Increasing Vulnerability of Workers

The world population has increased to 7 billion at present.

By 2050, it is expected to increase further to 9 billion. One would have expected that such rapid rates of population growth would have sharply increased demand for goods and services the world over and added to the earnings and importance of workers.

No doubt, there has been higher production from year to year. But the fruits of production have increasingly been shared in the most skewed manner country after country. It is this phenomenon which underlies the currently much talked-about inequality of incomes and wealth. This is not only at the personal level within single countries. Some nations which had the edge grew richer and richer while others dropped behind.

The capitalist system has claimed that enterprises thrive in “free market systems”. It is also claimed that the greater the “ease of doing business” in particular places, the more investments will go to such places and hence the more the number of jobs that will be generated. Many governments have promptly adhered to these views. They have made their systems as liberal as possible, in a bid to attract ever more investments and to create additional jobs.

Even an avowedly communist regime like China has endorsed the capitalist system of production. For the last 25 years after pursuing this system, it really thrived, recording successive annual growth rates of above 10% during the first decade of this century. But its largely investment-cum-export driven model of growth, supported by a large pool of surplus and competent labour, ceased to thrive some years after the onset of the global economic downturn beginning in 2008. Despite its abundant and competitive supply of labour and capital, export demand for its production has largely tapered off these days. As a result, important swathes of the population find themselves without a job or brilliant prospects.

In rentier economies like that of Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc., which have long thrived on mining resources (oil) sold out at high prices to the world, resources so generated have been largely diverted into the hands of the historical ruling families. The existing political system has not allowed huge Incomes so derived from economic activities to be better shared with workers. African, Latin American and other military dictatorships had likewise made certain, by their accaparating tendencies, that the national wealth generated went to the few in absolute control of power.

Thus, judging the situation of workers in numerous countries of the world, post the WW II welfare state system, irrespective of the political regimes in place, the indication is that the worker has been increasingly fragilised, fractured, made to outrageously compete against each other to the point of having to live a precarious life, nearly always on the edge of finding himself either without a job eventually or not earning enough for a decent life.

Whenever it has appeared to him that he might now sustainably escape the precariousness of his previous existence, he has been threatened by the risk of being fired or being replaced in the workplace by another more compliant substitute. Whenever a crisis has come about, it is the working class that has been made to pay the heaviest toll.

We saw in the 1930s in Mauritius the rise of a powerful political/trade union movement fighting to get the country’s administration and employers concede that the mass of the country’s workers deserved more decent earnings, an aspiration to better living conditions and not be treated as good-for-nothing continuously. The politicians who emerged out of that struggle were sincere, competent and had a certain dose of commonality with workers that made them apt representatives of the people, not of themselves. This is what made them realise concrete advances in the people’s standard of living and future outlook.

Because their representatives were prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, workers and trade unions felt empowered in their struggle to achieve better living conditions for the working class. This is what has lifted entire families from out of the decrepit servility to which they were reduced so far by magnates of society. The fairness ensconced in the British system of administration and that of its immediate successor, the post-independence leadership, also ensured that families of the working class became more assertive, both economically and socially. The quality of political/trade union leadership made all the difference towards this successful transition.

Let’s skip a number of decades when policy changes associated with an increasingly capitalist system frittered away several of those gains. By the 1980s, globalisation and our economic diversification also became the platform for pitching local workers against their competitors from other exporting nations. Thus, wage increases were frequently held back. The currency was depreciated from time to time, thus slashing down real wages. Price increases did their own bit to trim down hopes for continuing improvement in workers’ living standards. All these practices are still around.

Certain entrepreneurs not only paid the least they could to workers, employing the productivity and competitiveness argument. They even skimmed off to themselves all they could, neither renewing the capital stock of the enterprises they controlled, nor skilling up and incentivizing workers to go for higher callings in their workplace, anticipating the ultimate demise of the enterprise, leaving the workers to themselves after they were laid off. They had themselves taken away the cream.

Practices such as these were encouraged after the replacement of the old Industrial Industrial Relations Act by even more harshly capitalist laws such as the Employment Relations and Employment Rights Acts of 2006. Capitalists claimed from decision-makers more flexible rights to hire and fire workers so as, they said, to compete more effectively at the international level. It was claimed by politicians endorsing such laws that they would bring about greater flexibility and mobility of workers. The evidence is to the contrary: workers have kept feeling ever more vulnerable and easily fired.

The result today is that not only workers at the low end of the employment spectrum, but just as well those in the middle and upper rungs of the ladder, remain under the permanent threat that they may not stand a good chance to look for something better. They may be jolted from one position to another but not along with the hoped-for improvement in their work and earnings conditions.

The world has been caught by such arguments to a point that ‘Wall Street’ considers as anathema leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbin pleading in favour of less-austerity minded public policies which have alienated workers from the love they once had for the work they were engaged in. In some places, governments keep pleading before owners that they “should do something”. Scales have been reversed.

Politicians who once used the class divide and owners’ hostile attitude towards workers as arguments to win an election are today reduced to casting the blame for mismanagement and misappropriation on succeeding waves of politicians in power to win at the polls. Workers’ interests which used to be the leitmotiv of the political argument no longer occupy centre stage in local politics. On the contrary, owners of businesses are keen to decentralize and be thus freed from the collective responsibility which tied all our fates together as Mauritius made fast economic progress in years past.

Nor do trade unions have the strong say they once had in matters of workers’ uplift at the national level; some appear to be more steeped in rhetoric and personal quests than in delivering the concentrated singular fight against all sorts of dominant ideologies which have today submerged real issues such as: will I be able to get a decent house and living conditions for my family? Will I be able to move on in the field of work I am qualified for? Will my country become a more enduring supplier to an ever-changing world? Who have been put in charge to produce the effective platform for our economic transformation to a better and more sustainable future? Or, are we structurally trapped in a system of production which keeps maximizing the returns of a few making the worker ever more vulnerable?

As a nation, we have to think our way out of traps international economic realignments globally could place individual workers’ lives in. We don’t appear to have the right real calibre of politicians which once we had when the going was tougher for the country. We must get out of this mediocrity if we want to make it once again.

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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