The brutalisation of work under neo-liberalism 1

English version of article given in publication by the Norwegian Campaign for the Welfare State: "Arbeidslivets brutalisering under markedsliberalismen", 2003. Written by Asbjørn Wahl.

asing exclusion from the labour market, an all-time high in sick leave and disability retirement, increasing stress at the work place, less influence over one's work situation: the signals that something dramatic is about to happen to our labour market and our whole relationship to work are many. And yet, although ten thousands are excluded from employment every year, there is little focus on the real reasons and driving forces behind this development. Most politicians and employers are staring blindly at the symptoms. Even the trade unions are not willing to go under the surface.

In the media the focus is inevitably on individuals from a little group of professions that are affected by the modern phenomenon of chronic fatigue syndrome. The extensive and serious problems of exclusions from the labour market and disability of a rapidly increasing number of workers in a labour market under intensive pressure are, at best, presented to us in statistics, where the concerns are connected more to the social security budget and national economy than to the human destinies that hide behind the figures (see the Norwegian Green Book NOU 2000:27, which investigated measures to reduce sick leave and disability retirement). 

Many are affected by chronic fatigue syndrome in today's labour market. Representatives from different professions meet their limit in various ways. Even if the media tends to focus particularly on burnt out individuals among those with higher education, the literature shows that the problem is far more extensive. Nurses and assistant nurses, teachers and social workers, women working two jobs, lower income people with two jobs or people who work overtime that far exceeds the legal limits in order to manage their finances - all of them contribute to the relatively new and growing statistics of fatigue syndrome in the labour market.

For many of these professions, including cleaning personnel, drivers, oil workers, domestic workers and more, the pressure of work is increasing. The same goes for employees in businesses that are in continuous restructuring with considerable layoffs in order to increase profitability. The work intensity increases through fewer staff members and tighter deadlines, the demands of the ability to handle new technology and new organisational forms increase and the control over the individual employee strengthens. Many have to give up. And many sufferers from chronic fatigue syndrome may be barely aware of it because this is a term that is used rarely in these professions. They are used to not being able to keep going in these types of jobs. They become worn out, ill and disabled - and right now this is happening on a large scale.

In this article I will concentrate on this dramatic development in the labour market, where in an increasing number of professions disability is becoming the most usual reason for retirement. Rather than individualising the problem, moralising and stigmatising those affected, I choose to look under the surface for causes and driving forces behind what is becoming one of our biggest social problems.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to sketch out the fundamental economic and political frameworks that through the last couple of decades have contributed so strongly in changing power relations in society, and therefore also determined labour market development. The increasing pressure and the growing number of excluded workers is not a specific Norwegian phenomenon but developmental traits that characterise the neo-liberal labour market in large parts of the world. Neo-liberalism is health hazardous. On this basis I criticise the traditional measures which are launched to counteract the increasing exclusions from the labour market, but seem to have no significant effect. The failure is due to the fact that politicians are only scraping on the surface and attack symptoms rather than the causes and driving forces. Neither psychologists with their strategies for individual coping or politicians and their superficial measures contribute to removing the causes for the brutalisation of work under neo-liberalism. If we are to reveal the fundamental driving forces, then we need a more comprehensive social struggle with a more profound, system-critical perspective.


The entire economic and political situation has changed dramatically through the past 10-20 years. Before this period we experienced one of the most steady and long term development periods of our history, with stable economic growth, prosperity for all, strong development of the welfare state, improvement of the work environment and a strongly state regulated economy and labour market. The pressure on the labour market was moderated through interventions and market regulation. In addition to this, an increasing share of the economy was organised outside the market as public sector activities managed by government and thereby without the pressure on working conditions that inevitably results from market competition. In a society with high employment this also contributes to lessening the pressure on employees in the private sector. The public sector's share of the economy increased evenly and steadily and, without resistance, we accepted a relatively high - and increasing - tax level because we were willing to participate and finance welfare and improved conditions in the labour market. All arrows were pointing upwards.

Then, at some point, it stopped. Unemployment began to increase again. It was asserted that the tax level had become too high, that public enterprises were wasting resources, that political interventions were ineffective relative to the market's rational self-regulation. Keywords like government management, regulation, public ownership, equal distribution of resources had to yield to terms such as competition, liberalisation, decentralisation, market adaptation and deregulation. The latter have now become the prevailing dogma.

This dramatic change of course is connected with important development traits in the international economy, which some call globalisation or the internationalisation of capital, and that is today one of the strongest factors influencing our society. National economies are becoming ever more strongly integrated into the world market and this creates new frameworks for labour as well as politics. Globalisation has however also become a catch phrase, the definition which needs closer examination, as does an analysis of consequences it has on the labour market. (The following presentation of the global economy is to a large extent based on Skarstein 1998).

First and foremost, globalisation is characterised by a great increase in the movement of goods, services and capital across borders. Increasingly advanced electronic communications, low transport costs and so-called borderless free trade have been crucial for the development of this situation but do not explain the driving forces behind it. Two significant changes in the international capitalist economy have been decisive for the situation we are facing today - the collapse of the international monetary system  in the beginning of the 1970s and the abolishment of capital controls in increasing numbers of countries (i.e. the breakdown of the Bretton Woods policies). These phenomena have paved the way for the extensive speculation and casino economy that plays such a dominate role in today's world economy.

