Deficit of Decent Work

By N. Gunasekaran

Human dignity is at stake due to the deteriorating quality of jobs available to workers. Today, the insecure least-standard employment is increasing not only in the developing world but in advanced countries also. Many companies like Nike and Gap have been charged with using sweatshop labor in the US and around the world.

The recent document of the International Labor Office (ILO), "2006 Global Employment Trends Brief," describes the failure of the global economy to deliver decent jobs, despite GDP growth of 4.3% in 2005, with the increased world output by US $2.5 trillion. The report reveals that, though employment opportunities increased in some countries, the jobs generated cannot be described as decent work. Those "discouraged workers" work under poor conditions, subsist at the $2-a-day level and get willy-nilly thrown out of the labor market. So,today's youth face "a deficit of decent work opportunities."

In India, while ruling classes congratulate themselves for achieving the 8% annual economic growth and talk about raising it to 10%, about 94% of the workers are now employed in non-formal, non-standard employment. The former Indian government headed by Mr. Vajpayee gave a slogan, "India's shining," citing the increase in drudge jobs. The Indian electorate clearly rejected this shameless campaign in 2004.

About 390 million Indians work as temporaries, home workers, domestic servants, time-rated or piece-rated casuals, part-time workers, own-account workers, agriculture workers, sharecroppers, marginal farmers and contractual workers.

In all least-developed nations, working conditions are very poor. They get subsistence-level earnings with no protection of labor laws, social security, welfare and health coverage. They are engaged in small-scale industries, cottage industries, micro units of production, construction, large manufacturing units, textile and garment, horticulture, agriculture, rural occupations, fisheries, sweeping-cleaning, loading-unloading, mining, forestry, service sector, entertainment and thousands of many more occupations or avocations.

A common scene in major cities in the Third World is the rural women flocking to the monotonous jobs in garment sweatshops. Getting poverty wages, they stay in squalid dormitory-type accommodation. The wretched living and working conditions with long working hours cost their health and they become more vulnerable to diseases. About 60% of the world's working poor are women earning less than a dollar a day. In south and west Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, women are working either in declining agriculture or in local food markets as vendors.

In spite of their precarious positions, these workers contribute to their nations' growth. In the case of India, they account for more than 50% of the GDP.

Corporate globalization is the main culprit for this changing pattern of work. As conditions for loans and repayment, IMF and World Bank ask the governments of lesser-developed nations to open their economies to compete with more powerful industrialized nations. In the race to attract investment, poor countries lower the employment standards and reduce the wages, resulting in increased poverty and inequality.

How did the highest rate of growth along with full employment take place in the three decades following the Second World War? As Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum, noted, the systems at that time regulated markets and corporate capital. But the last three decades of deregulation created a collapse of growth with "a breathtaking increase in unemployment" and underemployment.

Note that the preceding systems gave the corporate capital only 4 to 8 percent rate of return while today's neo-liberal system doubled it between 8 and 16 percent. So, the blunt question is whether the ruling elites around the world continue to serve the interests of a handful of corporate shareholders or for the billions of sweatshop workers, unemployed and underemployed youths.

Also, corporate tyrants enjoy the fruits of outsourced jobs since they exploit the Third World workers by providing lesser wages while the Western and American workers are losing their jobs. They also use the technological progress to increase their profits.

Decent work must be productive, providing decent income. It must be done in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity along with the freedom of association, the safety of working environment, the rightful duration and intensity of work,the possibilities for personal fulfillment and protection against contingencies.

The governments must follow such industrial policies that create decent work opportunities and provide incentives and credits to promote such investment. Public expenditure that sustains the productive human resource base through increased social spending is important for standard employment generation.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2007

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