hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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the ruminant economy 2 – non standard employment

There is a short story by Heinrich Böll called “Anecdote to lower labour morality” (“Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral”, 1963). It is about a tourist who takes a picture of a man dozing on his fishing boat, shabby clothes, the picturesque poverty one sees on holiday in European fishing harbours. The tourist feels a bit ashamed that he has taken the picture and to ease his mind, he starts talking with the fisher. The fisher says that he is enjoying the day after having caught his catch in the morning. In short, a conversation develops along this line: –Why not go out and get a second catch, the tourist asks. –But I already have done my work for today. –But then you catch more. –And? –Then you earn more. –And? –Then you can hire people to work for you. –And? –Then you can build a cannery. –And? –Then you can sell off the plant. –And? –Then you can build a house and doze in the sun all day. –But that is what I am doing right now! The fisher ends the conversation, leaving the tourist with a feeling of envy. The fisherman is living the dream the tourist hopes to realize later in his life.

A nine-to-five job, even with flexible shifts, and the reward later on in life (if we get there) is our standard picture of employment. In analyses and discussions of labour and employment the category of ‘non standard employment’ has grown in numbers and importance over the years. According to ILO, non standard employed include temporary work, part-time work, temporary agency work and other multi-party employment arrangements, disguised employment relationships and dependent self-employment. In short, all ‘individualized employment’ that has come in the place of ‘mass labour’ is subsumed under this label. In the traditional view, the world of labour proper consists of those with ‘standard employment’, i.e. tenured full time employment. That premise is not valid anymore, and that is not to be lamented. There is a real change in the organization of work in our society that existing institutions such as labour unions cannot adequately address.

We tend to think about labour in fixed, clean cut categories. At least that helps when developing policies in the social dialogue between government, employers and employer organizations. But the world of labour is fluent. Jobs have disappeared but work has not diminished. After the last crisis, unemployment is now lower than it has been in decades, also absorbing the young who enter the labour market for the first time, and the migrants that moved in due to political and economic problems elsewhere. The 15-hour workweek John Maynard Keynes foresaw in the 1930s has not come, and will not come. Rather the contrary: labour participation by women has hugely increased while burn out due to the load of working hours is now a growing problem among workers. The age of retirement is being raised from 65 to 67 years in most western countries. Irritatingly, persistent unemployment has not completely vanished, but more significant is that median income has not risen over the last two, three decades. In Europe as well as on the American continent, young people stay at home longer because the jobs they find do not pay enough to start an independent life with a house and a partner.

For a long time, roughly since the invention of the steam machine, the economy provided mass employment for people with skills, and even for people without any skills, in all kinds of factories and in the production of raw materials such as coal. Individualized employment, people with flexible contracts, part-time workers and especially self-employed workers, has taken over from mass employment; many who were considered redundant have re-entered the workforce, not seldom at the same company where they were laid off.

A misguided policy premise about individualized employment is that these people in some way are entrepreneurs. Somewhere after 1980 we became aware that employers are not the devil in disguise who only suck up the juice from their employees in order to only get richer themselves. We rightly recognized again the value of the entrepreneur who takes risks and helps to develop the economy. But now ‘entrepreneurs’ are almost seen as holy; the entrepreneur is the saviour and others should imitate him or her. Everyone who is self-employed is seen as an entrepreneur, and should act likewise, as the tourist in the anecdote by Heinrich Böll expects of the fisherman. But in general, self-employed people nowadays are ‘just’ people who have a skill they enjoy and with which they can earn a living. They can be lawyers, carpenters, graphic designers, teachers, and mechanics. The world of work does not consist of only employees and entrepreneurs. People can have the additional skill of entrepreneurship, but most people just have a skill that is in some demand.

Being an entrepreneur is considered as the standard for everyone, even employees are considered by management to be truly ‘intrapreneurs’, persons who manage their skills and goals in an entrepreneurial way. On top of that, the economy demands full hearted commitment! When someone is doing the masonry of some building, he or she should think of the cathedral he is building. Just putting stones on each other in order to earn a living – pay the bills, send the children to school, and enjoy a beer in the evening and three weeks camping in the summer holiday – is not done.

So this is the picture I see. We hold on to collective rules in the social dialogue and expulse the individual who works in a flex-job or platform job, or who was deemed redundant and stayed in the workforce as being self-employed. These individuals all have ‘non standard employment’, and the social dialogue is only between partners who offer and have ‘standard employment’. The growing army of people who have ‘non standard employment’ shares that they have similar interests but are just as much each other’s competitors; traditionally, members of a labour union are no competitors, they act as one body. The people who are self-employed or work in the platform economy have no interest in the collective arrangements and the collective being that gave shape to the labour movement. But they definitely will be crushed by ‘capital’, so we need real creativity to preempt an oncoming Verelendung.

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