Welfare and Social Issues

Recasting Work in an Era of Insecurity

It’s a contradiction that mirrors the 1980s classic film Back to the Future. The fundamental upheavals to work wrought by technology, globalisation, and deregulation have seen the return of conditions last seen in the early industrial era. Faced with the rollback of hard-fought protections and certainties, we urgently need to reshape labour codes, as well as work itself, so that they reflect the economic realities of our time.

All the evidence suggests that we have entered a period of profound transformation in the area of work and employment. From the growth of the digital economy and artificial intelligence to demographic shifts, mass unemployment, unstable work patterns, and environmental challenges – grasping the whole picture from a shifting landscape of change is more difficult than ever. For some, machines and automated systems of production are set to replace human labour to the point of eradicating it. Jeremy Rifkin’s 1996 analysis, The End of Work, predicted that “hundreds of millions of workers will be forced into permanent idleness by the combined forces of globalisation and automation”. Others take the view that jobs destroyed in one sector will be compensated by new occupations in new sectors.

Yet what we are witnessing today, in France and in Europe, stems not from the disappearance of work or of its value; work remains a vehicle for recognition and social integration for many. Nor are new jobs in new areas of activity being created on a massive scale. Instead we see an unstable combination of changes to professions and statuses, how work is organised, and the boundaries between professional and private life. All this in the context of the overhaul of our social model and the evolution of its associated legal framework. The consequences of these transformations remain uncertain.

What will work look like in 2030? Are we heading towards the end of the Keynesian-Fordist model of employment that still nourishes the imagination of part of the Left? Or should we expect the end of employment? Should we fear robotisation, digital platforms, and the ‘Uberisation’ of work? Is the intensified polarisation of jobs and of qualifications inevitable? How can we envisage a new social contract tied to the individual rather than the job? And how can this new organisation of work be regulated? Greens in Europe cannot afford to ignore any of these questions. These debates could recast the place of work in our societies, striking new balances over the course of our lives, and putting us back in touch with the meanings of our activities.

Changing our relationship to work and employment

“What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.” Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition.

Work was not always thought of as a laborious and remunerated activity, nor as an “activity that transforms and dominates nature”, as André Gorz put it. [1] As it became employment (for most, simply a way to ‘make a living’), work lost part of its meaning. In an era of global supply chains, the intensifying pace of production characterised by working on Sundays, night shifts, and new levels of managerial pressure make work unsustainable for millions. Close to 60 per cent of European workers suffer from work-related ills. [2] Stress alone results in an estimated economic cost of between 15 and 20 billion euros in the European Union. Time-based competition, a key factor in many companies’ success and the foundation of a new ethic of production, heightens the sense of urgency and suffering at work.[3] Lean, ‘just-in-time’, and project-based management are used to justify restructuring or outsourcing, which make workers bear the brunt of market forces. In the face of this well-documented situation, there has been no significant effort to tackle the increasing hardship of work in either France or Europe. The Compte de prévention pénibilité (hardship prevention account) initiative launched in France in 2015 has been scrapped by the current government.

Steady, lifelong, full-time employment can no longer be considered a realistic expectation for millions of individuals subject to fixed-term or temporary contracts.

Our society never hesitates to proclaim the value of employment as a means to self-fulfilment and social integration. However, its economic dynamic, based on competition and the dismantling of labour unions, has made ‘disposable’ workers the go-to variable to maximise shareholder value. At the start of 2018, close to 18 million people were unemployed in the EU. To this we can add people who work in poverty, those (predominantly women) compelled to work part-time, and the countless young people excluded from the job market. As if this situation was not bad enough, robotisation and artificial intelligence could well accelerate this trend. “A corpse rules society – the corpse of labour”, decried the Krisis Group in 1999. In this situation, how can work continue to be the ultimate determinant of social welfare?

Towards the end of employment

The rise of the precariat, which accompanies mass unemployment, is a political and social issue of sufficient magnitude to destabilise Western democracies. Steady, lifelong, full-time employment – a foundation for the ‘Trente Glorieuses’  – can no longer be considered a realistic expectation for millions of individuals subject to fixed-term or temporary contracts.[4]

Self-employment (among a working-age population of 26 million in France, over a million people are self-employed); casual employment (such as the ‘zero hours’ contracts offering no guaranteed hours seen in the United Kingdom); ‘crowd-working’ via microwork platforms that connect supply and demand for fragmented, dematerialised tasks (often paying an average hourly rate of 2 euros); or even highly qualified freelancers (in 2017, there were an estimated 830 000 freelancers in France, a rise of 126 per cent over 10 years) working on demand and with full autonomy – these elements make up the evolution of today’s labour market. Though regular paid employment remains the norm in France (around 90 per cent of those in work), these developments point to a general trend that encourages deregulation and considers workplace protections as brakes on jobs, entrepreneurial freedom, and efficiency.

