The brutalisation of work under neo-liberalism 2

We live in a society and in a time in which we are facing a
serious brutalisation of work at the global level. We live in a
society in which an increasing number of workers is being excluded
from the labour market declared disable to work. We live in a
society in which we experience an all-time high in sick leave, as
well as an increase in occupational injuries and accidents. We live
in a society in which a growing number of workers experience
increasing stress and so-called chronic fatigue syndrome at the
work place. We live in a society in which we in many industries and
sectors experience degradation of work, with less influence over
the work situation. We live in a society in which trade unions are
being considered by many as problems and barriers to development
and so-called modernisation, and are consequently being attacked,
made subject to union busting and forced on the defensive. In
short, there are many signals that something dramatic is about to
happen to our labour market and to our whole relationship to
work.

Many people have therefore experienced in the past years that
the work pressure has become tougher, that labour laws and
agreements are often undermined and put aside in the daily work and
that the insecurity and uncertainty have increased. A rapidly
growing number of workers are being excluded from the labour market
altogether. In Norway, almost 15 per cent of the total population
between the ages of 16 and 67 – the latter being the ordinary
age of retirement – are now on early retirement, disablement
benefit or some kind of rehabilitation. The figure has doubled over
the last 20 years. At the same time, trade union and labour rights
are being weakened and undermined. There is no doubt, then, that a
serious brutalisation of work is going on.

This development takes place in a society in which we, at least
in the industrialised world, for a long period experienced a
gradual improvement of working conditions – a development
which included shorter and better regulated working hours, longer
annual leave, better job security, the introduction and improvement
of sick pay, a reduction in work intensity, less stress, removal of
many health hazardous workplaces, and the development of gradually
better working environment legislation. This developed in parallel
with a high level of employment, improved trade union rights,
increasing co-determination in the workplace and in the companies,
etc.

I do not with this say that we did have an ideal working
environment. Far from that, there were many problems and challenges
ahead. What I do say, is that we had a positive development.
Working conditions and working environments were gradually being
improved. That is no longer the general trend.

What has happened, then? Why have we moved from a situation in
which working conditions as a general trend improved over a long
period of time, to a situation in which we, in today’s much more
wealthy societies, experience a backlash? This is a decisive
question, and if we are going to succeed in our struggle for better
working conditions, we will have to understand this considerable
shift in development. There are reasons why such a shift has taken
place in the labour market, and more than that – the reasons are
identifiable.

To develop credible and workable strategies and tactics we will
in other words have to analyse why working conditions are being
attacked, why trade union rights are being undermined and why we
experience a brutalisation of work in most parts of the world
today. Which are the driving forces behind these attacks? The
increasing pressure in large parts of the labour market is not
something that just happens; it originates from specific power
relations and political decisions. There are powerful interests
that promote changes in the economy, in society and in the labour
market that weaken worker protection and trade unions.

One of the problems we face is that mainstream media and current
political debate do not lead us anywhere in terms of understanding
this phenomenon. On the contrary, they are alienating us from
understanding it. Nothing seems to be connected to each other any
more in today’s society. Social and economic changes are
represented as a result of the law of nature. Shifts in power
relations are said to be pure effects of technological changes. The
notion of globalisation has become a mantra which explains nothing,
but will make us believe that current development is unstoppable
and irreversible – a necessary part of the so-called
modernisation of our societies.

Thus, social and occupational problems are being individualised
and privatised. Many of those affected of increased pressure,
stress and work intensity therefore tend to blame themselves for
the problem: «It is me who is not good enough and cannot master the
new demands in the labour market.» This depolitisation and
individualisation of the brutalisation of the labour market have
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.

However, and luckily, I will say, it is not so difficult to
understand this development as the economic and political elite in
our societies and their servants will obviously make us believe.
Let us therefore try to understand what is going on. A useful
approach to the problem would be to look closer at the «golden age»
of labour market development. How did we, or, more correctly, how
did our forefathers and foremothers, succeed in improving working
conditions in a situation where our societies were less wealthy
then they are today.

