27.06.2017

We must talk also about the future and present of capital

In Latin America we need to avoid that the digital revolution aggravates or consolidates the asymmetrical international division of labour, recommends Álvaro Padrón of FES Uruguay

Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” CC BY-SA 2.0

The International Labour Organization (ILO) recently held a conference in Santiago de Chile dedicated to the future of work. This future will be set in a context where economic globalization and digitalisation processes effect the source of work of men and women all over the world and are also starting to have an impact on Latin America. Organised in the framework of the initiative “The Future of Work,” which the ILO Director General has taken on the occasion of the centenary of the organization, the conference in Chile was called “The Future of Work We Want” and gathered trade unionists, experts and governments to discuss this issue.

On this occasion, Nueva Sociedad, the online journal of democracy and politics in Latin America, met with Álvaro Padrón of FES Uruguay, participant at the conference on behalf of the Regional Trade Union Project by FES in Latin America. In this interview, Álvaro shares his thoughts about digitalisation and its potential to affect the future of work on the continent.

What is your view on the adaptation of the region to the technological and economic changes of capitalism? Have any steps been taken to ensure both the workers’ future and the development of the region?

Álvaro Padrón: We could say that in Latin America, this debate is only just starting. This is a reality which differs quite a lot from that in the North, where this issue has been a priority for several years now. In Latin America, the impact of technology on the future of work is very different for several reasons, first, due to the production structure of our region, the characteristics of employment derived from this production structure, and finally due to the social protection system that prevails in Latin America. I think that, because of these three characteristics, this debate is very different in Latin America and occurs with a certain delay. This meeting [The Future of Work We Want] was the first one of its kind, and it merely opened the discussion and the analysis of the future of work in Latin America.

This polarization of employment in the North is a direct consequence of the new technologies, with implications for the political discourse and the voters, generating a strong impact among middle-class workers. This is very different in Latin America.

What you can notice in the North, especially in the more developed countries, is some sort of polarization of work with a loss of employment in the middle classes. For example, in the United States, the salary curve in this middle sector has clearly been flattened, and you can observe, just to give you an example, that a metal worker is making the same amount of money now as he would have in the 1950’s. And this is not happening with jobs at a lower or a higher level. This polarization of employment in the North is a direct consequence of the new technologies, with implications for the political discourse and the voters, generating a strong impact among middle-class workers.

This is very different in Latin America. Here we have a whole army of informal workers, nearly 80 per cent of all jobs in some countries, and that makes the process of change caused by the introduction of technology more flexible.

Let me repeat that in Latin America, these phenomena are closely linked to the production structure and take us back to an old discussion about the asymmetrical international division of labour. Probably, my first reflection on this phase has to do with the importance of a specific Latin American position and debate on this issue, so that the voice of this continent can have an influence at an international level, and to avoid that the new industrial revolution aggravates or consolidates this asymmetrical international division of labour.

Is the future of work as we know it at risk? Is there really a threat that labour-based economies cannot be sustained? And if so, are there any reflections on alternatives which could mitigate this progressive disappearance of employment?       

PA: My basic starting point is that there is no evidence that we are facing the much-announced end of work. In fact, it is not the first time this is happening. The same thing occurred in the three previous industrial revolutions, and now it is happening in the fourth one. In the first revolution, people also proclaimed the end of work, and groups of workers dedicated themselves to destroying machines to avoid the destruction of employment. The second one we associate with Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and the development of Fordism—worker next to worker in the production line, each one tightening a different screw. Work didn’t come to an end back then either. The third revolution is linked to Jeremy Rifkin’s book which announced the end of work in the 1990’s. The result was the opposite: In two decades, we went from 1.5 billion jobs to currently 3 billion all over the world. Now we again hear about the disaster of the end of work with this industrial revolution 4.0.

The strategic mistake is that we are only talking about the future of work and not about the future and present of capital. […] I compare this with the discussion on poverty in the last decades: We have studied poverty so much that we stopped studying wealth.

It is clear that some jobs will be destroyed. That has always occurred, and new ones will be generated. The issue is who will benefit from this introduction of technology and the exponential increase in productivity. The strategic mistake is that we are only talking about the future of work and not about the future and present of capital. If we don’t talk about both things at the same time, the result obviously will be that the world of work, and particularly the workers, will be put on the defensive.

I compare this with the discussion on poverty in the last decades: We have studied poverty so much that we stopped studying wealth. The result of this is a concentration of wealth unprecedented in the history of mankind. The figure published by Oxfam, that eight mega-rich people in this world own as much wealth as half the world’s population together, is the most illustrative and striking one describing this reality (link in English).

So, we might commit the same mistake again: Talk about the future of work without talking about the future and present of capital, remaining stuck in a logic of mere adaptation of work, although—allow me to repeat—in reality, the key is to discuss how we can distribute the benefits of technological innovation. This will obviously allow us to replace some jobs which don’t make much sense or require excessive physical effort with machines, which does not necessarily have to be bad. I don’t think that anyone aspires to be an elevator operator. This job will simply disappear, and it is not dramatic, as long as it is accompanied by a negotiated reintegration of the people affected on the labour market.

The question is whether this time, we are facing a massive replacement of jobs, which does not only represent a quantitative, but also a qualitative change. If this is the case, and to avoid that there is only one strategy of adaptation, diverse strategies are presented. I would like to propose two that are currently being discussed and have certain global dimensions.

From a progressive perspective, the basic universal salary is for social democracy what universal suffrage was for political democracy. 

The first strategy is the universal basic salary, which is also alluded to in the question. There is much to discuss in this respect, because surprisingly, this certainly old idea was formulated both by the political right and left. Milton Friedman brought it up in the 1960’s, talking about the “negative income tax”. The director of Tesla, Elon Musk, a modern-day multimillionaire, also proposes it from the more conservative perspective, that is, the commodification of social welfare. He does so mainly because consumption must be guaranteed, as robots don’t consume, and neither do machines. Therefore, for our capital it is also indispensable that there are people with the capacity (resources) to consume.

From a progressive point of view, the basic universal salary seems to be one of people’s rights and a way to build citizenship. And it somehow ensures the material existence of people, assuming that work does not guarantee this material existence for everybody anymore. You could say that, from a progressive perspective, the basic universal salary is for social democracy what universal suffrage was for political democracy.

Another strategy to respond to this issue takes us back to the discussion about the reduction of working hours. For many, this is like a bad word, but I think that in terms of civilization, just like 100 years ago, when people called for an eight-hour workday, the current call for a reduction of working hours might again organize the dispute about the desired model of society.

Today, it is possible to redistribute work in a way which allows us to work less, but more efficiently. So, both the universal basic salary and the reduction of working hours are elements which will help us to not always be on the defensive and merely adapt to technology, but elaborate a more proactive approach from the labour side, which will also allow for an improvement of the working conditions and a distribution of the benefits the introduction of technology implies. Anyway, the two hypotheses, even in this progressive version, require the reformulation of the social protection matrix as a whole. In other words, the instruments of the last 60 or 70 years used to build a social protection matrix in the North and in the South must be reconsidered in the light of these initiatives. ###

For more information on this topic and the future of work in Latin America, contact FES Uruguay

http://www.fes-connect.org/

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