Thursday, May 4, 2017

Anumeha Yadav interviews labour historian Marcel Van Der Linden on workers’ rights

There are fundamental changes underway in the world of work, driven by technological experiments, climate change, shifts in scale and organising of production, increasing inequalities, and demographic differentials of different regions. At an international symposium on the Future of Work organised in Geneva in April by the International Labour Organisation, which completes its centenary next year, labour historian Marcel Van Der Linden traced the historical causes of some of these shifts in the world of work. Van Der Linden is the former research director of the International Institute of Social History at the University of Amsterdam, and is the author of Workers of the World.Essays toward a Global Labour History, and the co-author of several books on working class history in India. 

The historian, who is recognised for his approach of a “global labour history”, developed in the 1990s, which stresses on a global perspective rather than national, spoke of how the current changes affect the relationship of the individual as a worker or a migrant to society and political structures.
He also spoke of the specific situation of Indian workers caught in increasingly precarious forms of employment, and what possibilities of collective action exist even as tighter restrictions are imposed on freedoms to organise. Edited excerpts from the interview:

We are seeing the rise of so-called non-standard forms of employment, precarious forms of wage labour, or self-employment, including in developed countries. How can we understand this phenomenon from a historical perspective?

Casualised wage labour is not only a phenomenon of the modern era. It has existed for thousands of years, and we read about it in the New Testament, probably written around 200 AD. In 15th and 16th century western Europe, the number of landless labourers working in enterprises outside the manorial system and outside the guilds were very large. Only the highest strata of the working class could escape from the existential insecurity. It was much later, among the 19th century skilled labourers, that the ideal of the male breadwinner [or the family wage] became popular – the idea that the wage of the husband should be sufficient to support a wife and small children.

After the Second World War, when capitalist economies experienced unprecedented growth and when the expansion of social security became possible, a large part of the working classes in western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan obtained a standard employment relationship. It was an effect of the recognition by large corporations that the creation of stable labour relations required “making long-term investments in employee good will”. A gendered division of labour tended to emerge: Standard employment mainly concerned men, while in other kinds of labour relationship of unpaid, precarious work, women were over-represented.

But standard employment is again becoming scarcer even in the advanced capitalist countries too. And it seems to be becoming even more of a male privilege than was the case previously.
The difference between earlier and now is that precarious labour before the Second World War was an effect of a temporary oversupply of labour. Now, precarious labour in the developed and developing countries looks to be much more persistent and structural due to a rapid growth of the productive forces worldwide, which enables much more output to be produced with much less labour… read more:

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