The problems for workers

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The problems for workers

Dinyar Godrej writes about what we have learned from Covid-19 and about the possible future of work.


Economic migrants from rural areas on a construction site in Nairobi, Kenya. These jobs are usually temporary, sometimes just for a day. NATURE PICTURE LIBRARY/ALAMY

We often think that work is important morally and socially and that is why it is at the centre of our lives. But Covid-19 shows us that through history we have worked to survive.

We find this is true when we think that millions of workers should not be in work at all, or at least not full-time - these workers are children.

Before the World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June 2021, UNICEF said that there was no progress towards ending child labour. There was a rise of 8.4 million children in work over the past four years. Of the160 million working children, half were in dangerous work (‘likely to harm their health, safety, or morals’). And there were serious warnings that 9 million more (and possibly 46 million) will be forced into child labour by the end of 2022 because of Covid-19.

A report by Human Rights Watch recorded interviews with a few of these children.13-year-old Florence from Uganda said, ‘I started working because we were so poor. We were so hungry at home that we could not sit and wait.’ And 15-year-old Kiran is from Nepal. Her family borrowed money after being out of work for months during Covid-19. She said, ‘If I go back to school now, my family will have more debt. We have a lot to repay and I cannot add more debt.’ 14-year-old Gita, also from Nepal, talked about work making carpet from 4.00am to 10.00pm, ‘My fingers hurt… my eyes hurt… and I sit down for hours so it really hurts my legs.’ They all spoke about really hard work, toxic materials, long hours, beatings, and very low pay.

There is of course some help, like teachers’ unions and NGOs in Malawi trying to persuade parents to return their children to school, and some governments in the Global South offering basic support. But it is not enough. Low-income countries spend only 1.1 per cent of GDP on social protection and have to pay back very big sums for foreign debt. High-income countries spend 16.4 per cent of GDP on social protection. More than half the world’s people – 53 per cent – get no social benefits from their governments.

Children are forced into work because the adults are forced out of work or did not earn enough to survive. If we go back to what UNICEF said, we see child labour was already rising before Covid-19. And Covid-19 made it worse.

A big difference

Many think that Covid-19 is helping us to think more about the world of work (and other things), and showing how bad things were, and still are, and how things could be in future.

One of the things it shows is the terrible conditions of people working ‘informally’. They are most workers of the world (six out of every ten). They have no fixed terms or wages. They work hard to make a living doing different jobs but they have no contracts or legal protection. Many agricultural workers are in this situation, and many rural workers looking for what work they can find in cities. Gig and piece-work is growing in rich nations, too, but most of these workers are in the Global South.

With Covid-19 and lockdowns, these were some of the first workers to lose their jobs in cities – street vendors, rickshaw pullers, domestics, construction, and day workers, all kinds of people doing short-term jobs with no employment guarantees. Television showed millions of informal workers leaving Indian cities after a lockdown. We saw the same thing in smaller numbers in many other countries, with people returning to the rural places they came from. They left them before because there was not enough agricultural work.

About 400,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers returned home by February 2021. They had nothing and no jobs waiting for them back home. The loss of income affected up to a third of the country’s population.

And then there are workers at the bottom of global chains. They are working in terrible conditions to help the big companies of the West to make maximum profit from their labour. Again, in Bangladesh, over a quarter of the four million workers in the garment industry lost their jobs or were furloughed after cancelled orders.

All of this showed the big loss of jobs and insecurity for the lowest-paid workers in many rich Western nations. This was clear before Covid-19. There were calls to re-imagine work, to ‘build back better’, to help the big state to give the social security missing for so many. But as economies are moving again, these ideas have changed. It looks like a race to get back to normal. The only problem is that normal was already going down a dark path.


A carer helps an elderly woman with a broken arm and dementia to bed during the Covid-19 lockdown in Manchester, UK. STEVE FOREST/PANOS PICTURES

A lot and a very little

Job insecurity is now part of work even in the West, and not just for gig economy workers. Technology and the attack on labour conditions through the neoliberal years since the 1980s, has brought job insecurity. Unions became weaker but the results of Covid-19 has brought more people to form and join unions.

