Hans Groen

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social dialogue and the limits of labour

Europe has climbed out of the crisis, employment rates are rapidly raising in a lot of European countries. At the same time, there are more ‘working poor’ than unemployed in The Netherlands. At the 7th European Social Week that was held in Milan some interesting insights were shared[*]. They will have consequences for the social dialogue in Europe. The tools we have at the moment are inadequate.

‘We too’: prosecco sipping participants at the European Social Week, Milan (A pun on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte  talking about ‘white wine sipping lefties’.)

Looking at the world of labour, I see two ongoing discussions. On the one hand we are discussing the disappearance of work due to robotization and automation: production lines spitting out car bodies without human beings around in the hall as horror scenario. On the other hand there are the talks about a basic income for all, the revaluation of social labour and other unpaid work that is beneficial to society. The universal basic income is presented as a step forward in a technology driven economy where more and more jobs will be lost due to automation.

A closer look tells a different story. Employment rates have recovered with an amazing speed; the complaints of companies that they cannot find the people to fill in their vacancies are widespread. Since we have computers, the predictions that computers will lead to fewer jobs have been falsified. Yes, work in production and administration has been taken over by computers, but jobs in process control, surveillance, software development, etc., has grown. There are more jobs than people to fulfill these jobs. ‘Tasks’ are being automated, not ‘work’ or ‘jobs’. There are numerous jobs where people have to be available for each other and this need for interaction, this human side of work, limits what part of jobs can be automated.

So, more people are being employed (again), but when we look at the conditions under which they are being employed, we see a sharp divide. If you rank all the working people according to their wages, we see that in the top quintile the growth in employment comes mostly from full time tenured jobs. In the other 4 quintiles with lower income, the growth in employment is lower and originates mainly from part-time, temporary jobs, and self-employed workers (Eurofund Jobs Monitor 2017). 20% of the workforce has well-paid and secure jobs. 80% has much less job security. These people feel that they are played around like tennis balls, hopping from job to job without being able to achieve some security for the longer term.

With their high skills, the 20% can easily move around between jobs and feel in control of their own life. To this 20% belong the people who write reports, do research, visit conferences, talk in technical terms about the work and life of the other 80%: they have flexible work, precarious, non-standard employment, are the victims of globalization and anonymous changes in the labour market. This 80% has to involve themselves in ‘lifelong learning’, i.e. ‘lifelong being not good enough’. Also, the labour unions see them as oddities in the world of labour. The 20% people who have secure jobs tell the others that they are victim of processes of which no-one is in charge. The 80% wants job security, decent wages and dignity. What the 20% proposes is a basic income – free money for all, a nice frivolity of the 20%.

An answer will come up the moment we step outside the Labour-paradigm of employers and employees. Not because that paradigm is invalid, but because we have to look at a more fundamental issue. What is at stake, I think, is the basic relationship of ‘earning a livelihood’. My dignity is that I can provide the necessities for me and my dependents. This is the dignity of earning a living, which is a relational activity: I do some job and YOU pay me for the job, because I contributed to a common goal that we BOTH want to further. This human exchange is a personal exchange. Despite how big companies and organizations grow those which are able to convey this feeling will thrive. And that very human exchange also keeps the self-employed professional going.

The social dialogue is now organized from the perspective of employers and employees on the one hand, and entrepreneurs on the other hand. The arrangements we have are for employees only. The growing group of workers who is expulsed as employees and re-hired as self-employed, does not consist of ‘employees’. When given the choice to opt-in to the bureaucratic and expensive collective arrangements of unionized work, they rather stay out. However, they are not entrepreneurs either; they are professionals who use their skills to earn a livelihood. For those we need our creativity to make new, non-collective arrangements. Those who have part-time and temporary jobs might also benefit from these arrangements. These arrangements might take the form of cooperatives or even reminisce the guilds; surely new bonds of solidarity will be found, outside the Labour paradigm.

[*] See the presentations by John Hurley of Eurofund and Bea Cantillon (forthcoming)