Let me go 100 years or so back in history, to the end of the 19
century. That was the time when workers started to organise in most
of our countries – in trade unions and in political parties.
Working conditions were miserable and there were no labour
regulations. However, by means of trade union and political
struggle, labour and trade union rights were gradually improved and
were formally institutionalised through labour laws and through
agreements between trade unions and employers during a period of
about 100 years. What took place was a gradual shift of the balance
of power between labour and capital – in favour of labour.
Labour market regulation was introduced and enforced as a result of
the increasing power of organised labour.

However, the strength of labour was not only reflected in labour
laws and regulations. Probably more important was the general
taming of market forces. The power of capital was reduced in favour
of politically elected bodies. Competition was dampened through
political interventions in the market. Capital control was
introduced and financial capital was strictly regulated. Through a
strong expansion of the public sector and the welfare state, a
great part of the economy was taken out of the market altogether
and made subject to political decisions. It was mainly this
fundamental shift of power in society which made it possible to
reduce the physical and mental pressure on workers, to improve
working conditions and trade union rights.

In short, working conditions were improved because workers and
trade unions did not believe that the prevailing market-liberalism
of that time was a law of nature. They thought that the wealth in
society, which they had been decisive in creating, should be
distributed more equally, that increased productivity in the
workplaces should lead to better wages and working conditions to
those working there. To achieve that, they had to tame – not
the law of nature, but the iron law of the market. And so they did,
in the form of organised trade union and political struggle –
which included some very hard fights and confrontations with their
counterparts.

Over the last twenty or so years, however, this positive trend
has been reversed, working conditions have been put under increased
pressure and many worker and trade union rights have been weakened.
The general positive trend culminated in the 1970s. For reasons on
which I am not going to elaborate further in this speech, the
labour movement lost momentum, capitalist forces went on the
offensive and the current era of neo-liberalism started.

What we have been facing over the last twenty years, is the
abolition of capital control and fixed exchange rates, the
deregulation and liberalisation of markets, the privatisation of
public services, the increased use of competitive tendering and
outsourcing, the downsizing of the workforce to the absolute
minimum, and the consequent increasing labour intensity, and the
flexibilisation of labour. In short, an immense shift in the
balance of power between labour and capital has taken place, and
this time in favour of capital. This is the main reason for the
brutalisation of work and the undermining of trade union and labour
rights that we are now facing all over the world. It is first and
foremost a question of power.

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 more flexible
working hours, increased efficiency, downsizing 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 public finances,
social security systems, wages and working conditions are under
attack these days, both in the public and private sectors. Decent
wages and working conditions are projected as threats to the
country’s competitive edge.

The Australian professor Michael Quinlan has gone through 29
studies from many different countries about the effect of
outsourcing and competition in both private and public sectors. His
conclusion is clear:

– 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. (Klassekampen 30.06.2001)

Thus the brutalisation of work is an inevitable consequence of
the neo-liberal labour market reforms. Competition is sharpened in
all areas and the demands for profits increase dramatically. In the
public sector increased demands for competition create insecurity
and higher work intensity. 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
a health hazard.

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 control. It is this that has given the
multinational companies the opportunity to make use of the
so-called exit strategy. If a country nowadays should only consider
costly welfare reforms or better working environment legislation,
many employers can easily avoid them by moving production and
investments to another country with a weaker trade union movement,
less favourable labour laws and agreements. In Germany, in the last
half of the 1990s alone, close to a million work places were moved
to countries with cheaper labour and lower taxes. This is still not
a necessary consequence of modernisation and new technology. It is
a result of deregulation and liberalisation – of decisions
deliberately made by our elected politicians, however without
telling us that this was what they really intended to do.

What we have learnt from this is that working conditions is a
product of power relations. This has consequences for our struggle
for better working environment. The concrete struggles at the
workplaces is in this regard important, but not enough. To see a
real change to the better for our working conditions, we will have
to remove the causes – to fight the driving forces behind the
ongoing brutalisation of work, and that is quite a bigger task to
take on. It is not enough, either, to have formal labour standards
introduced in the World Trade Organisation or other international
bodies, even though a great part of the international trade union
movement is running a rather narrow campaign in favour of such
minimum standards.