Globalisation is not a new economic phenomenon; it has been a characteristic tendency in the entire history of capitalism. Constant expansion and conquest of new markets is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. A capitalism that does not expand is in serious crisis. Yet through public regulations one can influence which form this expansion takes.

The last big globalisation wave was at the end of the 19th century - and lasted about until the outbreak of the First World War. During the post war period there was however a widespread recession, not the least as a result of the economic crisis from the end of the 1920s. After a long stable period after the Second World War the world economy was again in the beginning of the 1970s overtaken by crises. Important events like the Vietnam War, the dollar crisis and the collapse of the monetary system, higher prices for primary products, oil crises and so forth shocked the world economy. At the same time the political pendulum swayed to the right with forced economic liberalisation and deregulation as the result. Neo-liberalism's crusade had begun.

Main countries like the USA, West Germany, Canada and Switzerland abolished capital controls. With that the damn was broken and the liberalisation of financial capital was a fact. Financial institutions and multinational companies (MNCs) had managed to quit themselves of all stately intervention. In Norway the Syse Government abolished the remaining exchange and capital controls in July 1990 with no protests from the opposition.

Neo-liberalism as an economic and political discourse was at its height from the beginning of the 1980s with the USA (under Ronald Reagan) and the United Kingdom (under Margaret Thatcher) as driving forces. It brought with it an extensive deregulation of the markets, the abolition of capital controls, the privatisation of public enterprises and a general loosening up of economic controls. Political market interventions, which through the entire post war era had been used to influence the distribution of economic growth and the channelling of society's resources in the desired direction, were quickly referred to history's garbage dump by market fundamentalists. Free flow of goods, services and capital - without state interventions - was the new ideal.

In the academic world, economists were unusually quick in following loyally the new political shift and changed from Keynesianism to neo-liberalism and supply-side economics. The same policy was facilitated through international organisations like the OECD, GATT, IMF and the World Bank. Through the GATT (now: the WTO) trade is now close to being fully liberalised - the trade of services began to be liberalised in the last round (the so-called GATS agreement).

In Europe this new liberal project has been strengthened through the establishment of the Single Market and the Maastricht Treaty's accomplishment of the EU's monetary union. The EU has become the political representation of the globalisation process in Europe. The driving forces of this project are the struggle for markets and hegemony, which is being fought out between the three poles in the international capitalist economy - the USA, Japan, and the EU. Through the EEA agreement (European Economic Area) Norway has also become a part of this project. The EU's extensive legal framework along with the so-called democratic deficit has created new problems both for democratic government and the labour movement's influence. This strengthens and fortifies the power shift that the current global economy is based upon. The labour movement and the influence of employees' on the workplace is thus gradually weakened - as is the protection of employee interests.


In the past 15-20 years free capital movements and floating exchange rates have been two of the greatest contributors to the dramatic alteration of power relations in the economy and society. They have paved the way for financial capital's intensive growth and dominance. Buying and selling of currency, stocks, bonds, and other securities across borders have increased dramatically after 1980. Since 1980 the turnover of currency and international securities have increased more than ten times, and present daily international currency transactions almost amount to 1 800 billion US dollars, corresponding to about 16 000 billion Norwegian kroner (about 12 Norwegian GNPs).

A majority of these transactions are connected to pure currency speculation and big international traders have several times created shocks in the entire world economy (the European currency crisis in 1992, the Mexican crisis in 1995, the South East Asian crisis in 1998, the complete melt down of the Argentine economy in 2001). Speculation creates dramatic fluctuations in exchange rates, which have little or no connection to the real economy in the affected countries. This insecurity has in itself become a new product - the so-called derivatives where one takes a step further away from the real economy and almost gambles on future exchange rate developments like others gamble on horses, the only difference being that the financial players can create shocks in the entire world economy - in your and my everyday lives and not the least in the labour market.

Money in an international context is no longer first and foremost a means of payment for goods and services that are exported and imported across borders. Such trade constitutes only 2-3% of the transactions. For every dollar that is paid for real goods and services in the world, 50 dollars are used in what some calls the casino economy or speculation economy. The financial system has in other words detached itself completely from the production side of the economy. This economy of madness is a result of the politicians' systematic deregulation in the past couple of decades.

Another central feature in the global economy is the expansion and increasing dominance of MNCs. In 1995 it was estimated that the 200 largest MNCs accounted for over 25% of the world's gross product. These companies have only achieved such influence in the world economy in the course of the past 10-15 years, through dramatic increases in foreign direct investments. It is especially after 1985 that these investments reached disproportional heights,  from a level of about 50 billion dollars per year to over 250 billion.

Through the privatisation policy and the use of the tendering system the MNCs are taking over an increasing part of the public sector. A group of MNCs - especially in France and the United Kingdom - is today growing fat on profitable public contracts. They operate in all corners of the world and all over the spectre of public services (a closer description of this phenomenon can be find amongst other things in Wahl, A. Velferd til salgs in Utviklingsfondet 2001, pp.46-48).

