Working and Human Dignity

As indicated in the letter of the coordinator of the Circle dated 16 November 2006, the subject for discussion at this gathering is “Work and Employment: their Meaning and Characteristics in a Changing World”. A shorter title for such subject could be Work and Human Dignity, or Employment and Human Dignity.

In addition to this main item, the Circle will devote some time to consider the direction and modalities of its future activities.

Work, Employment and Human Dignity
Three themes are proposed to structure the debate on this vast and difficult subject:

  • The meaning of work and/or employment in one’s life
  • Characteristics of work and employment in today’s economies and societies
  • The role of international organizations in promoting worker’s rights and improving working conditions

Theme 1: The meaning of work and/or employment in one’s life
Each of the participants to this meeting is invited to present orally, within a maximum time of five minutes, his or her views on the meaning that work/employment has, or should have in one’s life.

Guidelines on the content of statements would defeat the purpose of this “tour de table”, which is to gather different viewpoints and experiences. It would be useful, however, to keep in mind a Triglavian perspective in commenting on an issue that is central to all individuals and to society and which is nevertheless commonly treated almost exclusively from the viewpoint of political economy. The language shows this bias: labor force, labor market, productive work, human resources, human capital, are among the expressions that contribute to identify human work with a commodity. This perspective of a political economy – and there are, or were very different types of political economy – is obviously important but is far from capturing the full meaning of work and employment both for individuals and for society. A Triglavian perspective on work and employment will hopefully be clarified by this debate, but a few quotes from the seminar at the origin of this Circle might help placing this debate within a “holistic” approach. The report from the Bled Seminar states the following:

“Effort, work, participation in creation, however humble, are at the heart of human nature and personal dignity. Ideally, for each person work should be what brings fulfillment and gives meaning and direction to daily life. Employment and work should benefit not only the individual but also the human community. It is one domain in which individual interest and the common good can be in harmony”.(p.39)

And also: “Employment that satisfies the spirit implies: A sense of duties tempered with beauty; a conception of work as a privilege; and a feeling that responsibility is one’s debt for the opportunity of living in a day when great aims are at stake. It is having a task to do which has abiding value without which the the lives of others would be poorer”.(p.102)

Participants may wish to link their reflections on work and employment with notions that have been recurrent themes in the debates of the Circle, notably the “meaning of life”, the concept of “human flourishing”, the notion of “human happiness” and the search for unity in the “material and spiritual” dimensions of human existence.

Also, participants may care to comment on the semantics of the issues under discussion. In addition to the contemporary focus on the economic aspects of life and society, the hesitation between different words for the subject of this meeting – “work”? “employment”? “labor”?”job”?— is perhaps revealing of the difficulties that contemporary cultures have in defining the place of human activity in their scale of values. In French, the expression “le travail humain” captures rather well a humanist and comprehensive perception of this central aspect of the human condition. Is there an equivalent in the English language? In Spanish? What are the characters for “work”. “employment”, “labor” or equivalent concepts in Chinese?

Theme 2: Characteristics of work and employment in today’s economies and societies
Given the composition of the Circle, it is safe to expect that participants at this gathering are, or have been, or expect to be in a position to derive meaning, enjoyment, sense of contribution to the community, and perhaps even fulfillment from their occupation or trade. Moreover, they will have “naturally” expected that their work or/and employment had to satisfy for them “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”(Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And it is very unlikely that the same participants would have been personally exposed to violations of their human rights when at work, including the right to form or to join a trade-union.

Hence a first set of questions: If, as all evidence points out, such “privileged” situation remains exceptional in today’s societies, is there a perceptible trend towards its spreading throughout the world or at least in some regions or countries? Or, are trends leading in the opposite direction and promoting what has been called the “obsolescence of Man” accompanied by the formation of a new world proletariat made in particular of migrant workers? Or, is there a basic flaw in the formulation of these questions because “meaning”, “enjoyment” and “fulfillment” through work would actually depend on the virtues of the person and not on the characteristics of the “job”?

At the risk of making this agenda unduly long, three quotations made in Candles in the Dark (pages 210 to 212) have to be brought in this debate. The first is from T. S. Eliot:

“The endless cycle of idea and action
Endless invention, endless experiment
Brings Knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence, Knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word,(…)
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The second is from Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations:

“The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations,(…) has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention (…) His dexterity at his own particular trade seems (…) to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society, this is the state in which (…) the great body of people must necessarily fall, unless government take some pains to prevent it”.

The third is from Karl Marx, in a speech made in London in 1856:

“In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it (…) Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance (…) All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force”.

Among other questions that might be addressed under this first theme are:

  • Which occupations/positions/jobs are the most and the least valued by contemporary societies? In this “valuation” of different occupations by society what are the relations between level of prestige or social status and level of remuneration or income
  • What is there to say on the notion of “productive” work? Could different understandings and different applications of this notion of productive work be parts of the definition of different conceptions of modernity ?
  • Is there anything to say and learn about “subsistence work” except to hope for its disappearance as current strategies on “development” do?
  • Quid of the distinction between “intellectual” and “manual” work?
  • Quid of the distinction between “employees” and “workers” at a time of economies of services and economies based on knowledge?
  • What are the social and cultural consequences of the growing participation of women in what is called the “labor force”? Would the participants at this meeting consider a remuneration of domestic work, as it relates to the upbringing and education of children, a progressive or a reactionary measure?

Theme 3: The role of international organizations in promoting worker’s rights and improving working conditions?
Few observers would dispute the judgment that the currently dominant political economy – labeled globalization, or global capitalism, or neo-liberal, or free-market system—is bringing new opportunities to a large number of people for initiative, entrepreneurship, income and wealth. At the same time, however, this same political economy is showing little incline to pursue the development and implementation of worker’s rights and other measures to improve working conditions that were slowly and painfully gained since the Industrial Revolution. Security of employment, for example, is a notion that is combated in the name of rapid technological change, growing competition and necessity to avoid a psychological comfort seen as adverse to initiative and creativity. Unions of workers are often de facto prohibited by corporations and everywhere in a defensive position. On the darkest side, “sweatshops” are not infrequent, cases of slavery are multiplying and the exploitation of powerless men and women is certainly not a scourge of the past.

Yet, the corpus of international laws and regulations concerning the rights of workers is rather impressive –from the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to the ILO Conventions adopted regularly since the 1920s. But there are no enforceable sanctions attached to the violation of these rights. Among the existing international organizations, only the World Trade Organization has the capacity to punish the states that are violating its rules. And the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have the weapon of their “conditionality.” Nothing of the sort is available to the ILO to enforce its Conventions and, counting on persuasion and moral pressure more than on respect for international law, this organization has recently developed the notion of “decent work”. One of the principles embodied in this notion is that “Decent work means that all those who work, wherever they may be, have rights at work. There has to be a worldwide acceptance of the inviolability of basic rights at work”.

  • What are the obstacles to a “worldwide acceptance of the inviolability of basic rights at work”?
  • Are there historical examples of moral and political pressure—not accompanied by legally established sanctions– having been effective tools to universal norms? Are there such examples at the national level?
  • What would be the necessary conditions and the required steps for the establishment of an international and global legal system of effective promotion and protection of human rights at work, including for migrant workers?
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