World of work gets a collective vision

Posted on June 24, 2018


First published in City Press (June 24,2018)

Some small steps were taken in Cape Town last week that may provide signposts — and perhaps encourage some pressure — toward a better world of work. They were taken at a one-day workshop titled Decent Work Regulation in Africa, a collaboration between Britain’s Durham University, the University of Cape Town and York University in Canada.

The workshop was part of a move to establish a network of researchers and policy makers who aim to help introduce, maintain, monitor and enforce effective labour legislation to ensure “decent work”. This follows the perhaps belated response of several international bodies about the increasingly precarious, dangerous and unacceptable forms of work that millions of people around the world are having to face.

But there is no recognition that the sweatshops, the child and forced labour and vile, corrosive environments in which so many have to work may be the natural outcome of the present system. What we have now seems to be seen as natural; there is no alternative.

This blinkered view ignores almost completely the fact that unfettered competition between corporations, companies and countries leads to over production and capacity and so to job losses and social unrest and instability. This, in turn, provides fertile ground for political and religious charlatans, trumpeting intolerance that all too often erupts into nihilistic violence. And all made worse by ongoing jobless economic growth.

Few would now deny this reality: something is clearly wrong with the system. And social unrest and instability are bad for business.

So it is that even that pillar of the global free market establishment, the World Bank, has called for urgent reforms. In particular to deal with the “scourge” of poverty that is corroding the foundations of society, threatening to sink those on the heights, along with the huddled masses below.

Awareness of this reality has seen the United Nations set a target to eradicate poverty and hunger by 2030. Even that rich boys’ club, the World Economic Forum, has outlined “top ten skills” needed for a greater, happier and more prosperous future.

All of this reveals that even the major beneficiaries of the system are now concerned about the ongoing crisis — and perhaps equally concerned that they and the system that benefits them are not seen to be to blame. The system must remain intact, but still hold out the promise of a brighter, happier, more prosperous world ahead.

As that great Swedish-American labour activist, Joe Hill might have said, this all sounds very much like holding out the promise of “pie in the sky, by and by”.

But what it has done is trigger research into working conditions and into ways that these might be improved. This is where the university-based network — it includes representatives from governments, manufacturers, the labour movement and others — comes in.

Their orientation is toward regulations aimed at ensuring decent work at a living wage for all workers. It is an admirable goal and one that, especially given gluts and surplus capacity, along with the steady march of technology, will probably have limited effect.

But the research, regulatory proposals and how they could be monitored and implemented could positively affect the lives of a number of workers. It could also make more of the public aware of the poor conditions suffered by so many.

Perhaps, most importantly, such work and the publicity given to it, could revitalise the weakened trade union movement. A well organised, democratic and corruption free union organising the majority of workers in any sector, could ensure that decent work regulations were not only put in place, but were closely monitored — and enforced.