Introducing the notion of economic dependence could clear up the grey area at the fringes of waged employment.

Much has been made of the necessary quest for flexibility through lifting working-time restrictions, bypassing wage-setting procedures, and new management techniques. The measures taken, over the past 40 years in France (by both the Left and the Right), have all sought to ease social protections and individualise work relationships. Some of the advocates of these measures go as far as seeing the Uberised worker – alone, devoid of protection yet relatively autonomous – as the model for the future.[5]

Devised when waged employment was on the rise, labour law today appears ill-equipped deal with the current situation. It was built on the superior-subordinate opposition between the statuses of employer and employee. Nowadays, a significant proportion of activity lies somewhere between self-employment and waged employment. These workers may be independent to the extent that they own their working tools (be it their vehicle, bicycle, or cooking utensils) and can choose their hours. Yet they are dependent in the sense that they are obliged to accept determined fees and conditions. Under such circumstances, it has become necessary to think up new legal, fiscal, and organisational provisions to adapt our social model to new hybrid statuses, increasingly common career shifts, and the expansion of the platform economy. Though the end of waged employment remains a long way off, the growth of business models and technological disruptions promoting nomadic work, work from home, and service-provider relationships make new forms of work increasingly hard to fit into the standard definition of employment.

Reforming labour law: subordination or dependence

Striking the right balance regarding labour law is becoming increasingly difficult under the strains of global competition. The evolutions of work and business are reminiscent of the proto-industrialisation of Europe in the 18th century.[6] Then as now, relatively autonomous workers were not subordinate but economically dependent on their superiors and were deprived of fundamental rights such as a minimum wage (forcing them to work extremely long hours to compensate for bad pay), paid leave, and protection from redundancy. Today’s situation, worsened in France in particular by recent developments in labour law such as the 2016 El Khomri Law and President Emmanuel Macron’s decrees, should encourage us to think of alternative legal channels to strengthen social dialogue and protect workers currently excluded from traditional employment.

Employment contracts have always been marked by a contradiction. Civil law sees labour as a commodity to be freely exchanged on the market. At the same time, the buyer of abstract labour, the employer, takes ‘possession of a concrete person’. A binding legal framework is needed to stop the worker, a legal subject endowed with rights in civic life but deprived of these within the company, from being reduced to a commodity. We should recall Article 1 of the 1944 International Labour Organization’s Declaration of Philadelphia: “Labour is not a commodity”. As Alain Supiot suggests, “work cannot be reduced to a good […] It cannot be reduced to an asset external to the individual, to a simple object of contractual exchange, as it simultaneously expresses the subjectivity of the human person, through the products of their labour, and their sociability, through the place in civic life that it warrants them.”[7] Yet these two dimensions – subjectivity and sociability – are today threatened because work has lost its meaning and no longer automatically provides access to social rights such as the right to a decent income, a guaranteed pension, health and safety, or even the right to organise.[8] In his bid to make France a start-up nation, Macron is simply prolonging a liberal imaginary in which each worker is encouraged to become an ‘auto-entrepreneur’ – mobile, flexible, relatively autonomous, untethered to any contractual subordination, but reliant on the market and the client.

The Left has always ambivalently regarded work as both a source of exploitation and emancipation. It is time to shift the terms of the debate.

For the ‘Pour un autre code du travail’ (For a new labour code) research group, the profile of the ‘non-subordinate dependent’ represents a major shift in the general framework, embodied by Uberised workers, the mini-jobs ‘enthusiasts’, and ‘clickworkers’.[9] According to the crowd-working platform Clickworkers, “it is possible to earn an hourly rate of over 10 euros, depending on experience, speed, training, and concentration. We estimate that a Clickworker earns 9.50 euros per hour. Each Clickworker decides for themselves when, where and how much to work […] you can decide at any time to suspend a task or to resume it later. The Clickworker is bound neither by time, nor by location.” This summary shows how platforms are transforming the organisation of work, as evidenced by the low pay for work requiring speed and concentration and the false sense of autonomy they promise. As the worker is subordinate neither to a schedule nor to a fixed place of work, they can be exempted from the wage relationship and the labour code. Introducing the notion of economic dependence could clear up the grey area at the fringes of waged employment. The emphasis would no longer be on subordination (read obedience) but on the reality of economic subjection, the worker having – more often than not – just a single client: the platform.