In the increasing international competition that follows this development private companies are put under massive competitive pressure. They therefore try to get rid of expenses they deem unnecessary and at the same time attempt to reduce all remaining expenses. Internally within the companies this means increased efficiency and rationalisation - together with restraining wage increments. Externally this means increasing the pressure on the public sector in a struggle to reduce taxes and fees. Therefore the municipal economy, the social security system, wages and working conditions both in the public and private sectors are under attack these days, and are projected as threats to the country's competitive edge. Threats of capital flight are used if the capitalist powers do not get what they want.

One strategy of these MNCs is to put in a leading bid at a loss in order to press out the competitors with the philosophy that it will pay in the long run when the resulting monopoly situation makes it possible to take out monopoly profits. In many areas, there is a hush-hush division of the markets between such MNCs. The result of the tendering system in the long run is, in other words, not increased competition but increased monopolisation. Public monopolies are replaced by private ones - and with far more power and influence the world over. The pressure on employees is not reduced even if the monopoly tendency weakens market competition, because the MNC giants operate with profit demands far beyond those one had seen earlier.

Besides other serious social sides of this development, tendering and competition also have huge consequences on the workplace environment. Tendering and competition undermine the possibility of developing stable working conditions. "The worst is the insecurity", is a well-known reaction from employees that have been exposed to this "modern" hysteria. They feel a tremendous pressure to go out and compete for their own jobs every third, fourth or fifth year.

Where tasks are divided and distributed among different sub-contractors, various work cultures often arise in one and the same working place. This easily leads to frictions and disturbance. The working environment becomes less stable. Wages and working conditions can also be different for people that carry out the same tasks and to many this is a strongly demotivating factor. Holistic thinking disappears. In many cases it actually becomes more difficult to establish flexibility between different work groups in the same work place. The whole development is built upon a consume-and-waste mentality in relation to employees.

The Australian professor Michael Quinlan has gone through 29 different reports about the effect of outsourcing and competition in both private and public sectors. His conclusion is clear (Klassekampen 30.06.2001):

-Completely independent of the different research methods that are used, the results go overwhelmingly in the same direction. Outsourcing affects the health, says Michael Quinlan. (...) 23 of the 29 studies of outsourcing show that injury, stress and other health problems increase. None of those show health improvements at any point. (...)
-We can without doubt conclude with overwhelming evidence that the new work regime worsens people's health. The result is anything from deaths to dangerous situations and increased psychological stress, he says.

This new economic world order represents a development where power relations in society are changing dramatically. Some have called it the revolt of the elite or the revolution of the rich. The consequences are significant. The relative social stability that was achieved in most highly industrialised countries in the post war period is now being shaken to its core. Labour and trade unions are being put on the defensive the world over.

Supporters of the neo-liberal expansion try to project the prevailing economic globalisation as something which has come to stay. Information technology, the technological revolution, is presented as the most important driving force. Globalisation is therefore unstoppable, irreversible - something one has to adapt to. This narrow technological determinism has also gained a footing in the labour movement's leading circles. It denies that social processes have social causes and that these first and foremost have to be found in social and economic relations. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Technological development reflects in the last instance social and power relations in society. If the politicians chose instead to look behind the technology to the power relations in the economy, they would quickly discover that most of the social changes which hide behind the rather vague term globalisation are the results of conscious strategies on the part of MNCs, financial institutions, and governments.


The USA is in many ways the motor behind this economic development. Here the social and economic differences have increased most, here most MNCs have their bases and here the attacks on trade unions, working conditions and welfare systems have been the strongest. The weakening of the trade union movement, and the deregulation and globalisation of the economy have changed the USA from a high wage country until the end of the 1980s to a low wage country in the 1990s. Through the deregulation of the labour market, an army of so-called working poor is created that does not earn enough to maintain a normal life. 15 million workers (18% of the labour force) fell under the poverty line in the USA in 1990 even though they were working at least 40-hour weeks fifty weeks a year.  

Many of these workers have two or more part-time jobs and they are on an eternal hunt for new assignments so that they can obtain sufficient resources to meet their economic obligations and finance their and their families' livelihood. In addition to the hard physical toil of many of these jobs, the situation thereby also contributes to a persistent psychological pressure on the workers. They lose much of the control over their own lives and are alienated in relation to themselves and other workers. They are truly becoming burnt out.

In Europe mass unemployment, not seen since the 1930s, is the result of this development, together with massive restructuring and relocation of industrial output. Globalisation has in other words created an army of working poor in the USA and an army of unemployed poor in Western Europe. Another trait is that permanent jobs are increasingly replaced by temporary ones; full-time replaced by part-time. The USA's biggest employer is therefore no longer called General Motors, AT&T or IBM. The temping agency Manpower today tops the statistics on the number of employees (Martin & Schumann 1997, p.168). This development not only affects workers and lower paid staff. International company consultants have predicted that every other position in the middle management group will disappear in the coming decade and a majority of the so-called middle class will disappear (same source, pp.13-14).

