Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
Alison TateEvelyn Astor
Alison Tate and Evelyn Astor
Guy Standing’s paper on the rise of the precariat sets out many serious challenges that workers in the world today are struggling with.
Indeed, we have observed over the last decades a falling wage share, with millions of workers in supply chains and elsewhere struggling even to survive—despite the fact that wealth has increased dramatically over the past decades and productivity is at the highest point in history. Labor markets are increasingly precarious, with agency work, temporary work, platform work, and dependent self-employment all becoming the new norm.
At the same time, supply chains have emerged as the dominant model of global production. International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) research shows that more than 60 percent of global trade is dependent on contracts in supply chains, and up to 94 percent of the workers in the supply chains of major multinational enterprises comprise a hidden workforce.1 As Standing rightly points out in his paper, this model has allowed companies to compete across the globe on the basis of low wages, poor working conditions, and low levels of unionization. Moreover, the attenuated chain of responsibility has led to vast violations of national and internationally agreed labor standards.
The current model of economic growth is not allowing for a fair distribution of income or wealth. Rather, it has fueled the corporate greed and has torn apart the social contract. The results of ITUC’s recent global poll show that as many as 80 percent of all global respondents believe the economic system favors the wealthy, rather than being fair to most people. 85 percent believe that it’s time to rewrite the rules of the global economy.2
Rewriting the rules requires a change in current public policy. Governments need to strengthen legislation to rein in predatory work practices and attacks on freedom of association and collective bargaining. Instead, reforms in many countries have been undertaken in recent years to weaken labor market institutions, reduce employment protection, and “flexibilize” the labor market. Very often, such reforms have been heavily promoted by international organizations and financial institutions. All of this has led to reduced possibilities for workers and their unions to negotiate fair wages and other working conditions. In parallel with workers’ increased income insecurity from work, social protection systems remain grossly inadequate, with over 70% of the world’s population lacking any or adequate social protection.
But is a basic income the solution? Standing and many others seem to think so. Unions around the world see some opportunities in this proposal, but also many risks. While the global labor movement has yet to come up with a firm position on the proposal of a basic income, the ITUC rejects the idea that increasing unemployment and precarious employment are inevitable, and that only a basic income would be able to effectively address these problems.3
Unions will continue to fight for and negotiate a better future of work. We are calling for decent work conditions, including through adequate minimum living wages, fundamental occupational health and safety, reasonable working hours, job security, and respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining—in line with international labor standards. Adequate, comprehensive social protection systems, in line with ILO Convention 102 on Social Security and Recommendation 202 on Social Protection Floors, need to be put in place.
1. International Trade Union Confederation, Scandal: Inside the Global Supply Chains of 50 Top Companies (Brussels: ITUC, 2016), https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/pdffrontlines_scandal_en-2.pdf.
2. International Trade Union Confederation, International Trade Union Confederation 2017 Global Poll (Brussels: ITUC, 2016), https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/global_poll_en_print.pdf.
3. The ITUC has just published a short policy brief that explores the pros and cons of the issue around basic income in more detail. You may find it on our website here (www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/universal_basic_income.pdf).