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'Labour is not a commodity' through the lens of a global pandemic

28th July, 2020

Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University and Labour Law Down Under Blog – this post draws upon my Preface for the forthcoming book ‘”Labour is not a Commodity” Today: The Value of Work and Its Rules between Innovation and Tradition’ (Emanuele Dagnino, Margherita Roiatti & Anthony Forsyth, eds, Cambridge Scholars Publishing,  2020). 

The book presents selected papers from the 10th ADAPT International Conference held in Bergamo, Italy, in November 2019, offering local and global perspectives on the International Labour Organization’s founding mantra – ‘labour is not a commodity’ – in its centenary year. Here I explore the meaning of this concept in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work Status, Work Classification, Organizational Flexibility

The pandemic has wrought destruction on the health, well-being and economic security of citizens across the world. The effects of government lockdown measures to control the virus have been most harshly visited on precarious workers. Those who do not have permanent employment status are the least likely to have sick leave entitlements. Many have been faced with the dilemma of having to continue working, rather than self-isolating when awaiting test results or having tested positive for COVID-19. Then there are the millions working in the gig economy, misclassified as ‘self-employed’ by platform operators and therefore with little choice but to carry on delivering food or providing rides with next to no protection from infection. Managerial power has been enhanced, as long-standing protections (for those with employment status) come under pressure from recessionary impacts and renewed calls for flexibility to aid job creation.

Economic Value of Work

In many parts of the world, the value of work has increasingly been measured by its status, remuneration and the contribution made to corporate profits. One positive effect of the pandemic has been to call these assumptions into question, and to re-evaluate ‘what work really matters?’. Front-line health workers have obtained an exalted status, as communities have applauded their courage and commitment in the most trying of circumstances. More importantly, previously ‘invisible’ workers – those working in supermarkets, pharmacies, warehouses, transport, cleaning, the care sector – have become visible. Their work suddenly counts, as it always should have. But let us not forget, these workers are usually among the lowest-paid and subject to the most difficult working conditions including job insecurity. The crisis has led to an overdue reckoning: an assessment of the true value of work to society, not just the economy. The challenge now is to ensure that the reward for these types of work reflects their worth, as nations rebuild in the wake of the crisis.

Welfare, Work Settings, Health and Safety

Just as COVID-19 has precipitated reconsideration of the very concept of work, so too has it transformed previously fixed notions of ‘the workplace’ and how much time must be spent ‘there’. In many countries, employers who had long resisted demands for flexible work (particularly from women workers) managed to transition to work-from-home arrangements very speedily. When this became a matter of business survival following lockdowns, rather than a debate about diversity or work-life balance, the proposition was suddenly undeniable. In reality, working from home has presented workers with significant challenges: juggling the care and home-schooling of children, the intrusion of work into the private sphere and family life, and elevated levels of employer surveillance. Health and safety concerns have also arisen, although the risks for home-based workers are generally minimal compared with those faced by health-care staff and other essential workers. Some of the major outbreaks of coronavirus globally have occurred in settings where low-paid workers have not been given adequate safety training or protective equipment, such as garment factories, distribution centres, meatworks and aged care facilities.

Representation, Participation and Collective Bargaining

While their position has generally declined over the last 30 years or so, trade unions in many parts of the world have become essential partners with governments and business in tackling this unforeseen situation. Policy-makers found that they needed to engage with the representative voice of workers, to effectively implement emergency response measures and economic support programs. Unions, in turn, had to pivot nimbly towards new techniques and strategies of online organising and digital campaigning. They have extended their traditional role as the buttress against arbitrary exercise of managerial power in the new circumstances of the pandemic, calling out unsafe work at multinationals like Amazon and Walmart. However, unions have been mostly forced into a defensive posture: protecting workers’ existing wages and conditions, their jobs, and their health. The project of improving on minimum standards through collective bargaining is greatly constrained in the context of rising unemployment, wage ‘freezes’ and an emerging impetus for deregulation.

Protection against Poverty and Social Inclusion

Without question, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been most detrimental for those who were already vulnerable to begin with: precarious workers (discussed earlier), those working in the informal economy and the unemployed. For these groups, and the vast numbers of people furloughed or retrenched across the world, state systems of support have been created or extended to mitigate the effects of inevitable hardship. Wage subsidies, income supports and enhanced unemployment benefits have been provided in many countries. To pay for these programs, the neoliberal aversion to public spending has been tossed aside. Indeed, after years of austerity in some economies, many adherents of the free market have come to see the vital role of the state – in safeguarding the interests of businesses, and protecting citizens from inequality.

Labour is Not a Commodity … Today

It could not have been envisaged that in its 101st year, the world would need to fundamentally re-imagine the ILO’s founding principle. As nations begin to emerge from the crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that its adverse economic and social effects are likely to be with us for many years to come. In this setting, the idea that ‘labour is not a commodity’ must be given a meaning that ensures a vigorous role for the state in ensuring social inclusion (especially for the most vulnerable in and outside of the labour market); recognition of the legitimacy of trade unions in national, industry and workplace decision-making; and above all, protection of individual workers from unsafe conditions and a genuine recognition (and reward) of the intrinsic value of all forms of work.

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