Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences


A cursory glance at an annual report of any international organisation suggests that a major political and economic goal today is to create open societies and open economies. Protectionism is out – free trade is in; capital controls are out – free movement of capital is in; any kind of authoritarian control is out – democracy and participation are in. And yet we all know that in reality, we are only talking about certain kinds of freedoms. Not only this, for we also know, to paraphrase Orwell, that some freedoms are more equal than others. This is only too clear when we talk about the free movement of people; the language used starts to change, and phrases like “maintaining social order” and “protecting national identity” begin to jar and jostle within the general rhetoric of openness. And thus, these much-touted open economies and societies turn out to be more than a little exclusive, restricted and even closed, when looked at from the perspective of the poor within society, to whom the kind of freedoms that are “less equal” are often most dear. If you are poor in any country of the world, you are being increasingly, and actively, excluded from economic and social participation. If you also happen to live in one of a number of the poorest countries of the world, life is a lot more grim for you now than it was 20 or more years ago.

This juxtaposition of openness and exclusion is surely as old as human history, but from time to time, it becomes a major problem, the dimensions of which cannot be ignored. Fortunately, however, things do not change so abruptly that nothing of what has gone before is of relevance, though sometimes one has to look some way back into history to find relevant situations. The classic text for this issue of OIKONOMIA, written in 1864 by one of the forerunners of the modern tradition of papal social teaching, could almost have been written today, nearly 140 year later. One wouldn’t have been able to say that on the 100th anniversary of its publication.

Two things stand out in this text: that work is for sustenance and that associations of workers are essential, even if they may seem to limit the economic freedom of capital-owners. Both are points of debate and development today. In the first case, it might be well to add in this twentieth anniversary year of Laborem Exercens that work is also a form of social participation in society, and that the sustenance that it brings to workers arises from their participation in society’s economic order. In other words, it is a way of combating the social exclusion that the poor in our societies are increasingly experiencing. In economically developed countries, the main form of economic and social participation for at least a century has been the institution of employment. The dominance of the idea of employment as “the” form of participation in society is highlighted by the fact that mothers looking after children, and others working at or in the home, would often describe themselves as “doing nothing”. Employment and work became two totally identified categories. Still, this identification did not arise without good reason; for, while those who were “unemployed” might be “working”, they often had the problem that they were poor. Apart from the minority of working people who were able to organise their own paid work, most people relied on being paid for work carried out as part of an employment relationship. We are back with Ketteler and his emphasis on work as a means of sustenance. However, as we have already discussed in an earlier editorial in OIKONOMIA (May 1999), the link between economic participation (sustenance) and employment is weakening. Particularly if we were to see the rise of systems like Basic Income, people would be provided their sustenance simply because they were human beings and citizens of their state. Economists like Charles Clark (writing on a different issue in this number of OIKONOMIA) maintain that such a system will be necessary in future because of the enormous productivity of technology. This will mean that there will no longer be significant levels of employment for jobs which produce most products and many marketable services. Instead, people will be able to use their work time less as employees and more as volunteers, carrying out services for the ill, disabled, immigrants, or other activities that have been marginalised in advanced economies up to now because such activities do not make money.

On the second point, Ketteler makes his argument starting from the premise that both freedom and authority come from the same source: God. Freedom may therefore by limited by a justly constituted authority. This point remains key to understanding of the co-existence of openness and exclusion today. The ILO has recently re-emphasised the same issue of freedom of association (not only for workers) as part of its Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up. The idea behind the declaration is to ensure a minimum floor of standards for working people, whatever kind of working situation they find themselves in. This approach, which has been summarised under the heading of “Decent Work”, consists of four main components, of which freedom of association (of all parties) and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining is the first. The methodology of the ILO is always positive, working for improvements, rather than to punish failure or infringement. Hence, the ILO has the aim that each country should improve on these measures, wherever they start on the scale of applying them. In the case of each of the four factors, it is possible to see that these elements of “decent work” can be applied both to formal employment and to more informal forms of work organisation, even if in the latter case it may be more difficult to police this application.

In 2000, the ILO produced its first report on freedom of association, for both workers and employers. Although employer associations are experiencing some problems because of intensified competition, it is the free association of workers that is under the greatest threat. Murder, physical assault, arrest and detention, forced exile, breaches of freedom – all these await those in many countries who try to organise workers to defend themselves and give themselves voice in a collective bargaining situation. Again and again, the ILO emphasises in the report that healthy and well-run workers’ organisations make economies run more effectively and efficiently. This is backed up by studies of representational security and voice regulation, which show that over recent years countries with high levels of both (particularly Austria, Ireland, The Netherlands and Denmark) have performed well in terms of economic performance and employment recovery. As the ILO suggests, a “representation gap” exists. As Ketteler maintained, unless this gap is filled, the damage done to society by the lack of worker representation will be worse than the possible misuse of its institutions.

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