The Sustainable Economy: What is Owed a Worker?

Sustainable Economy Discussion links: Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Since we’re talking about the economy here at the RO Studio, we probably need to talk about the ways in which each of us derives value from the economy. In short, we are paid, what does that mean for how we live in this economy?
The list of issues below is probably not complete, what other issues are a part of the labor every person contributes to society?


Job = Social Status?
Our jobs are our income, our income is a measure of our worth. The kind of job we do is also a measure of our worth in the eyes of society. Our income and job type seem to be the main measures of our status as an individual. The only other indicator that seems nearly as important is whether or not you are married.
What are indicators of status in society?
How much does your job or income factor into this status?

Fair value for labor
What is fair value for labor? How does this get calculated? Not all labor is the same, either.
Our society makes a distinction between blue-collar and white collar labor, but what actually are the kinds of labor we find in society? Are they worth the same?
Should some people’s labor be valued differently? How should that value be calculated?

For example, which job is more important to a hospital, the cleaners, the nurses or the doctors? Which, if they went on strike, would affect the hospital most? Most quickly? Most in the long term?

The gig economy
James Bloodworth’s book Hired: Six Months in Low Wage Britain narrates his first-hand experience of working in the lower rungs of several well-known corporations that have come to constitute the “gig economy”. The “gig economy” is a post-recession phenomenon, one that has, to a great measure, disrupted the meaning of work in the 21st Century. A gig, of course, is the very epitome of ephemerality. Yet, after the recession in 2008, a significant chunk of work has been in the form of contract work, freelancing, or self-employment­ – all of which, like the gig – are for now.
Bloodworth argues that gigs have become the mainstay not only for millennials entering the labour market, but also for those laid off during the recession. What seemed to be a stopgap measure until landing the next job has became the norm of work, since corporations have restructured their business models around the ready availability of cheap labour. Hired is a rivetting account of what it means to be that cheap labour, and Bloodworth provides us an unflinching portrait of what such labour exacts from the body and mind of a low-wage worker.

The rise of precarious work
Before 2008, there were fewer freelancers and self-employed persons, and working for an organisation meant that an employee was entitled to benefits (however slim) like sick leave, health insurance, bonuses, and conditions around being terminated. Also, since work was inextricably bound with a person’s sense of identity and self-worth, it meant a great deal to have a stable income – it made life meaningful.
The post-recession economic landscape presents a completely different picture due to the increase in “precarious” work, which, like the returns from a lottery, is unpredictable and can disappear at any moment. In his foreword, Bloodworth writes that he aims to document “how work for many people has gone from being a source of pride to a relentless and dehumanising assault on their dignity.” He backs hard statistical data with conversations and anecdotes from the growing class of casual workers, who work on zero hour contracts sans benefits.
A zero-hour contract (especially seen in the adult/elderly care sector in England) essentially absolves a company of providing regular work and income to its employees. Instead, they are paid only when jobs are sent their way, in that they are paid a piece rate per job. Also, the availability of jobs is contingent upon the employee acquiescing to flexible hours, which is especially hard on those working another job to make ends meet. This usually means they could be fired if unable when required.
The zero-hour contract then, is exploitative precisely because it treats workers as disposable units that are engaged when needed and let go otherwise, while being paid the minimum wage. It is exploitative of not only their physical effort but also their time: the time spent waiting for a job to come one’s way is not compensated for; this opportunity cost is not factored into the salary.
This blatant disregard for employees’ time is common to all low-income work, as Bloodworth finds out. In the Amazon warehouse, located in Rugeley, a town in central England, he has vivid memories of spending nearly thirty minutes in line waiting to be frisked before and after work, and even for toilet breaks – dead time which is not only physically exacting but also extends his workday. However, for the corporation even break-time is seen as a drain on worker productivity, and hence bathroom and lunch breaks are regulated, timed and monitored to prevent employees from “loitering”.
Being constantly under surveillance is yet another integral feature of the gig economy, where you are reduced to a unit in an algorithm whose movements can be tracked at all times. Since every second is accounted for, signs of so-called “laziness” earn the worker a negative score, and even taking a sick day is enough reason for an adverse appraisal, and eventual expulsion. For a job predicated on hours of pacing, lifting and retrieving, combined with a diet heavy on carbohydrates (which is what people can afford on a low wage), physical sickness is a given. But the new economic order is suspicious of infirmity; it is “the Darwinian world in which illness was an unpardonable sin.” So much for the twin promises of flexibility and autonomy that have been accepted as the hallmark of the gig economy.

