Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Labour has commoditised itself.

Without commoditisation trade unions could hardly exist.

When nurses abandon patients they lose their humanity. When teachers neglect their pupils they lose their integrity. When civil servants stop serving they lose their dignity. When workers withhold their efforts they negate their self-worth. In losing these things we also lose, albeit only for a while, that which makes us truly human: the capacity to care for each other.

When people behave in this way because of a pay dispute, they have in an instant defined themselves as a “thing”, as a commodity…bags of kilojoules accessible in a labour market and expendable in the workplace, its value influenced by supply and demand but finally determined through bargaining and haggling; agreements and laws; threats and intimidation. To entrench and enhance bargaining power, cartels called Trade Unions are marshalled and the price and benefits of the exchange can then be manipulated by withholding labour; forcing others to do the same; sometimes trashing streets and destroying property; sometimes even with violence and murder.

This is not an attempt to bash Trade Unions. Even the most vehement libertarian will have to concede that while Unions represent a cartel of labour, they are a legitimate balancing of power between employer and employee and have been a justifiable response to abuse and exploitation that is still a risk today. But as much as power can be balanced by equal players, it can also be thrown out by the opposite. The balance itself is seldom objective or universal and has to be tempered by circumstance.

Without the commoditisation of labour, Trade Unions would lose an important validating mechanism. The things that labour cartels so vehemently oppose are also the things that ensure their existence. This makes the denouncing of the “commoditisation” of labour by Cosatu somewhat devious but also quite profound and emotive. For the implication, as Cosatu’s Patrick Craven enlightens us, is that “we are no more than commodities like office furniture or stationery”. While this was said in the context of the labour broker storm, it is of course, a throwback to slavery and the ideological notion of “labour commodification” or commoditisation. The distinction between labour as work and labour as people is cleverly lost.

But this is a very fine line. No-one today can seriously equate any form of labour practices in South Africa with slavery. There may indeed be “wage slaves” in the narrow context of people forced to work for below minimum wages simply to stay fed. You don’t need an employer or a labour broker for that. Illegal miners, about 20 of whom have just perished in pursuing their “work”, are a prime example of wage slavery, or more specifically, being “enslaved” by circumstances to a particular activity.

If one accepts the argument that labour inflexibility championed by the unions is a major force behind unemployment which promotes wage slavery, then simple logic (albeit at a bit of a stretch) tells us that Unions are a prime cause of wage slavery. My definition of a wage slave is a bit broader: it is anyone motivated mainly or exclusively by money, “shackled to daily drudgery by the chains of mortgages and debt in an attempt to maintain comparative lifestyles and excesses in consumption and acquisition.” By that definition many, if not most are wage slaves.

Clearly today you can no longer commoditise labourers (people). But you can commoditise their labour, or efforts and skills. That is an intrinsic part of modern economics and is not restricted to free market systems or unbridled capitalism. The supply and demand for skills and qualifications will always be a major factor in determining wages and salaries despite the severe shortcomings in the labour market at both the lower skilled and executive levels. It is the only explanation for wage differentiation and not even Craven at his socialist best can wish that away. It is this very system that gives Unions their raison d'ĂȘtre.

In the commoditisation of skills and effort we have indeed created something of an inherently repressive system that tends to define people as commodities, seeing them as bags of kilojoules to be placed in buckets on an organogram in the grand design of maximising profit. Even the more labour friendly modern day organisational speak cannot avoid terms such as “human resource”; “human capital”; and “people as assets”, all of which imply some or other “product” or entity that has an exploitable strategic value. The method of “exploitation” may vary from seduction to coercion.

We are locked into this concept by the current expression of business as being profit rather than service driven. This is reinforced by an accounting system that defines labour as a cost, a drag and a burden to profit. The model itself has to change to being service driven without sacrificing productivity logic and fully involving labour in concepts such as common purpose and common fate. Yes, it may demand greater flexibility. But is that such a bad thing in a highly volatile world?

The question is whether people who behave as described in my opening paragraph by nature (or nurture) have no humanity, integrity, dignity and self-worth? Clearly not. Most of them probably live decent, honest and caring lives. But in order for them to rationalise their behaviour to themselves and find some approval and endorsement from others, they have created a split between who they are and what they do at work. There they are just vessels of kilojoules, suppliers of skills and effort which can be turned on or off according to circumstances and for a purpose higher than that of the function itself.

There are obvious flaws in this approach at both a practical and a moral level.

At a practical level, no supplier can establish longer term value for his product or service by withholding supplies and holding customers to ransom. Not even powerful global cartels have been able to do that for too long. Even with the backing of laws and government, you cannot escape the fundamental logic that the more expensive and bothersome you make something the more you restrict demand. This is obviously affecting employment in South Africa.

But at a moral and human level the cost is much higher. Ultimately our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others and for most the best place to do this is the workplace. To restrict this contribution for any reason and for any length of time detracts and damages this capacity. There can be no higher purpose to any function than service to others.

Whether at work or elsewhere, we are defined by what we do – but more importantly why we do it.

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