SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

The bleak world of work

THE INTERNATIONAL Labour Organisation (ILO) has published two reports into the effects of globalisation on the workers and poor of the world. The ILO, a United Nations body, paints a familiar picture: Enormous subsidies are going to corporations and the rich, their taxes are being cut; workers are paying higher taxes, losing state benefits and access to essential services; full-time manufacturing jobs are being replaced by part-time, low-paid and insecure work. In short, workers are being hammered by a whole range of neo-liberal policies based around privatisation and attacks on workers’ rights, pay and conditions.

The future is being squandered, as the press release accompanying Global Employment Trends for Youth 2004 ( states: "Youth unemployment has skyrocketed worldwide over the past decade to some 88 million... reaching an all time high with young people aged 15 to 24 now representing nearly half of the world’s jobless".

A quarter of the working population between the ages of 15 and 64 are young people, but made up 47% of the 186 million out of work worldwide in 2003. Fifty-nine million people aged 15 to 17 are in "hazardous forms of work".

Young people make up "130 million of the world’s 550 million working poor who work but are unable to lift themselves and their families above the equivalent of US$1 per day poverty line". In ‘developing countries’, where 85% of the world’s youth live, they are 3.8 times more likely to be unemployed than adults (2.3 times in industrialised economies).

Global youth population rose by 10.5% in the last decade to over 1.1 billion in 2003. Youth employment grew by only 0.2% to around 526 million "employment opportunities". The ILO estimates global youth unemployment at 14.4% in 2003, a 26.8% increase over ten years. In the Middle East and North Africa it was 25.6%, sub-Saharan Africa 21%, the ‘transition’ (former Stalinist) economies 18.6%, Latin America and the Caribbean 16.6%, South-East Asia 16.4%, South Asia 13.9%, the industrialised economies 13.4%, and East Asia 7%.

These are staggering statistics, yet underestimate the scale of the systemic failure. In the poorest countries many statistics are unavailable. In the industrialised countries, the true extent of unemployment and poverty is concealed by governments. Even from a capitalist standpoint, however, it is a colossal waste. The ILO says that "halving the world youth unemployment rate would add at least US$2.2 trillion to global GDP, equal to around 4% of the 2003 global GDP value".

The ILO report, Economic Security for a Better World (, measures ‘economic security’ on the basis of income, labour markets, employment, skills, work, jobs and representation. It says that only 8% of the world’s people "live in countries providing favourable economic security".

The claim that capitalist economic growth ‘trickles down’ to workers and the poor is a cynical justification of the super-exploitation of workers in the neo-colonial world. In the ILO’s words, "excepting the two most populous nations (China and India), globally, and particularly among developing countries, economic growth rates in per capita terms have declined while the variability of annual economic growth rates has increased (see chapter 2), implying more national economic insecurity, contrary to predictions often made by those pushing for rapid economic liberalisation".

China and India are not really exceptions either. Average per capita growth rates here hide growing inequality under a pile of statistics.

The ILO talks of "a global trend towards a convergence of fiscal, monetary and social policy in which decision-making authority is being ceded to technicians and ‘experts’, in which the collective democratic voice is largely excluded". Big business rules. Working-class representation has declined.

Interestingly, centralised state control means that in China, "over two-thirds of workers, both men and women, have long-term employment contracts" – although whether or not those are honoured the ILO does not say. It continues: "By contrast, in Bangladesh, only a little over a third of men in wage jobs have such contracts and in Gujarat only a little over 1% of both men and women do so". One per cent!

In Russia, only 2% believe that unions protect their interests, and one in five adults had a ‘positive attitude’ to them. In Brazil, 30% trusted them, in the US less than 20%, in Argentina 11%. But average wages in unionised firms in the Philippines were three times higher than non-union.

Clearly, workers support unions which fight for their interests. Where unions sell out strikes or do deals behind the workers’ backs support falls. The ‘unions’ linked to the former Stalinist states were used as an arm of those brutally repressive regimes. Their successors are treated with the cynicism they deserve. Workers need fully democratic unions, capable of organising resolute, mass action. They must be independent of the state and be able to withstand intimidation from the bosses. Union officials must be subject to recall and paid the average wage of the workers they represent to avoid the development of a privileged bureaucracy at the top.

Women experience more income insecurity than men: "Among the main reasons for this is that they often lose a large part of their earnings, taken by relatives, middlemen and others. They are also more likely to experience irregular payments and fluctuating incomes".

Class also comes into the equation to the detriment of the poorest sections: "Paid maternity leave is only received by a small minority of pregnant women workers. When it is granted, it is mostly high-income women who attain these benefits". Women with higher levels of schooling and income are much less likely to lose their jobs on becoming pregnant.

Poverty is divisive: "There is widespread support both among men and women workers for principles of gender equality... However, insecurity erodes a sense of equity. In some countries the most insecure groups, among them women, favoured discriminatory practices against themselves. In Ethiopia, as many women as men expressed themselves in favour of discrimination against women in the allocation of jobs".

The report offers limited information on Africa as only a small minority of sub-Saharan states were included. The region continues to slip further behind: "In Ethiopia, 78% of men and 83% of women say their household income is inadequate for basic needs". Economic security is an abstract concept for many in states devastated by HIV/Aids, summed up in the bleak statement: "Many workers do not live active lives long enough to have long-term jobs".

According to the ILO, economic insecurity has grown most in Eastern Europe in the past decade. This has been due, above all, to the erosion of work-based benefits: "In the Russian Federation, many more workers have temporary employment contracts and as temporaries are not entitled to sick leave in one in every five firms surveyed". Most unemployed people in the region do not receive benefits. Poverty among the elderly has risen sharply. The scrapping of factory safety committees has led to deteriorating health and safety.

Latin America has the most unequal income distribution in the world. Inequality is growing: "The global economy has become more prone to economic crises, involving deep sudden downturns that spread from one country or region of the world to others. Of all regions, Latin America has experienced the greatest frequency of such crises, and their severity seems to have been increasing. In 1980-98, in Latin America and the Caribbean alone, there were over 40 crises in which per capita GDP fell by more than 4%".

To socialists and other worker militants, the ILO is restating the obvious: this is a world of increasing poverty and inequality. Its reports, however, back up the need for a socialist alternative. We must put an end to the suffering inflicted by this vicious profit system.

Manny Thain


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