Labour: asking for too little

Biology has so much to do with work and social life. Previously, when most of the world was a farm, days were spread out longer. People worked at an acceptable pace taking breaks whenever needed – after all, no amount of additional work makes crops grow faster.
In the newly industrialized West, 10-16 hour days suddenly became the norm. Today some western industries make workers wear adult diapers to minimize bathroom breaks. Rurals and urbanites alike follow what scientists today call ‘circadian rhythms’. Despite the discoveries of fire and electricity, basic biological rhythms remain the same within 24-hour periods.
So, exactly a hundred years ago, when Robert Owen, a labour activist, started campaigning for an 8-hour workday, someone paid heed: Henry Ford, the exemplary human being who pioneered the motor car. It was him who introduced the 8 hour workday. He went further, paying employees well enough to buy their own vehicle in a few years if they chose. He kept bringing down the price of his products unlike today’s corporations that keep them soaring while lowering quality.
That was not all. Ford doubled his workers’ pay. The startling outcome was that they showed increased productivity in fewer hours. It was good for Ford too, because his profit margins doubled within two years. The lesson was not lost on other industries ; a healthy, well-rested and decently paid workforce was profitable for both employer and employee. Many followed suit.
Unfortunately, all did not. Work hours began to serve technology, not humans. If the maximum efficiency from a machine came from operating it for longer hours, so be it. Technology was not readjusted. The worker had to work that much longer. So, there are 12-hour-plus workdays in some sectors. When greater output and economy came from machines working around the clock, the continuous shift – two or three every 24 hours — came into force. It profoundly affected the health and psychology of night workers who suffered isolation, losing social contact with family, friends and normal daytime life.
As capitalism advanced, it left human rights and the quality of life far behind. Dhaka’s Rana Complex and Karachi’s Baldia industrial debacles are merely two terrible examples in a long and ugly history.
The government’s approach is self-servingly based on consistent heavy borrowing and foreign investment as sole solutions to economic problems, which only betray their massive ignorance about how finance actually works, or how it can work better. The shocking part is that violations of human rights involved or the irreversible loss and damage to natural resources and the environment are not acceptable reasons for terminating deals under the terms of the WTO and other exploitative bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.
At one extreme, chronically indebted and exhausted brick-kiln workers are paid by family output, not individual wages. Recently, they considered it a victory when kiln owners finally agreed to Rs. 750 for every 1000 finished bricks. Yet, a month’s family toil that includes children’s, barely brings a single minimum wage.
Researchers have calculated that currently, the minimum required for a small urban family to survive is Rs 15,000/- a month, although the desperate not even receiving minimum wages would gratefully settle for 10,000/-. Whatever minimum wage government agrees to on paper, non-implementation can’t be fought because the justice system simply doesn’t work. In fact, it costs. By the time labour wins, inflation cancels out benefits.
The problem is not that labour asks for too much, but that they ask for too little. Many think fair wages will solve all problems; it never will because of dubious financial, legal and trade practices that have been universally ‘legalized’. Also because technology focuses on labour-displacement.
Factory labour may not be trapped by “inherited” debt as peasants and brick-kiln workers are, but they still don’t get their labour’s worth. Most are contract workers, dismissed after 11 months to avoid being made permanent, and re-employed as fresh labour, so much so that millions have spent entire working lives as contract workers.
Our experts would have us believe that only capitalism works. True, only up to a point, but they generalize without qualifying. Artisans and farmers have always been private entrepreneurs; they not only produce, they also sell. While gearing to the market, they avoid damaging environmental practices and recognize others’ rights. Big capital externalizes the costs of the toxic effects of industrialization instead of continuously cleaning up as a duty and price for using natural resources that are untaxed common property. That bill is passed on to taxpayers — possible only with government collusion or permission.
The difference between then and now is in scale and concentration of wealth between big capitalists and ‘little’ capitalists, including artisans and farmers. Today, less than 200 interlocking multinational corporations control most of the world’s resources and production including agriculture – instead of hundreds of millions of small and medium private and family enterprises and manufactories sharing. Previously they always co-existed, the big ones within limits. Monopolies, let alone cartels, were never allowed, because production depended on land, water, and other finite resources, as that would not leave enough for everyone.
Things have changed in the last half-century, and most governments of former colonies including ours, dazzled by technology and consumerism, actually signed away economic and social sovereignty, first under World Bank (which is to be thanked for the contract labour system), and then under WTO. They unilaterally handed to foreign corporations the ‘right’ to exploit our resources and labour, on their terms. With what conscience did our governments sign such agreements?
With no balancing support from government, industrialization killed off the autonomous artisan and small enterprises that also employed people, albeit on a smaller-scale, but made entire products from start to finish. Unequal competition made life harder or impossible for small manufacturers. It forced labour, even if educated, to focus on a single stage of production, never the whole process, so that they never learnt to independently specialize. They face unemployment when technologies become redundant and are changed, and rendered unskilled for new. Countries merely became administrative units or oligarchies for the convenience of global corporations and hegemonic powers.
Government ignores all this May Day after May Day. Labour not only needs to rethink their own economic or social worth, but about where jobs for all can come from. Neither big business and industry nor government can create full-employment. Least of all, foreign takeover of essential public goods, especially those that had captive or guaranteed markets anyway, such as electricity and communications. These were violations not just of worker rights, but human and citizen rights. Many modern technologies and investment capital don’t bring benefits for the majority.
Without caps to the wealth and size of production units, there can never be fuller employment. After a point, most manufacturers face diseconomies of scale anyway, but avoid losing to competition by being monopolies or cartel members. Staples such as food and cotton have to be decommodified; the constitution and laws updated and made specific. The world’s 85 richest individuals, with government acquiescence, monopolize more wealth than the poorer half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion. This is the starkest explanation of poverty. Jobs only come when there’s access to necessary resources locally.
Most likely, only labour, the worst affected, has the gumption to do it. It’s not just a battle for fair wages; it’s also a battle for the democracy we never had.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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