To get one’s head around any of this, one needs to get beyond the scarcity thinking that is the bulwark of the capitalist ordering of society. Just as there is no scarcity of food to feed all humans on this Earth, instead there are terrible inequalities in how we distribute it (see our previous edition Who gets to eat?), so also, on current levels of productive output, there is no scarcity of all the essentials of life: we can provide for everyone. The anthropologist James Suzman, who has studied hunter-gatherer societies, explains how their worldview rested upon a presumption of abundance – their wants were few and they were confident that nature could meet them. They were ‘fiercely egalitarian’, he says, sharing food and resources; ‘they mock people who try to gather too much’. They rarely worked more than 15 hours a week, spending the rest of their time in leisure and the things that brought them happiness.
Fifteen hours of work a week was also what economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting in 1930 for the world’s peoples by the early 21st century – as a result of capital growth, improved productivity and technological advances, which would result in a situation where everybody’s basic needs could be satisfied. The goals of capital growth and productivity that Keynes envisioned were met decades ago – yet we live in an increasingly unequal world and hard work remains the norm for large sections of the workforce, with constant availability, ‘flexibility’ and often unrealistic pressure to upskill just to hang on to work.
Since the 1980s the labour share of national income – the amount paid out in wages and benefits – has been steadily declining. Within this shrinking share there are vast differences – the top 10 per cent hoover up nearly half of global income, while the lowest paid 20 per cent (some 65 million workers) must make do with less than one per cent, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile the portion going to capital keeps expanding; thus ‘simply owning assets such as shares and housing is a more expedient route to economic success; “earning” a living is an anachronistic term,’ according to authors Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis. ‘Unsurprisingly, some are calling this new economy “rentier capitalism”,’ they continue, ‘where those who inherit wealth or simply own assets thrive and where “work does not pay” for the many.’
Meanwhile most national economies are in a state of deindustrialization. The population that once shifted from agricultural work (not so long ago the primary occupation of most of humankind) to industry has now been shunted into the service sector, where the growing pool of labour is leading to downward wage competition. The technology-aided productivity of industrial workers has led to overcapacity and stagnation. Increasingly as capital gets concentrated in the hands of a few giant firms, they are the ones who call the shots; even rightwing critics bemoan the resultant lack of dynamism. The pursuit of profit was always short-sighted, now it is to the exception of all else. No wonder that a 28-nation survey in 2019 found that 56 per cent of its 30,000-plus respondents believed ‘Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world’. A staggering 83 per cent feared losing their jobs. Such insecurity amid such great productivity and material abundance!
The wellspring is surely the fearful asymmetry of power between those who hold the keys of capital and the multitudes queueing up outside, whose labour, vital though it may be, counts for little. Indeed, think of countless so-called ‘key workers’ whose work is considered essential to keep society functioning but who remain poorly paid and badly treated. The pandemic added an extra level of risk to such professions, as these workers, including healthcare staff, had to keep going no matter what. It shone a light on care work, done disproportionately by women, which remains unpaid and unaccounted for but without which the wheels of the economy would grind to a halt (see our previous edition A caring economy).
Add to this the fear of a technological takeover, in which automation advances without social oversight, wiping out swathes of jobs. It has done so repeatedly in the past and some of today’s captains of industry dream of ‘dark factories’ where the production line operates with no human involvement whatsoever. Technology in the hands of capital has also spurred on the race to the bottom, where the jobs that do still require human input get outsourced to countries where labour remains cheaper than the machine. China’s huge investment in robots is seen as a countermove to the rising wages in the country, enabling it to remain a production powerhouse of ‘cheap’ goods.
The threat of mass automation is viewed by many analysts these days as more of a ‘takeover of tasks’, rather than a destroyer of jobs in their totality. It results in fragmented, eroded jobs where the human has to accommodate the requirements of the machine or algorithm, keep adapting and learning to keep up. Less a question of joblessness than of good-joblessness. Workers in some large warehouses for delivery companies like DHL and Office Depot have encountered Chuck, a robot trolley that leads them to the goods they need to pick and gather together. Handy, one might think. But the pace is set by Chuck, which makes the human following behind work twice as hard compared to pushing the trolley themselves.
Another disturbing development is microwork, which has an estimated 20 million people around the world, competing to perform ‘human intelligence tasks’ posted on digital platforms. These usually involve wading through digital data (for example, identifying whether there is a human in an image), and cleaning up the data in such a way that AI systems can eventually learn to do it themselves. It is atomized, ridiculously ill-paid work, with the hosting platforms taking their cut – and yet there are many more takers for it than there is work to be done. ‘It betokens’, as a recent book on the phenomenon puts it, ‘a future in which growing numbers of workers are not erased by machines but squeezed to the point of vanishing.’
It is undeniable that machines are better suited to doing many jobs – think of amazing advances in diagnostics as also tedious, repetitive work that would have been done by humans. The challenge of advances in automation remains a political one – what to do with the fruits it brings and the labour it substitutes or saves?
Unsurprisingly tech utopians come from across the political spectrum. You can have fully automated luxury capitalism or communism, take your pick.1 In the former, automation takes over for the lords of capital, spurring relentless planet-busting economic growth, guaranteeing a modest portion for each human to keep them going and stratospheric wealth for the elite, everybody happy. (Sounds suspiciously like trickle-down.) In the latter, it’s all automatic for the people, with the cornucopia that is produced removing the need to corner resources, resulting in a world of leisure, peace and plenty for all, everybody happy. The problem with this position is that it seems to assume an automatic end to inequality, a battle that much of our political system hasn’t even begun to engage with.
The real future
And that is where the potential lies for a fair future of work; if the control over the economy can be wrested away from the asset owners, indeed if asset ownership were to be socialized even partially, then so could work itself. We could prioritize socially important work and divide it fairly, free up people to do the work they love as well as enjoy leisure, and ensure sufficiency regardless of capacity to work. No-one need be surplus in the jobs market. We could finally reach the levels of solidarity, co-operation and redistribution, and curtailing of excess, that would make urgently needed degrowth something we could all embrace. And perhaps then we would no longer find ourselves listening to a worker-exploiting billionaire, who went into space in a rocket-phallus, waxing lyrical about the fragility of the planet.
Needless to say, we seem far from this turning point. Despite people’s discontent with the system, the widespread economic uncertainty so many feel and the desperate migrations it prompts seem to trigger moves towards nativist, populist politics that alas hold no answers.
Yet the upheaval of the pandemic has resurfaced progressive ideas that had fallen out of favour – and others that had been bubbling away in the background – up into the popular imagination. Among them were calls for a bigger role for the state in mediating working lives, after furlough schemes in some wealthy countries successfully kept the worst at bay. Workers’ rights began to be demanded and interest in unions burgeoned. The importance of social security provision, calls for a universal basic income and the need to curb and redistribute extreme wealth gained renewed impetus.
Whereas there was much anger at the lack of international solidarity around vaccine provision, issues of unequal exchange in international trade and unjust foreign debt, both of which are designed to keep poor countries poor, did not quite get the spotlight they deserved. Eventually for working lives to really improve, the love-in between the state and big corporations will need to change to a much more regulated relationship. Currently the asset holders need only threaten a capital strike (withholding investment or moving it out of the country) to bring governments to heel double quick. Chipping away at that power will be fundamental to reimagining society – and work – to suit us all.
1 ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ is the title of a book by Aaron Bastani (Verso, 2019), which argues for the creation of widespread prosperity via technology.