While we previously have been warned against the so-called one-third society, where a third of the population is excluded from society, we are now also presented with a one-fifth society, not in the sense that a fifth of society is excluded, but rather that 20% of the labour force will in the near future be sufficient to produce all the goods and services we need.

This phenomenon was seriously discussed in an unofficial international meeting between CEOs, politicians and other social leaders in California in 1995. The problem the majority was concerned about was how to feed and entertain the remaining 80% of the population so that they will not be pushed to extreme poverty and suffering, and be forced to resort to violence or revolution (Martin & Schuman, 1997).

Thus, contrary to what many in society's elite assert today, the class struggle is not about to disappear. Rather, it has sharpened through increasingly fierce competition across borders and it is currently stimulated efficiently from above. Neo-liberalism's victorious march over the world since the 1970s has led to a massive change in the balance of power between labour and capital.

The internationalisation of production and the changed conditions of competition have made it easier to move production from one country to another. Thereby the potential counterweight that the domestic trade unions represent is weakened. In addition the increasing amount of and extremely mobile financial capital is being used to blackmail national governments, a factor that has made it more difficult for the labour movement to exploit their political power.

In the past decades the most serious assault on the workers' position in society, on the welfare state and on democracy, is the abolition of capital controls. It is this that has given the MNCs the opportunity to make use of the so-called exit strategy: to move or threaten to move production and investments to other countries. It is used nowadays on the workers as well as the state. The struggle to improve the national competitive power takes the form of concrete demands for more flexible working hours (for example Kraft Foods pressurised workers at the Freia factory in Oslo to accept night shifts, saying that if they did not agree, Kraft would rather invest in other European countries), downsizing and so forth, or more favourable production conditions such as lower taxes and fees, cheaper energy, more supple emission regulations etc.

While the trade union and labour movements could earlier fight through a new labour environment law - against employers' wishes and interests - and then use this law as a tool to improve work conditions, some employers can therefore now easily avoid this law by moving production and investments to another country with a weaker trade union movement and weaker labour laws and agreements. In Germany, in the last five years of the 1990s alone, close to a million work places were moved to countries with cheaper labour and lower taxes (Balanyá et al 2000, pp.7-8).

These factors contribute to the weakening of the trade union movement. The development of mass unemployment in large parts of the industrialised world has thereby contributed to the weakening of the workers' power. Since working conditions and welfare in a society are strongly dependent on the power relations in society, this power shift has a drastic effect on the pressure of work.

This is not a new phenomenon to the world. But in the era of information consultants' we no longer find straightforward descriptions of this phenomenon, such as the one printed in the business magazine Farmand during the last period of globalisation - at the end of the 19th century (referred by Bjørnson, 1990 p.99):

(...) It must not be forgotten that in our time with competition in all areas the demand inexorably becomes this: good wages but also equally high quality work. If the last condition, high quality work, is not nowadays in general being fulfilled by Norwegian workers, we do not believe, that Norwegian industry in the long run will be able to sustain competition with the world economy, which has other labour conditions, unless our factory owners following the other countries' example: A good man gets a job, a useless man may leave.


These new power relations in society are the background for why we are experiencing an all-time high in sick leave and exclusions from the labour market in Norway. About 10% of the entire Norwegian population between 16 and 66 years are currently on disability insurance. If we include those who are in rehabilitation, early retirement and other similar arrangements, it is closer to 15%. 25% of those between 55 and 60 years are declared disabled. According to official statistics work injuries are strongly increasing. A large increase in injuries at work was reported for example by Aftenposten (2.12.1997) basing it on numbers from the Norwegian Financial Services Association. Stress has become a widespread people's illness, a fact that is supported by, amongst others, the Green Book NOU 2000: 27 and the Statistics Norway's study on work conditions (Ukens statistikk No.47, 1997).

In this study it is concluded that almost half of us are experiencing increasing stress due to huge work pressure. Three out of four experience that the work tempo is controlled by routines and deadlines. The number of workers that experience high labour intensity is increasing rapidly. Whilst 44% of those employed described their work situation in this way in 1996, the number was 37% in 1993 and 32% in 1989. The pressure has in other words increased whilst the work content has degraded.  This results in restricted freedom for a great many people. The way work is organised is based on power relations that have significant importance to the self-image of the individual.

This brutalisation of work is an inevitable consequence of precisely those strong and underlying forces in society that I described above. Competition is sharpened in all areas and the demands for profits increase dramatically. In the public sector increased demands for competition creates insecurity and harder work tempos. The massive demands for cutting costs inevitably lead to an intolerable pressure on many employees. Ever faster restructuring and downsizing of the labour stock increases the demands on the individual employee. In short, neo-liberalism is health hazardous. The employer's side occasionally admits this, here represented by CEO Bernt Aas of Fellesslakteriet (a Norwegian slaughterhouse company), who in an interview says (Aftenposten 26.2.1998):

-We live under very tough conditions. The grocery store chains are making big demands on the industry and our margins for profitability becomes smaller and smaller. Naturally this makes the demands on efficient production progressively tougher, he says and goes on:
-The workers feel this efficiency pressure very strongly.

