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dubai marina 29 / Stefano Campolo via Flickr

Eliminating ‘job hunger’

Herman Knudsen | 13 March 2014

Elements of the decent work agenda can improve employment conditions worldwide, but current neo-liberalist policies are counterproductive.

More than 200 million people around the world are jobless, and even more are employed in jobs that are insecure and/or with a pay close to, or below, the subsistence level. Research demonstrates the negative consequences of being unemployed, or employed under bad conditions. The unemployed are hit by a more or less total lack of income that results in severe poverty in many parts of the world, or at least relative economic deprivation. Furthermore, they do not get to benefit from the positive gratifications that most employed people experience such as a daily time structure, social relations with colleagues, participation in a productive collective, and a sense of status and social identity. Those employed in temporary jobs or involuntarily in part-time jobs share some of the same problems. Meanwhile, others may be employed in relatively stable jobs that are nevertheless deeply problematic in one or several other respects, such as with extremely low pay (‘the working poor’), or unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.

It would be wrong to say that no good solutions to this problem exist. In my view, the ILO agenda for decent work contains the right elements with its four pillars:

  • Creating jobs
  • Guaranteeing rights at work
  • Extending social protection
  • Promoting social dialogue

If implemented, and combined with the expansive macroeconomic policies and active labour market policies also advocated by the ILO, this would lead to radical improvements in employment conditions on all continents. The ILO agenda and similar ideas proposed by various social movements and political parties around the world suffer from one malaise, though. They have not been implemented on any significant scale.

One should think that significant reductions in the amount of unemployment and bad employment would be in everybody’s interest – of those directly involved as well as of the societies they live in. So why are things not moving from bad to better? Instead, they are going from bad to worse.

I am sure many elements form an answer to that question. However, in my view, the most important element is this one. Today’s global market economy and national economies are guided and regulated by experts and politicians that subscribe to the neo-liberalist view. In this view, unemployment is good because it stimulates people’s ‘job hunger’ as well as competition among workers. And it thus tends to support a labour market situation in which employers are able to control wages and working conditions. All forms of insecure employment have more or less the same social consequences – they give flexibility to the employers and spread insecurity to the employees. According to this view, although it is rarely formulated explicitly, a certain part of the population has to suffer poverty, hardship and insecurity as a means to fuel the economy with a competitive spirit that spurs everybody to compete for the scarce jobs and to do their best. It results in companies being able to produce efficiently, but also profitably.

Reformists like myself disagree. We do not believe that hundreds of millions of lives have to be sacrificed to sustain the ultra-liberal model of a market economy. We believe a socially-responsible market economy could create more and better jobs and still be an efficient economy. And it would radically reduce the enormous waste of human resources that is a consequence of the present state of affairs.

Photo credit main picture: dubai marina 29 / Stefano Campolo via Flickr

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About the author

Herman Knudsen

Herman Knudsen is Professor in Sociology of Work at Aalborg University, Denmark.

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