For those who care about social justice for workers, this book provides the tools Economics offers us a far too narrow perspective on the role that paid work plays in our lives, as individuals and as a society. By borrowing approaches to paid work from academics working in other disciplines, such as labour historians, psychologists, medical scientists, sociologists, political scientists and feminist scholars, this book explores the ways in which economics can broaden its scope on this topic. A second thread running through the book explores the historical battle for workers’ rights and juxtaposes that period with the last four decades of regressive neoliberalism. By combining the perspectives of other disciplines with the lessons learned from this historical analysis, this book explores possible ways forwards.
The dire predictions of job losses resulting from the digital revolution could arguably be a blessing in disguise. Hospitals, nursing homes and schools are all crying out for more staff, as are the industries addressing climate change. A shift like this would require major manpower retraining programs, like those employed in Sweden to address changes in employment patterns. It would be a mistake, however, to address the challenges of the digital revolution solely with a Universal Basic Income scheme. This would only produce an even more extreme scale of income and wealth inequality. Instead, automation provides the perfect opportunity to reduce the length of both the working day and the working week, while maintaining full employment.
This chapter explores specific policies embraced by centre-right governments in the UK, the US and Australia between 1980 and 2020. Parallels are drawn between the fierce battles these governments waged against trade unions during this period, with much wider implications. In unison, all three nations embarked on large-scale privatisation of their respective public sectors and granted substantial tax cuts that favoured the top echelons of the corporate sector, the wealthy and those on high incomes. The chapter concludes by examining the pivotal role played by libertarian academics and captains of industry in bringing about these political transformations.
We are currently at a crossroads. We can embrace work as a vital aspect of our lives and implement economic and legislative policies that support workers to live healthy, stress-free and productive lives. Or we can continue down the road of rising inequality, higher unemployment, longer working hours and increasingly unsafe, unhealthy work conditions. Whether or not we implement a Universal Basic Income, our current policies are not compatible with the human rights of workers. At this critical juncture, we should be guided by the social reformers of the 19th century, who fought for safe and humane work conditions. Our global society has come a long way, but we need to change our approach to work before we can truly say that those early campaigns have been a success.
Economists often like to say that there is a trade-off between caring for social equity and maintaining an efficient economy. Economic theory, however, tells us otherwise. This chapter debunks the enduring myth of this trade-off by exploring the true implications of economic theory. Central to this rethinking is the work of Tony Atkinson, the notable Oxford University economist. Whether talking about an individual, a household or a nation, Atkinson argues that we can’t define efficient use of economic resources without first identifying the ultimate goals behind the use of those resources. The opposite is also true: if a society that upholds values of equity and social justice does not employ some of its economic resources to those ends, it fails to be a truly efficient user of its resources.
Progressive legislation passed by the British Parliament during the 19th century radically altered workplace conditions for the better, paving the way for the collective protections embedded in the modern welfare state. Central to these efforts was a campaign led by social reformers like Robert Owen and Edwin Chadwick. During this period, similar reforms were also introduced by other major European countries. The historical overview in this chapter provides the backdrop for a discussion in Chapter 7 of the radical decline in the quality of work conditions witnessed since the late 1970s.
Chapter 12 introduces a body of literature that emphasises the rights afforded to workers in the workplace. The first set of rights is afforded to all individuals by dint of their membership in a civil society, assuming it has embraced the principles of democracy. The democratic rights of workers in this sense extend beyond their right to political power – they extend to their ability to exercise control over the design of their jobs, particularly in terms of how the job impacts their wellbeing. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), applying human rights principles to the workplace involves eliminating all discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity or religion and the right to dignity while at work.
Does paid work as we know it meet basic standards of social justice? As the challenges of automation and globalisation reshape the nature of work in radical and dramatic ways, it is critical that we pause to consider the tools with which we chart our course forwards. In contrast to economists, social psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and others have a far richer perspective on the meaning of paid work and its impact on our life. This book argues that we should be striving to understand the positive value that work holds beyond money – the social, psychological benefits felt on the personal level, as well as the broader social and economic benefits of full employment.
Psychologists, medical scientists and other researchers have stressed the positive contribution paid work makes to our emotional and physical wellbeing. This proposition is underscored by studies that find a high correlation between unemployment and the deterioration of physical and mental health, regardless of the availability of financial assistance or welfare. The literature also examines negative factors that undermine the health of employees, particularly the steep hierarchical structure that governs most workplaces. As the medical scholar Sir Michael Marmot highlighted, employees at the lower ends of these hierarchical structures demonstrate much higher levels of stress and, consequently, a higher incidence of cardiovascular diseases and other stress-related illnesses.
Economics renders the non-monetary aspects of paid work invisible, conceptually reducing employment to a trade-off between leisure time and financial gain. The standard textbook ignores many of the other benefits of paid work, such as links between employment and positive mental health. Likewise, it does not consider any of the negative aspects of paid work, such as unhealthy/unsafe working conditions or the inherent asymmetry of bargaining power. While progressive economists have drawn attention to significant levels of discrimination within the labour market, along with other systemic patterns that entrench low pay, the intellectual perspective of economics must be expanded to recognise the even richer role that work plays in people’s lives. This can be achieved by drawing on scholarly literature from a range of academic disciplines that focus on the non-monetary aspects of paid work.