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Kevin Rudd has called early elections in Australia after ousting former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an internal conflict. While he engages in awful dog whistle politics, such as sending all refugees of Papua New Guinea, unions in Australia are highlighting the need for decent work. The National Union of Workers has a campaign called Jobs you can count on which stresses that every worker counts, and that the economy needs to work for ordinary people.
The issue of precarious work is central to the functioning of neoliberalism. This model of capitalism promised to lead us into a golden age at “the end of history“, where we would all get continually wealthy, wiser and happier as we approached a capitalist singularity facilitated by new technology. Yet this world is a fantasy, predicated on a rising gap between productivity and workers’ wages, and facilitated by attacks on workers’ rights.
This is a global phenomenon, with different manifestations in different countries. In the UK, it appears in the form of restrictions on trade unions’ rights to organise, the proliferation of temporary and agency work, and in the ongoing scandal of zero hours “contracts”. The latest company to be exposed in the scandal is McDonald’s: 90% of its staff – 84,000 workers – are on zero hours contracts on the minimum wage.
We’re not loving it.
The ruthless exploitation that the “fast capitalism” of technological innovation relies on is exposed in the Foxxcon factories of China, where workers are treated like battery chickens as they churn out iPhones and iPads. The Guardian has the moving story of Tian Yu, a young woman who tried to kill herself when the pressures of work in a factory with 400,000 workers became too much for her. There were 18 suicide attempts in the factory that year – but where does responsibility lie? With us, as consumers who buy the products? With Foxxcon and the Chinese Government? Or with Apple, the most profitable company in the world, whose staggering profit margins depend on squeezing the supply chain as much as possible.
Outsourcing allows corporations and governments to engage in collective non-responsibility. It is up to us – as union members, consumers, political actors and voters to force them to take responsibility.
Mark Blyth’s Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea gives some of the roots of this destructive policy that allows corporations to privatise profit and socialise risk.
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