The increasing pressure in large parts of the labour market is therefore not something that just happens; it originates from specific power relations and political decisions. There are powerful interests that promote changes in the economy, society and labour market that weaken worker protection. It is not difficult to identify those forces in our society that have in recent years been applying pressure to weaken sickness benefits, the Labour Environment Act, the Employment Act, the working hour regulations, to reduce the number of holidays and free days and to weaken the content of tariff agreements. Employer organisations have stood in the front row - with the political right wing on tow. It becomes progressively clearer that market liberalisation is not at all compatible with the goal of a society and labour market where people can grow, realise and develop their creative capabilities in safe and predictable conditions.

Many people have therefore experienced in the past years that the work pressure has become tougher, that the labour laws and agreements are often undermined and put aside in the daily work and that the insecurity and uncertainty have increased. It is important to have good labour laws and agreements but it is not enough. Without a climate in society that accepts or supports these agreements, without conditions and regulations that dampen the competitive pressure in the labour market, without power relations that make it possible for interventions against the market forces and without strong trade unions that can ensure that the labour laws and agreements are followed, the result is rather worsened work conditions. An inspector at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority illustrates the situation as follows (report in the free newspaper Avis 1, Oslo 20.10.2000):

The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority fears that today's pressure on workers affects health and that older employees will not manage the load and therefore disappear from the labour market.(...)
-We will soon be the only hindrance when it comes to making society efficient.

For an increasing number of professions the most common way of exiting the labour market is now by being declared disable - not by reaching normal retirement age. This has for some time been the case for cleaning personnel. And yet still more drops are squeezed out of the lemon through massive competition, which systematically leads to people getting bigger areas to clean in a shorter time. Drivers both in goods and personal transport are also affected by this competition - as are a growing number of employees in the health, social and education sectors. The newspaper Nationen (27.10.2000) reported in 1999 that disability pensioners constituted 57% of all teachers that retired, while a further 36% left under a Contracted Pension Scheme for up to 5 years before the retirement age of 67 years. So only 7% of retired teachers become pensioners at the normal age. The latest group affected - the most recent group because it is relatively new in Norway - are the oil workers in the North Sea, which now to a greater degree stop working at the start of their 50s. 70% of those who work in the North Sea do not reach the retirement age, according to the previous President of the Federation of the Oil Workers' Trade Unions, Terje Nustad (Klassekampen, 17.2.1998). The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority's inspector states in the same article that "the time pressure is the worst health threat in the oil business".

Many have pointed out that the rapidly growing number of early retired workers is not co-ordinated with an equal growth in ill health. This relationship was well illustrated in a title of a reader's contribution that I came over in Bergensavisen (3.7.1999) which was called Competition gives greater number, but healthier disabled persons. The increase in number of early retirements are caused, in other words, not just by the increased pressure on the individual, but also by the fact that employers' threshold for accepting reduced work capacity is lower. The increased competition in the private sector and the pressure in fulfilling pure economic results in the public sector becomes a strong incentive to get rid of labour that cannot give 110% at all times.

In the manufacturing industry a comprehensive downsizing took place during the extensive rationalisation waves of the 1980s. In the 1990s however a similar process also started in the public sector. A tendency towards budget cutting, progressively more blinkered economic steering and the division of most activities into small result units with tough economic goals have led to a raw exclusion of any employees that cannot perform to the maximum. In social economic terms it is of course meaningless that people with a small reduction in work capacity are pushed over to disability pensions rather than utilising their work capacity to the creation of value in society.

The way the public sector reorganises its business contributes strongly to this process. When area after area is divided into small economic entities, and the managers of these entities are to meet exaggerated goals, in order to satisfy upper management, then an inexorable pressure arises to remove workers that cannot give maximum effort.

The following is probably an extreme, but nevertheless illustrating, example of this cultural tendency in independent public companies. It concerns employees (mostly women) that work in the Norwegian State Railways' customer service phone and are denied full time employment. The manager explains why (Klassekampen, 22.10.1999):

-The job is so tough that it is an advantage that those employed only work 85%, says the manager of Norwegian State Railways' customer service phone. (...)
-Could the job been organised differently so that they could get a full workday without wearing themselves out?
-The production is the time they are on the phones so I do not see how it can be done.

While the public sector was seen earlier as a safe and good working place, and represented a part of the labour market that contributed to reducing the pressure on workers - first and foremost for those who work there but also indirectly for those employed in the private sector, the situation has in many ways become the opposite in recent years. Restructional methods and organisational models in large parts of the public sector have contributed to a dramatic worsening of working conditions as the following report shows (Aftenposten, 17.04.2001):
The number of new disability pensioners amongst the staff in the public administration, school sector and independent public enterprises such as the Norwegian Postal Services and the Norwegian State Railways has increased with 35.9% since 1996. In the same period the number of new disability pensioners increased with 16.8% in the rest of the population. (...)
-Increased efficiency pressure and brutalisation of work lead to more disability pensioners. In addition we see that the division into smaller work units gives less flexibility in relocalising workers with various burden ailments, says Vice President of the Norwegian Civil Service Union, Tor Arne Solbakken.

