Advocating ‘any job’ is part of the problem

Posted on February 3, 2011


The trade union movement, nationally and internationally‚ can be excused for being more than a trifle sceptical about announcements that the world is recovering from economic crisis. Unsurprisingly, this was the reported assessment of most business delegates to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that ended last weekend.

In one, very narrow, respect this is a correct conclusion: the rich, after a brief hiatus in wealth generation, are again getting richer. European and US banks, many that had to be salvaged by means of taxpayer’s funds, are again profitable — and paying seven-figure bonuses to their executives.

A classic example is Bob Diamond, of Britain’s Barclays Bank, that effectively owns South Africa’s Absa. Already the highest paid banker in Britain, Diamond is in line this year for a nine-figure bonus of some R100 million.

There is no government or public restriction on this payment because Barclays avoided taking taxpayer’s money to keep afloat; instead it sold a sizable chunk of equity to members of the royal family in the Gulf state of Qatar. And, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc), this bank is a leader in dodging taxation — and therefore making as little contribution as possible to the public good.

It does so by moving funds into tax havens such as the Cayman and Jersey islands, the Isle of Man, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Luxembourg. This is, of course, completely legal — and to the benefit of the often very wealthy shareholder minority.

Questioned last month before Britain’s House of Commons treasury committee, Diamond admitted that, last year, Barclays had 181 subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands alone, an increase of 38 since 2008. The Ituc points out that, as these tax avoidance schemes grew, so too did global unemployment. It is now at a record high, conservatively estimated at 210 million able bodied men and women job seekers who are unemployed.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 34 million workers were added after 2008 to this historically highest figure. That was the year when the collapse of investment banker Lehrman Brothers triggered what was initially known as the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The ILO also notes that, of those men and women currently in work internationally, more than half are classified as being “engaged in precarious and vulnerable employment”. They are, for the most part, casual, informal labourers doing often dirty and dangerous work for a pittance.

Another 23 million workers, mainly in the industrialised countries, were saved from post-2008 joblessness by various stimulus packages introduced by governments in desperate attempts to stave off social dislocation or even potential collapse. These jobs are now again on the line as the same governments indulge in cuts to social and other services to keep the system afloat.

Keeping the system afloat means maintaining economic growth and profitability. This has been done — and accounts for what are seen as signs of recovery by the business sector and its political cheerleaders. But the cost, as the ILO points out, has been to push an estimate 64 million more people into extreme poverty.

And so far, on the jobs front, there is no sign of improvement; where jobs are being created they tend to be of the vulnerable sort, low paid and temporary. This further worsens what the Ituc calls the “decent work deficit”.

Yet governments and business continue to issue calls — that South African unions constantly resist — for workers to become “more competitive”. This is summed up in the insistence that “any job is better than no job”.

However, in a world of plenty where surplus capacity exists, the only way to become more competitive is to reduce the costs of production. This, in the final analysis, means cutting workers’ wages and reducing benefits and the standards of health and safety.

So, in order for one group of workers to become more competitive, it has to do so at the expense of others. Textile and garments workers in South Africa, for example, have lost their jobs to even lower paid workers in countries such as China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

They have also lost them to much more poorly compensated labour in countries such as Malawi and Lesotho. It is the logic of the present economic system and cannot be otherwise in times of surplus.

In order to get back to the provision of more employment — to boom times on a global scale — requires the massive destruction of productive capacity, both in terms of human and machine resources. Wars provide a good means. But however a recovery is managed it comes at extraordinary cost to working people the world over.

Yet the motto of the international labour movement is that an injury to one is an injury to all. On this basis, one group of workers should never seek to benefit at the expense of another group. But this is precisely the behaviour required by the system.

In addition, there is the increasing pressure of an annually growing army of new job seekers. According to the United Nations, there are, in round figures, 45 million of these mainly young men and women entered the market this year. South Africa contributes more than 500 000 to the global statistic.

What this means is that even if the government manages to achieve its target of creating 500 000 “job opportunities” this year (and classifies them as jobs) it will merely maintain the existing rate of unemployment. However, such job creation, coupled with often marginal rates of economic growth, seem to be what the bankers and business people at the WEF call signs of recovery, of moving toward “business as usual”.

But, as ILO director-general, Juan Somavia has stressed, a reversion to a pre-crisis situation will be “insufficient to meet the needs of most people alive today”. Something better, more equitable and fundamentally more democratic is demanded.

What it may be is still debated, but on one issue the unions are clear: jobs at any price merely adds to the problem.