We spend a lot of time talking about economics, but Jim Stanford’s book argues that fundamentally, economics is work.
In Chapter 3 of his book called “work, production and value”, he argues that the stereotype of a worker as someone who performs menial tasks on an assembly line is badly outdated and that workers today perform a wide variety of functions, many of them requiring advanced skills.
But they are still workers, as long as they perform the work for someone else in return for a wage or salary. This also includes many “self employed” workers and dependent contractors, because they perform their labour in return for money and they do not significantly own or control the organisation which they work for.
Some workers who are paid a “salary” assume that they must belong to a higher class, but Stanford says this is wishful thinking. They are still paid by someone else, still dependent on the decisions made by someone else and in some ways, more exploited that so-called “wage labour”.
Many salaried workers don’t have fixed hours of work and work unpaid overtime when required. The expectation of them as “professionals” and the pressure of the corporate world can mean that they will do more than they are paid for.
Similarly, some management, such as low level supervisors and technicians are really glorified wage slaves as well. They follow orders given by those in seniority to them, they are not expected to question them, they have little say in the running of the company and they are paid a fixed salary. Even although they can boss around underlings, they are just as dispensable as other wage workers.
The only positions that aren’t wage slaves are those at the very top. Sure, they work long hours and work hard. They have unique control over the operations of the company and their income depends on the profit of the company.
“Their direct and substantial economic stake in the profit of the enterprise and their unique control over its activity fundamental distinguish these top managers from other less powerful staff. But only a tiny share (perhaps 2%) of all work in the economy consists of this type of work.”
Then there’s the self-employed who work (nominally) for themselves. Often these workers see themselves as a step above wage labour. We so often hear the mantra about “small business being 95% of NZ business”, but the truth is that they are workers too, often being used by larger companies to avoid labour costs and benefits.
Modern corporations have found it profitable to shift (outsource) so-called “peripheral” service functions to outside contractors – from cleaning to transport to accounting. But in reality, these workers are not much different from workers performing similar functions who are on the company’s payroll. They still depend on the large company for their jobs and income but truthfully, their total income is often less than directly employed workers. They have no employment rights, they don’t get paid holidays or sick leave and they have no rights to minimum wage.
Interestingly, under ILO coventions, “workers” are more broadly defined beyond “employees”, as in NZ’s national law and practice – and fundamental rights are supposed to extend to all workers.
Then there’s unpaid work. Household work, child rearing, caring for dependent family members and supporting the community. Not included in GDP statistics, mostly performed by women, but essential to our individual and collective well-being.
So, most work consists of wage labour (50%), top management and owners are only around 2%, self employed 10% and unpaid workers around 40%.
What does this all mean for policy making? I’ve long been an advocate for thinking beyond the traditional employer employee relationship and trying to consider how we extend both rights and recognition to all of those who work in our society. But there’s a significant debate to be had about unpaid work as well – how we value it, how we provide for it – and how we calculate (and compensate?) for the impact on lifelong economic well-being, especially given that most unpaid household work is still performed by women.
But there’s a whole other chapter on this!