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Wednesday, 23 February 2011 17:13

Work and Workers

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The World Health Organization concept of “Health for All” envisions a state of health which enables persons to lead economically and socially productive lives. This is contrary to the guiding individualistic precept of “economic man”, who seeks only to satisfy or improve his economic well-being. Moreover, as we re-contemplate the world of work, it is time to rethink the notion of “human resources” or “human capital”, a concept which views humans as expendable economic instruments, diminishing their essential and transcendental humanity. And how valid is the “dependency ratio” concept, which views all younger and older persons as non-productive dependants? Thus our precepts and current practices subordinate or subvert the idea of the society to that of the economy. Advocates of human development emphasize the need for robust economies as engines for the satisfaction of societal needs, through the equitable production, distribution and enjoyment of goods and services.

When the emphasis is unduly placed on the economy, the family is viewed merely as the unit which produces, maintains and restores workers; from this viewpoint, the family must accommodate to work demands, and the workplace is absolved of accommodation to harmonize work and family life. The ILO Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156), has been ratified by only 19 states, in contrast with the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in All Its Forms, which has been ratified by nearly all its members. The ILO found that very few countries reported the adoption and implementation of explicit national policies covering men and women workers with family responsibilities, in accordance with the Convention.

The World Bank Human Development projects currently account for only 17% of loans. The World Bank in recent reports has recognized the importance of investments in health and education, and has acknowledged that a significant number of development mega-projects have failed because they lacked the participation of intended beneficiaries. In a vision statement for the future, the Bank’s president has indicated that there would be greater emphasis on environmental effects and on human development to support education, nutrition, family planning and improvement in the status of women.

But there is still a conceptual lag. We are entering the twenty-first century anachronistically saddled with the philosophies and theories of the nineteenth. Sigmund Freud (despite conferring his mantle on his daughter) believed that women with their unstable superegos were morally as well as biologically deficient; Adam Smith taught us that the servant girl, unlike the factory worker, was not economically productive, while Charles Darwin believed in the “survival of the fittest”.

In this chapter we present essays on the transformation of work, on the new technologies and their implications for worker well-being, and on various forms of exploitation of workers. We consider the needs of women workers and the challenges we face in maximizing human potential.

The world has arrived at a crossroads. It can continue on the path of neoclassical economics and “Social Darwinism”, with unequal and inequitable development, with waste and disparagement of human capabilities. Or, it can opt for healthy public policy, nationally and internationally. Healthy public policy is aimed at reducing inequities, building supportive and sustainable environments and enhancing human coping and control. To accomplish this we require democratic institutions that are transparent, responsive, accountable, responsible and truly representative.



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