The politics of naming
Hired is deeply invested in interrogating the slick “corporatese” employed by multinational corporations, mainly because it is language that has allowed these players to pose as “aggregators” and “service providers in the digital marketplace” instead of what they actually are: companies comprising of a hierarchy of workers. The gig economy trades in euphemisms.
When Bloodworth joins the warehouse operated by Amazon, his designation isn’t that of “order picker”, he’s an “associate” (in fact his supervisor informs him that he’s an associate like Jeff Bezos, the CEO), just as the warehouse is called a “fulfilment centre”. Similarly, “independent suppliers” work with (and nor for) Deliveroo, a British food delivery company and aren’t paid a wage but a fee, and their pay slips are referred to as invoices. Indeed, “Independent Contractor” is a pretty designation for a casual labourer who has no regular pay or hours of work – it is the primary way in which these companies pretend that those who run their business aren’t employees but independent agents who choose to work when they desire, and then go off the radar.
But does an Uber driver who has to make a certain number of trips within a stipulated amount of time (irrespective of traffic conditions, health and personal matters), while maintaining a certain rating, qualify as self-employed? To what extent is he free if he cannot negotiate even the conditions of his work? Bloodworth reiterates the “grim atomisation” inherent in his job “it hardly resembled a ‘gig’ at all: you certainly had no fellow band members. It was just you, strapped inside a metal shell and directed around town by an algorithm. It was not so much autonomy as isolation.”
This kind of language based on autonomy is directed at consumers as well; in fact the promise of happiness and freedom turns the capitalist machine. It is rather intensified in a brave new world where most of the time is spent online, where instant consumption is proposed as a fix for even the most mundane problem. Contrived positivity is the fuel of the modern office, and one must participate in the fun despite being a low-level call centre employee in an insurance firm, like Bloodworth was for a few months.
Work is repackaged as fun, with the workspace strewn with motivational lines. According to the author this “thought-terminating cocktail of uplift” is but a “mask of joviality” which would slip away if targets weren’t met. Political consciousness is anathema in this world of inspirational pap populated by free agents. Bloodworth remarks on the apolitical nature of the modern workplace – apolitical because employees believe that “politics is for other people”, that it is “done to you, rather than a topic you took any interest in”, and finally because the management actively discouraged political engagement through surveillance.

Profit-sharing with workers to reduce social inequality
Firms in which workers have an ownership stake or share in profits are a normal part of modern capitalism. Tens of thousands of worker-owned firms operate in advanced economies. The firms range from John Lewis, the UK’s most successful retailer, to Spain’s Mondragon conglomerate to China’s giant high-tech telecom Huawei to the US’s 12,000+ ESOP companies with their 13 million worker-owners. Many high tech firms and start-ups have broad-based share ownership. Many large firms subsidize stock purchase plans and offer stock options for all workers. Profit-sharing or gain-sharing (where a firm rewards workers for achieving a group target) are extensive. As a result of these diverse practices, approximately 40 % of US workers have a stake in the operation of their firm. Despite the EU’s regularly endorsing greater worker financial participation in its PEPPER reports, sharing modes of compensation are less extensive in the EU than in the US.In Sweden about 11 % of firms and 43 % of the largest firms offer employees share ownership schemes, but coverage extends to only 5.5 % of employees. Approximately one fifth of all companies offer all-employee profit-sharing schemes, mostly through tax-privileged “profit-sharing trusts”.
How do firms fare when workers gain a larger share of rewards and decision-making?
Per the section title, the preponderance of evidence shows that firms with workers ownership or profit-sharing do better along many dimensions than conventionally owned firms.
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The most famous worker owned companies in Europe are Spain’s Mondragon, a conglomerate of workers cooperatives (each worker has one vote as owner) and the UK’s John Lewis, a 100 % employee owned trust that operates retail stores and groceries. In 2015 Mondragon collaborated with the US’s United Steelworkers to develop a union-cooperative Mondragon-style model appropriate to the US. During the great recession, John Lewis prospered, producing headline stories in the British press about the large profit paid to its employee-owners that would have gone to shareholders in conventional firms.