Researcher Ivar Brevik in the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research has summed the situation up thus: "In the last 15-20 years social security arrangements have functioned as a refuse collection system in the labour market. They have become a depot for people who are neither sick nor disabled. The cure seeks causes in the individual while the explanations lie in the labour market." (Magazine of the Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees, Arena, No.10, 1999.)

Many are trying to explain the huge sick leave and the extensive disability in our labour market with the high percentage of active workers in Norway. The theory is that because of the high level of employment people who initially have a higher level of ill health are drawn into the labour market. This is of course a point but must be confronted with the three following arguments:

Firstly, if it is true that the labour market should adapt to serve human needs and capacities, it must also adapt to those who might have reduced work capacity. Secondly, it was only during the 1990s that Norway experienced the strong increase in the share of active workers and mass unemployment was reduced. The exclusion from the labour market has continued to increase strongly in recent years after the work participation rate stabilised. We are therefore facing a strongly increasing social problem. Thirdly, the problem is not specifically Norwegian. Whatever the level of employment we see the same tendencies everywhere where neo-liberalism has contributed to increased pressure in the labour market. A European study supports this (The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions' web newsletter, LOnytt, 5.2.2001):

The labour environment in Europe has worsened, and this is due to tougher competition and changed working conditions. -Alarm clocks should ring, says the Director of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Raymon-Pierre Bodin.

The background for the concern is a new study on health problems connected to the work place in the EU 15. The institute (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) has interviewed 21 500 people. The study is the third in a series of reports on the working environment in the EU. The previous two are from 1990 and 1995. (...)

The European study emphatically confirms a report from the ILO (International Labour Organisation) published last autumn that showed that stress is an increasing problem in the labour market and leads to fatigue and depression. The study included amongst others the USA and Poland.

One of the tasteless sides of this development is the massive moralisation a lot of those who are affected by this exclusion from the labour market are exposed to. The media, rightwing populists, employers and leading politicians frequently suggest that failing work morale lies behind the massive increase in sick leave and disability pensions. It is thus not enough for people to be exposed to increasing insecurity and physical and psychological pressure in the labour market, they have to in addition receive condescending attitudes and moralistic finger pointing from society's elite and the media society's successful middle class. One of today's most extensive social problems is in this way individualised and made into a rightwing populist divide-and-conquer policy, which makes groups stand against each other and weakens the solidarity between people that have everything to gain by standing together.


Politicians are to a large degree responsible for this situation but do not accept it. They would rather promote, consciously or subconsciously, what I call the big illusion in the labour market. They constantly refer to the symptoms of sick leave and disability pension. They refuse to acknowledge the fundamental driving forces behind this development and that it is here that the effort is needed if they really wish to do something with the problem.

Increasing numbers of politicians however express concern for the problem. The Christian People's Party Leader, Kjell Bondevik, invited the previous government, through newspaper chronicles and interviews, to a big national cooperation to solve the problem and with positive responses (see chronicle in VG 20.5.2000 and articles in Dagsavisen 4 & 5.4.2000). Other politicians and authorities have followed up with solemn statements. Almost without exception the concern has however been restricted to the social welfare budget. It is suggested that the solutions to the problem lie in sharpening the conditions for receiving a disability pension as well as reducing the benefits, like they did at the beginning of the 1990s. Almost none of the actors have expressed any clear concern about the real problem - namely the brutalisation of work. The only exceptions I have found is the previous Deputy Leader of the Norwegian Centre Party, Åse Grønlien Østmo (chronicle in Nationen 24.8.2000), and the Socialist Left Party's Parliamentary Representative, Karin Andersen (interview in Dagsavisen 5.4.2000) who distance themselves from Bondevik's one sided focus on the increasing expenses of sick leave and disablement insurance.

For many years, I have personally been involved in activities to counteract the increased competition in public services. Cleaning is one of the areas that is most exposed to competition. At the same time it is one of the most physically demanding work in our society today. Few can handle a whole life in this business; being declared disable is the most usual way to end a career. To expose these workers to the increasing pressure that follows the tendering system will necessarily result in an additional burden on the social welfare budgets. When politicians are confronted by this, the standard reply is often: the work environment should not degenerate since one assumes that the Labour Environment Act is followed.

This reveals at best boundless political naivety. Politicians do not acknowledge that different forces have different strengths in society, and that some overpower others. When the economic forces are let loose, when the market forces get to rule more freely, when competition is implemented in one area after another in the labour market, when public enterprises are put under progressively narrow economic goals, there is little help to be had from a formal legal framework to secure working environments and social relations. When work intensive industries are put out to tender it goes without saying that the struggle will be about which party can best push down wages and other expenses connected to workers. The result is a tougher working environment despite good intentions of labour laws and agreements.

The following simile gives a good picture of the role politicians are playing: when they on the one hand let market forces loose and implement progressively narrow economic steering, and on the other attempt to dampen the negative symptoms of this policy by establishing a formal legal framework, then it is like opening up the floodgates and then forbidding the water to run. It is a futile exercise. Laws and regulations are quickly stalemated by the iron laws of free market economics that are implemented in area after area in society.

