Pan­demic of­fers a chance to re­bal­ance the world of work

Arab News - - Opinion - CHANDRAHAS CHOUD­HURY

The In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion (ILO) will this week con­vene a global sum­mit — a vir­tual one, of course — on the im­pact of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic on the world of work. Four months or so since the pan­demic sent the world into a tail­spin, such a dis­cus­sion seems timely and even ur­gent. The virus has now claimed more than half a mil­lion lives world­wide. How­ever, much greater than the number of peo­ple who have con­tracted the virus is the number of peo­ple who have lost their jobs be­cause of it, or whose liveli­hood and ma­te­rial well-be­ing have been ren­dered pre­car­i­ous from the shock to the econ­omy. Unem­ploy­ment rates in many coun­tries re­main very high, with no clear road to nor­mal­iza­tion within sight for gi­ant in­dus­tries like travel, hos­pi­tal­ity, trans­port, and the per­form­ing arts. In the long term, the virus may prove to have a much greater im­pact on the world of work than it does on health.

Coro­n­avirus has changed not only the way we work, but also our per­cep­tion of the risks of the work we do rel­a­tive to the re­wards. Al­most from day one, the pan­demic ex­posed clear fault lines be­tween dif­fer­ent classes of work­ers. Even now, there are those who can work from home and those who can’t (and, among chil­dren, there are those who can con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion on­line and those who can’t). There are those who can shel­ter at home when cases arise and those, like hos­pi­tal and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and the po­lice, who can­not. Newly salient, too, is the di­vide be­tween those who have both in­come and wealth, or in­come and sav­ings, and those with only in­come: A sin­gle tap of se­cu­rity that has now been turned off.

Where does all this leave us? We need a new yard­stick by which to ap­por­tion value and self-worth in the world of work. Cap­i­tal­ism is based on the idea (per­haps more fic­tion than re­al­ity in any case) that the mar­ket econ­omy re­wards work­ers in pro­por­tion to their skills and their will­ing­ness to work hard. But, now and for the fore­see­able fu­ture, mil­lions of peo­ple around the world will have no work — or work that may be ter­mi­nated at short no­tice — for rea­sons that have noth­ing to do with their com­pe­tence.

The eco­nomic fall­out of the pan­demic only ex­ac­er­bates neg­a­tive trends that were al­ready vis­i­ble in the world of 21st-cen­tury work:

The rise of au­to­ma­tion and the prospect of eco­nomic growth with­out an ex­pan­sion of the job mar­ket; the ex­pan­sion of the plat­form econ­omy and the nor­mal­iza­tion of lack of ac­cess to so­cial se­cu­rity; and the stag­na­tion of wages in real terms and the lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties for so­cial mo­bil­ity.

It is a sober­ing time but also a chance to ac­cel­er­ate, in step with the grow­ing scale of the crisis, ideas and poli­cies about work, in­come and so­cial in­fra­struc­ture that were only slowly en­ter­ing (or re-en­ter­ing af­ter a hol­i­day of some decades) the main­stream of eco­nomic thought. Take, for in­stance, the in­creas­ing con­sid­er­a­tion around the world of the need in a pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment land­scape for some­thing like a univer­sal ba­sic in­come (UBI). For a long time, even those will­ing to think se­ri­ously about UBI were de­terred by the pro­posed costs of such a scheme as a per­cent­age of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP). But, in the wake of the pan­demic, many gov­ern­ments around the world have found them­selves spend­ing equiv­a­lent sums of money on eco­nomic stim­u­lus pack­ages.

For ex­am­ple, the In­dian gov­ern­ment has es­ti­mated the value of its own stim­u­lus pack­age at 10 per­cent of GDP. It is worth not­ing, how­ever, that the gov­ern­ment’s own eco­nomic sur­vey in 2018 set out the po­ten­tial cost of a quasi-ba­sic in­come at 4.9 per­cent of GDP. Sud­denly, that does not seem like an ex­ces­sive amount of money.

With eco­nomic growth, which was un­til now the means pro­posed by most econ­o­mists as the en­gine that would re­duce poverty and im­prove over­all well-be­ing, pro­jected to be neg­a­tive in most economies for at least a cou­ple of years, so­ci­eties must find ways to en­sure a min­i­mum level of ma­te­rial se­cu­rity for all cit­i­zens and to de­fend hu­man cap­i­tal from the spasms of both cap­i­tal­ism and the coro­n­avirus.

And there are other tran­si­tions to con­sider. With paid work sud­denly so un­cer­tain, the ru­ral com­bi­na­tion of farm­land and a roof above one’s head rep­re­sents a wel­come source of se­cu­rity to which hun­dreds of thou­sands of ur­ban work­ers have flocked in the wake of the pan­demic. In In­dia, there is a new con­ver­sa­tion tak­ing place about us­ing the crisis as a hinge for re­vi­tal­iz­ing the ru­ral econ­omy and gen­er­at­ing work close to home, in­stead of treat­ing vil­lages merely as pools of sur­plus la­bor with which to feed the forces of re­lent­less, dystopian ur­ban­iza­tion.

The pan­demic should be an op­por­tu­nity for the world’s economies, each in their own way, to re­fine and re­bal­ance the way in which their cit­i­zens work.

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