Let me take an example. Recently the Norwegian Labour Inspection
Authority went out to inspect ten construction sites in Oslo. Work
was ordered shut down at all of them because it was being carried
out completely in breach of existing laws and regulations regarding
worker protection. This hazardous work does, in other words, not
take place because there is a lack of labour standards, laws and
regulations. Norway has probably one of the best labour regulations
in the world. The fact is that the laws and agreements which
regulate the Norwegian labour market, are being violated and
undermined in practice at workplaces every day of the year.

Formal regulations are not enough, because increased pressure
from the market in the form of cutthroat competition, tighter time
limits, higher work intensity, etc. create working environments in
which worker protection is given less priority than was the case
before market liberalism became the order of the day.

Do not misunderstand me, it is of course important to defend the
gains we achieved through labour legislation – and even to
strengthen laws and regulations if possible. What I warn you
against is a narrow campaign for formal labour standards and
regulations which is made independent of an assessment of the
balance of power in society. It is important to have good labour
laws and agreements, but it is not enough. Working conditions and
labour rights are not primarily an effect of formal rules and
regulations. 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
to the detriment of working conditions.

What is important is to establish the close connection which
exists between economic and political power on the one hand and
formal regulations on the other. The struggle for labour standards,
for trade union and labour rights is only decisive if it is part of
a real struggle, a struggle to empower workers and to strengthen
trade unions, a struggle which is aimed at shifting the balance of
forces between labour and capital. That means fighting neoliberal
policies, not accepting them in exchange for formal minimum labour
standards, as parts of the trade union movement seem to do.

I often use the following picture to illustrate this problem. To
liberalise and deregulate the markets and then think that you can
protect the workers by introducing formal labour standards, is like
opening the floodgates of the regulated waterfall and then forbid
the water to fall. Truly, it is not a very productive exercise.

How is it, then, that we can improve working conditions and
labour and trade union rights? Firstly, I think, we will have to
realise that this enormous shift in the balance of power has really
taken place. Then we have to understand the reason for and the
driving forces behind the shift. Having identified these forces, we
should go back in the history of our movement to learn the
lesson.

In the history of the trade union and labour movements, labour
relations and working 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 taken
the form of a struggle against strong economic and political forces
in society. The improvements were achieved by opposing 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.

This means that the trade union movement will have to meet the
brutalisation of work by a strategic attack on two fronts. On the
one hand it becomes important to meet the concrete attacks on our
working conditions at the workplaces. Employers’ attempts to
undermine and to weaken existing labour laws and agreements that
protect the workers in the labour market must be met head-on. The
employers’ deregulation and flexibility strategy must be
rejected.

On the other hand, it becomes necessary for the trade union
movement in alliances with other popular organisations –
national and international – to organise the struggle for more
extensive regulations, to push back the economic forces that press
forward the brutalisation of work. Our aim must be to limit the
power of the multinational companies, to regain and to strengthen
democratic control of financial capital, to fight the neoliberal
policies of the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank
and our own governments. In this struggle the trade union movement
must ally itself with the new global movement against
neo-liberalism which has grown so rapidly over the last few
years – increasingly organised through the World Social Forum
initiative.

It is time to go deeper than the politicians’ scratching of the
surface. We must ask the more fundamental questions about what is
wrong with a society and a labour market in which more and more
people are worn out and being excluded, where the psycho social
problems are increasing, where the brutalisation of work
pressurises more and more people to a life based on disability
pensions, social benefits, 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? It is time now to ask the question what it is that creates
the great distance that today exists between the life we want to
live and the life we are offered under neo-liberalism?

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Forfatter: <a href="https://www.velferdsstaten.no/author/for-velferdsstaten/" target="_self">For Velferdsstaten</a>

Forfatter: For Velferdsstaten

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