This is also the conclusion of a report from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (LOnytt, 5.2.2001):

The conclusion in the report is that none of the measures in the 1990s have led to better health.
-Despite of a series of laws and regulations in several areas, amongst others minimum standards in relation to security and rest time, the working environment is in deterioration. Companies work hard with the increased competition in the world market. Even if work hours are reduced, the intensity and demands are greater. This leads to tighter deadlines and stress, the European Institute claims.

Thus the measures are not working because they are built upon the illusion that one can reduce the problems by attacking the symptoms. Employees at the Norwegian Postal Service for example became more ill after campaigns to reduce sick leave (Aftenposten 11.9.2000). Yet the so-called welfare-to-work policy is central to the politicians' rhetoric. According to this rhetoric more people should return to work, both disabled and others. Preferably we shall work well into the retirement age because we will have a labour shortage in the years to come.

It does not seem to influence politicians that the abyss between good intentions and the real development in the labour market continues to increase, so that the talk about the welfare-to-work policy also becomes rhetoric increasingly cut off from reality when it meets the tough economic forces of the labour market. Doctor and Professor Anders Gogstad soberly summed it up this way: "It becomes clearer that the welfare-to-work policy after the present guidelines has not in any way led us anywhere. The decisions and regulations in the White Book on Rehabilitation 1991-92 have been aimless." (Dagbladet, 19.6.2000)

For the 10-15% of the work force who eventually find themselves on disability pension, rehabilitation or such measures, and for the ten thousands others who work hard to keep going with degrading work, little help is to be derived from the words of Norway's former Social Minister (e-mail letter from the Social Minister Guri Ingebrigsten, 29.6.2000):

We must have a labour market that is inclusive, also of those who for different reasons have problems with meeting the demands of the labour market. We want a labour market that takes consideration and makes use of the individual worker's real competence. We must arrange things so that all people are used in meaningful activity. (...) It must be accepted that people produce differently in different phases of life.

This rhetoric placed side by side with the brutalisation of work, results in the welfare-to-work policy in many ways functioning as degrading and disciplinary, as a weapon against people on long-term sick leave and social clients. The same context can also be found in the welfare policy philosophy that constitutes an important element of Tony Blair's Third Way, which is both suppressing and moralistic (Lindberg 1999, pp.21-30). The USA's "Welfare to Work" Programme has functioned in the same way - it has increased the differences in society and weakened the workers' rights (Handler 2000). This American welfare model inspired the development of the Norwegian welfare-to-work policy, as researcher Nanna Kildal at the University of Bergen pointed out (Dagbladet 24.2.1999).

Our political authorities have been unable to meet the dramatic development in the labour market. In fact, through privatisation and dividing up of sectors, through competition and deregulation of the markets, through the downsizing of public services and the weakening of workers' rights, they have contributed rather to promoting those factors that cause the brutalisation of work.

In Norway, we probably have one of the world's best labour legislations. When the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act was passed in 1977, it was seen as an advanced tool in developing the good working life. Many have especially deemed §12 of this act as the labour market's constitution. In short it states that the work shall be adapted to a person's needs - and not the other way around. The following is amongst the central formulations that are used (Worker Protection and Working Environment Act, 2001, p.11):

Technology, organisation of the work, execution of the work, working hours and pay systems shall be arranged in such a way that the employees are not exposed to adverse physical or mental strain and that their possibilities of exercising caution and observing safety considerations are not impaired. (...) Conditions shall be arranged so that employees are afforded reasonable opportunity for professional and personal development through their work. (...)
The individual employee's opportunity for self-determination and professional responsibility shall be taken into consideration when planning and arranging the work. Efforts shall be made to avoid monotonous, repetitive work and work that is governed by machine or conveyor belt in such a manner that the employees themselves are prevented from varying the speed of the work. Otherwise efforts shall be made to arrange the work so as to provide possibilities for variation and for contact with others, for connection between individual job assignments, and for employees to keep informed about production requirements and results. The work must be arranged so as not to offend the dignity of the employee.

I do not think it is an exaggerated claim that the Norwegian labour market no longer complies with this paragraph. In addition, many fear that the revision that the Worker Protection and Working Environment Act is now facing will lead to a further weakening. This came out clearly at the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions' Congress in the Spring of 2000 where many argued against the law revision because it can, under today's power relations, easily be changed to the employers' premises - with increasing market mobility and undermining of existing regulations. On the other hand, many realise that the law only protects many of the new professions in the communication and service societies to a small degree, when it applies to those working at home and other special so-called borderless jobs. In this area the law needs reforming.
A formal legal framework is however far from sufficient. In the real world a working environment has developed in which a normally endowed person in an increasing number of professions is not capable of holding out for a whole work life but must now sacrifice their health at the competition altar long before normal retirement age. When nurses become worn out because of staff shortages, at the same time as their strong sense of duty in relation to help the sick and injured causes them to work double shifts to compensate for the shortage - then it is not legal shortcomings that are to blame, but the lack of enforcement and wrong priority of resources. Work is being brutalised. In other words, today's growth and prosperity are not leading large parts of the population to a better life. On the contrary the pressure on the individual is increasing and physical and psychological health is breaking down.