As welfare becomes a dream, property prices, mortgages and rents rise, student debts increase, and services get privatized. Workers are finding that work is insecure, nothing is secure, your life could collapse. This is more and more the story of middle-class millennials. Work-related stress accounts for over half of the days lost to illness. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized the condition of burnout from stress at work. If big numbers of the Western middle classes feel it is difficult to survive, what about those born into poverty?

Thinking that there is not enough for everyone is part of the way capitalism orders society. There is, in fact, enough food to feed all humans on this Earth, but there are terrible inequalities in how we distribute it. In the same way, there is no scarcity of all the essentials of life: there is enough for everyone. The anthropologist James Suzman studied hunter-gatherer societies. He says that their view of the world was that there was plenty for everyone – they didn’t want very much and they knew they could find what they wanted. There was no inequality, they shared food and resources, ‘they made fun of people who tried to gather too much’. They rarely worked more than 15 hours a week, and spent the rest of their time in leisure and the things that made them happy.

Fifteen hours of work a week was also what economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting in 1930 for the world’s peoples by the early 21st century. This was as a result of capital growth, better productivity and better technology. We could give everyone what they needed. We met the goals of capital growth and productivity many years ago. But we live more and more in an unequal world and most people have to work hard and be free to work, be ‘flexible’, and often need to improve their skills to keep a job.

Smaller and smaller share

Since the 1980s, the money paid in wages and benefit has been falling. And there are big differences between people. The International Labour Organization says that the top 10 per cent receive nearly half of global income, while the lowest paid 20 per cent (about 65 million workers) receive less than one per cent. At the same time, those who inherit wealth or own assets do well but “work does not pay” for many.

A survey of 28 nations in 2019 found that 56 per cent believed ‘Capitalism today does more harm than good in the world’. 83 per cent worried about losing their jobs. So much insecurity with so much productivity and material!

There is inequality between people with power and capital and the rest, whose labour is vital but counts for little. Think of so-called ‘key workers’. Their work is essential but they are poorly paid and badly treated. Covid-19 added extra risk to these jobs as they, including healthcare staff, had to keep working. It showed that care work, done mainly by women, remains unpaid but essential to the economy.


Child labourers at a rice mill in Dhaka, Bangaldesh. GMB AKASH/PANOS PICTURES


There is also the fear of technology replacing plenty of jobs. It has happened in the past and some in industry dream of ‘dark factories’ with no humans at all. Technology in the hands of capital means that the jobs that need humans go to countries where labour is cheaper than machines. People see China’s big investment in robots as a way to produce cheap goods while wages rise in the country.

An example of the fear of automation is the big warehouses of delivery companies like DHL and Office Depot. There Chuck, a robot trolley, leads the workers to the goods they need to pick and pack. It sounds good but the humans have to follow behind Chuck and work twice as hard compared to pushing the trolley themselves.

Another example is microwork. It has about 20 million people around the world. It usually involves looking through digital data (for example, identifying whether there is a human in an image), and cleaning up the data so that AI systems can learn to do it themselves. It is very badly paid but so many people want the work that there is not enough work for everyone.

It is clear that machines are better at doing many jobs. The problem is what to do with the work it saves.

The real future

Covid-19 has brought back some good ideas that we have forgotten or didn’t like. There are calls for a bigger role for the state in helping working lives, after furlough schemes in some rich countries were successful. People are asking for workers’ rights and interest in unions is rising. The importance of social security calls for a universal basic income and the need to stop and share too much wealth. There was a lot of anger when we saw no real international solidarity around vaccines. Unequal exchange in international trade and unjust foreign debt both keep poor countries poor, but they did not get the attention they deserved. For working lives to improve, the relationship between the state and big corporations will need to change. Taking power away from those with assets is vital to re-imagining society – and work – to suit us all.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)