With Labour Day upon us, it might be a good time to ask a simple question: “What about the workers?” Seriously. We’ve been talking about everything from what industry requires for the better part of two decades and workers are meant to just deal with any changes that have been implemented – most often without their input. We demand citizen participation In our politics but tolerate an economy that sees less labour input, or even rights, each successive year.
A good example of this the World Economic Forum’s recent report, published by its Council of Work, Gender and Education. Its co-chair, Stephane Kasriel, posted last December what he believed to be the four predictions on the future of work, based largely upon the activities of the world’s top executives who regularly attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland every year. Here are his four predictions.
First, artificial intelligence and robots won’t do away with jobs but will actually create mores of them. But then he adds the caveat – “as long as we responsibly guide innovation.” That makes sense, but who will guide that process? If the “rise of the machines” arrives as Elon Musk predicts, who will actually guide the process so that jobs aren’t wiped out and workers have a say? Kasriel doesn’t believe that’s going to happen, since we’ll actually see more jobs as a result, not less. It’s unlikely that the leaders of the largest companies will take workers into account, any more than they have in the past. Kasriel concludes that workers will have to continually upgrade their skills in an ongoing quest for jobs. We understand that, but, really, the cost of that innovation will be the responsibility of the worker – just as we’ve been hearing for years.
Second, cities will compete with other cities in an ongoing war for talent. We’ve heard this before as well. When Amazon announced last year that it would be looking for a second location for its headquarters, over 200 cities went through all sorts of contortions to try to land the deal. And, naturally, they offered an array to benefits, like lighting up the Empire State Building an Amazon orange or offering all sorts of tax breaks if only the company would come to their city.
This is what is always done. There is the promise of jobs, but Amazon itself is in all sort of trouble for the brutal way in which it treats its employees. So, San Jose, California stayed out of the bidding war. It pitched the quality of its community, especially its local talent, instead of promising tax breaks. There’s little point in going after the big fish if they treat local citizen workers in such a fashion. Yet cities bent over backwards anyway.
Third, the workforce is evolving into freelancing. The Council’s paper mentioned that, in the U.S. alone, 57 million workers are presently freelancing – 36% of the entire workforce. Nothing wrong with freelancing, and it does provide a certain level of choice to workers. But most freelancers I know don’t have benefit plans or pensions, and the majority of the companies they contract with wish to pay the bottom line. Again, if work is migrating to freelancing, companies need to migrate with it to provide living wages and adequate compensation for talented work done.
Finally, the World Economic Council committee took special interest in reporting that public education systems are broken because they are not adequately equipping the modern workers of tomorrow. Somehow in the last 50 years, education has gone from teaching subjects that provide students with well-rounded information to make the best of life into recruitment centres for companies. Again, the worker has to pay for an education that is only designed for the workplace not for life, learning, family, community or other essential aspects required to help people become educated and talented citizens, not just a hiring list for the corporate mould.
One can already hear the reaction to comments such as these. “Hey, it’s a tough world and the workers of that world are going to have to get tough themselves – retrain, move, work long hours for few benefits – if they wish to survive.” The problem is that workers end up at the bottom of the pile while large corporations determine the economic environment and lobby governments to help them achieve it. And because everyone requires work to get by, it is frequently prospective workers that have to make all the adjustments.
There are similarities here to when the Industrial Revolution resulted in the shutting down of guilds, farms and artisans in order to move everyone to where the great coal and steam plants were in order to secure a steady work force. The fact that there were little environmental controls or that child labour was utilized, or that women worked ridiculous hours in textile sweatshops in order to enrich the financial barons almost overnight, meant little. What did matter was wealth, and if that came at the detriment of workers, so be it. Some will say that it was necessary to move civilization to the next level, but how’s that going for us right now? The splitting or the decline of the workforce. The driving down of wages. The inevitable erosion of workers’ rights. Environmental catastrophe. Even the ruination of family life.
Honouring Labour Day shouldn’t be about celebrating only work, but the worker and what they have offered society for centuries. Celebrating workers isn’t just about wealth generation. A healthy, robust and appreciated workforce forms the backbone of democracy and community itself. There are many causes of democratic dysfunction and community decline today, and we are all well aware of them. But the degradation of the worker is one of the fundamental ones and any good society should be better than that.