While workers during most of the post war period learned that economic growth gave increased prosperity in society, we are now on our way to a situation where we are experiencing growth without prosperity. Naturally this contributes gradually to undermining the legitimacy of the prevailing economic system. Those who daily tell us that "We have never had it better in Norway" do not in other words know what is going on in the labour market. At the same time they reveal through their statements that they are distant from the reality in which a majority of the country's workers find themselves. The distance between the political elite and normal people has increased enormously, and rightwing populism can exploit uninhibited the vast amounts of bottled up discontentment that is created.


This huge social problem has still not received its rightful place in public debate for several reasons. Firstly, it is an untrendy theme within the claimed urbane and post-modern elite that has taken control over the media and thereby over the public debate agenda. Secondly, the ruling and those ruled are recruited from separate social groups. The decision makers have in other words little knowledge of people's everyday problems. Thirdly, those affected tend to individualise the problem: "It is me who is not good enough and cannot master the new demands in the labour market."

This depoliticisation and individualisation of the labour market's brutalisation has solid support among the political elite, among employers and - not the least - among a string of professionals that are equipped with their individual coping strategies. Various creative and constructive suggestions to solutions are flourishing, such as narrowing the conditions required to receive disability pension, or reducing social insurance rates and sickness benefits, or frequent re-education and job changing, not to mention our previous Foreign Minister's generous advice to indulge in yoga, breathing exercises and physical training during work hours (Nationen, 6.1.2001). All of these are launched so that workers can better tackle the burden of a tough labour market. Sometimes one gets the impression that a massive collective attempt is taking place to promote "individual" coping of extensive social problems.

In many areas it is of course important to train and strengthen the individual's capacity to withstand physical as well as psychological burdens. But when the whole problem around the consequences of such a serious economic and social development as we are experiencing today is reduced to individual coping, it reflects to a great degree the depoliticisation in the labour movement as well as in society in general. Very few will willingly get closer to the core of the problem, the brutalisation of work we are experiencing in the aftermath of the deregulation of market forces.

There is little doubt that this is connected with power relations in our society. Neo-liberalism has given economic forces a stronger upper hand in society as well as in the work place. This contributes in increasing competition, restructuring and performance pressures. Companies become interested in getting rid of labour that cannot give their full capacity - the whole time. An increasing percentage of workers feel directly controlled at work, and thereby have less influence over their own work situation. This creates increasing alienation. The psychosocial pressure is increasingly becoming the causal factor of sick leave and disability (NOU 2000: 27, p.55). The increasing incidence of burn out is connected in other words to neo-liberalism's brutalisation of work. So it is not sufficient to focus on the individual's coping with the problem. The increasing fatigue is a result of a system controlled by a higher order.

In the trade union and labour movements' histories, labour relations and environment are the results of social struggle. Every step in the direction of increased welfare and better working conditions for the average man and woman has come about in a struggle against strong economic and political forces in society. The improvements were achieved by opposing the capital forces, intervening in the markets, reducing the destructive competition and putting an increasing part of the economy under democratic, social control. These were and are two sides of the same issue.

It is therefore time to go deeper than the politicians' scratching of the surface. We must ask fundamental questions about what is wrong with a society and a labour market in which more and more people are worn out, excluded or declared disable, where the psychosocial problems are increasing, where the brutalisation of work pressurises more and more people to a life based on a disability pension, social benefit, disempowerment and stigmatisation - to an increasing degree and in tune with increasing prosperity in society. What is it that stops us from developing a labour market where people's capacities, needs, wishes and dreams are at the core? What is it that creates the great distance that today exist between the life we want to live and the life we are offered under neo-liberalism?

It is not sufficient to ask what is wrong with the working environment, we must go further and challenge the underlying driving forces that create the increasing pressure on workers. If we were to do that, then we must confront the market forces, we must mobilise and build alliances strong enough to press the neo-liberal offensive back again. This is all about power; the MNCs, banks and insurance institutions will not let themselves be convinced.

From the trade unions' side the brutalisation of work must thus be met by a strategic attack on two fronts. On the one hand it becomes important to meet the concrete attempts in undermining and weaken existing labour laws and agreements that protect the workers in the labour market. The employers' deregulation and flexibilisation strategy must be rejected.

On the other hand, it becomes necessary for the trade union and other popular movements - national and international - to promote demands and organise the struggle for more extensive regulations, interventions in the markets and the bending of the economic forces that press forward the brutalisation of work - whether it happens through market oriented national governments, the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, the EU/EEA or other institutions. The trade union movement must ally itself with the growing global justice and solidarity movement against neo-liberalism.

The ongoing campaign in Norway for an inclusive labour market, which is basically founded on the same narrow and perspective-lacking policy behind the welfare-to-work policy, risks ending up as another failed resolution attempt. The campaign gives however an excellent opportunity to focus on the fundamental driving forces that lie behind the brutalisation of work. Only through the spotlighting of these can we avoid falling into the employers' "sickness benefits trap": the threat of a massive attack on the sickness benefits system if, or rather when, the goal of a 20% reduction in sick leave is not met. The first signals that they are so far discontented with the campaign's lack of results have already arrived from the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry and from rightwing politicians. The trade union movement would be wise to start preparing a massive campaign to rescue our sickness benefits.


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