The ecology of work and the post-employment world

We can of course still hold out hope that an ecology of work based on autonomy, self-organisation, and a sense of the collective emerges. An ecology of work could ensure we realise the emancipatory potential of work’s upheaval. The advent of a post-growth society, unfettered by consumerism and the need to produce, is intimately bound up with the development of another relation to work and employment, as well as to working time and space. The Left has always ambivalently regarded work as both a source of exploitation and emancipation. It is time to shift the terms of the debate. How to imagine life beyond employment? How can we fund social protections in a world beyond growth? Are the end of employment, the automation of repetitive tasks, and robotisation good news, and if so, on what conditions?

A growing chorus announces ever louder that work as we know it is likely to disappear. For Bernard Stiegler, the future does not lie in waged employment but rather in work and breaks from work, a new alternation between time spent acquiring new skills or competences with time spent working. This approach might appear somewhat brutal. But it confronts us with what is eminently clear about our situation: that a new social model for a post-employment world must be envisioned. One that involves experiments around basic income, contributory income, massive working time reduction, the flourishing of the sharing (or cooperative) economy, non-remunerated work, and new legal and social protections. All of this warrants constructiveness, creativity, new terms of debate (outside of the liberal paradigm), collective thinking, deliberation, and patience. The metamorphosis of work isn’t over just yet.

 

[1] Gorz, André (2008). Ecologica. Galilée.

[2] In 2002, the European Commission calculated the annual cost of work-induced stress in the EU15 to be 20 billion euros. This figure is based on a 1999 study from the EU agency OSHA that shows that the total annual cost of work-related illnesses, for the EU15, was between 185 and 289 billion euros. Based on the estimates of other researchers (Davies et Teasdale, 1994; Levi et Lunde-Jensen, 1996), 10 per cent of work-related illnesses are linked to stress. This percentage was applied to a conservative estimate (200 billion euros) for work-related illness to obtain the 20 billion euro figure for the cost of work-induced stress for these countries.

[3] In Competing Against Time, published in 1990, George Stalk and Thomas Hout demonstrate how control over time has become a ‘strategic weapon’ and a key factor in companies’ success. Time represents a comprehensive management tool and reducing response times can give a decisive competitive edge. All the parts of the value chain, from conception to production and from stock management to distribution, are affected.

[4] The label attributed to the 30 years from 1945 to 1975 following the end of the Second World War in France, which witnessed strong economic growth and rising living standards.

[5] Hiring of temporary workers was made legal in 1972. In 1979, the labour code was revised to cover fixed-term contracts. In 2008, trial periods were lengthened and provisions allowing for the termination of open-ended employment contracts were enacted. The 2016, the El Khomri Law and subsequent decrees issued by President Macron in 2017 made economic dismissal easier for employers. Today, 87 per cent of new hires receive fixed-term contracts. Over a million workers live on barely over 800 euros per month, many with no option but to work part-time. According to the Inequalities Observatory, in 2017 over 8 million people, 25 per cent of the work-age population in France, were either unemployed, precariously employed, or discouraged workers: bit.ly/2JHdZ9S

[6] Proto-industrial work centred around the household. Merchant-manufacturers supplied raw materials to rural families who provided their own tools and skills. This organisation of production cut out guilds and took advantage of an impoverished rural workforce that was flexible and made few demands.

[7] See, for instance, 2001 Beyond Employment: Changes in Work and the Future of Labour Law in Europe.

[8] While it is difficult to define the significance of work (determined by a combination of personal investment, the quality of professional relationships, utility, self-realisation…), a study carried out by Deloitte in 2017 found that 56 per cent of employees polled felt that the significance of work had deteriorated.

[9] This group of French academics, specialised in labour law and led by Emmanuel Dockès, presented a new, thoroughly revised labour code, shorter but with stronger protections and more suited to the present day, in 2017.

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Recasting Work in an Era of Insecurity

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