Labour & Decent Work

The fifth blog in our new series sets out SPERI’s research agenda on Labour & Decent Work

The nature of people’s working lives throughout the global economy is changing fast. Profound shifts in the organisation of global production across recent decades have led to a major restructuring of labour markets throughout the world. Operating through vast networks of supplier firms, the structure of contemporary supply chains puts logistical, territorial and legal distance between capital (the wealth invested in production) and labour (the human input into the production process). Growing outsourcing, subcontracting and casualisation has contributed to the expansion and intensification of labour exploitation and forced labour across many industries and sectors, particularly in the often-informal lower rungs of global supply chains.

This is an important moment to study the power and organisation of labour and the lived experience of work. Whilst pay for those on high incomes is rising fast in many parts of the world, wage growth for many is stagnant. There is growing realisation in large parts of the global North and South that the promise of globalisation to bring people out of poverty and raise living standards isn’t being met for the majority of the population. The decade of ‘post-crisis recovery’ since 2008 raises serious questions about what decent work is today and who has access to it. Rising employment rates, as in the UK, often belie increases in part-time, short-term and low-paid work, and in-work poverty. This ‘recovery’ has contradictory macroeconomic implications, since under-employment and job insecurity, compounded by cuts to welfare, have a destabilising effect on consumption, which, in turn, slows GDP growth. In the era of austerity, public service cuts have underwritten a crisis in the provisioning of care needs – of “social reproduction” – the brunt of which is being borne by women, low-income households, and people of colour. Against a backdrop of increasingly punitive migration laws and restrictive border regimes, migrant workers are made disproportionately vulnerable. As such, the structure of the labour market, who accesses it and on what terms, and who is most vulnerable to precarious and exploitative forms of work, is not simply class-based, but racialised and gendered as well.

In this context, social, political and economic concern about the effects of fissured workplaces and the conditions, quality, and remuneration of work is growing. How to expand forms of decent work that are fairly paid, secure and where workers have voice and dignity has become a pressing question of our time. Evidencing and theorising the position of labour and the meaning of decent work in the global economy today is therefore a necessary and urgent task.

Contemporary work and production

It is impossible to understand the nature of work without analysing the character of production in the global economy. Over recent decades, the globalisation of supply chains, enabled by information and communication technologies, new transport systems and transnational corporate governance, have transformed the relationship between labour and capital. In a global economy dominated by large corporations with far-reaching production networks, international governance and regulatory norms have been reshaped to privilege business over workers. This has led to a significant redistribution of value upwards to corporations and away from workers. Put simply, while corporations and investors at the top of supply chains amass huge profits, workers – in both the global North and South – are taking home an ever-diminishing share of this income. For instance, recent SPERI research on tea and cocoa – two highly profitable agricultural commodities – found that tea and cocoa workers at the base of supply chains are taking home incomes just 25% and 30% of the poverty line respectively.

This link between surging profits for business actors and investors and the spread and normalisation of indecent work is central to understanding modern labour markets. To maintain profits in an era of low investment and low growth, powerful downward pressures have been exerted by both states and business to cut labour costs and reduce the bargaining power of labour. Legislative efforts to curtail the power of organised labour have contributed to a rapid decline in trade unionism and collective bargaining in most developed economies. Many workers face severe constraints in exerting rights and power, and in some contexts, face violence and coercion in retaliation for exerting their rights and pushing for better conditions.

Over recent decades there has also been a sustained rolling back of states’ roles in enforcing labour laws and standards. The state’s retreat has increased the power of employers and has facilitated the proliferation of private, industry-led governance initiatives such as corporate social responsibility (CSR). Mounting evidence suggests that CSR is failing to address labour exploitation including forced labour in globalised production; while it may lead to limited improvements across less intractable challenges like health and safety, it tends to fall short on core dynamics such as wages, overtime, and collective action. CSR may also be obscuring the extent to which labour exploitation is rooted in the very structures and practices that comprise corporate business models, giving the impression that companies can solve problems like modern slavery without fundamentally transforming their purchasing practices. The scaling back of labour inspectorates has led some business actors within supply chains to interpret that it is viable (and potentially profitable) to break labour laws and that they can do so with impunity. In many countries, there is growing dislocation between what labour laws say– regarding the minimum wage, health and safety, and freedom of association, for example – and the atomised, insecure reality of work for many people.

Playing out over recent decades, these trends have enabled redefinitions of the nature of work and employment. The so-called ‘gig economy’ and associated forms of low-paid casualised work, often underpinned by internet technologies, normalise the idea that work is no longer a permanent arrangement; that everyone is or can be an independent contractor, and that a ‘job’ can be broken into tasks to be performed by multiple people. Under the cover of incentivising flexible working, risks and liabilities are passed from employers to individuals. In low-wage labour markets with low union density such forms of work can quickly take hold and can accelerate the hollowing out of mid-skill professional jobs, and cement the shift away from the standard employment relationship. The widespread socialisation and acceptance of these trends to casualisation have the potential to fundamentally redefine work throughout all tiers of the labour market and to enable businesses to further bypass the hard-won legal rights and benefits that they are mandated to provide to workers.

From indecent to decent work?

In the context of fragmented workforces and supply chains, how can labour rights and freedom from labour exploitation be achieved?  There is no doubt that traditional forms of labour organising are still around and making gains. For instance, transnational unions have shown how to exert pressure at key nodes in the modern global production process, for example at docks and other critical logistics sites. Established unions and new worker organisations are also engaged in new forms of organising, including providing representation for freelance and ‘crowdworkers’ whose work does not fit traditional patterns nor is geographically bound to one site; the increased use of litigation to set labour law precedents; and applying pressure at sub-national and city levels to achieve higher labour standards. Another new development comes in the form of worker-driven social responsibility programmes which have been successful in redistributing greater profit down the supply chain to workers. Many of these newer forms of worker-driven solutions seem promising, but have as yet very little evidence or data behind them. 

Empirically-driven research on ‘What works?’ to combat forced labour and exploitation in supply chains is therefore urgently required.  In addition to the worker-driven initiatives described above, this needs also to include the effectiveness of legal and state-based initiatives, such as labour-related disclosure legislation and ‘home state’ regulation to bolster corporate accountability for labour exploitation in supply chains; the imposition of joint and shared liability, a mechanism in force in parts of the US, which makes companies liable for the acts of sub-contractors, labour agencies, and other intermediaries in their supply chains and in territories outside their home jurisdiction; and measures to impose human rights due diligence.  Additionally, there is a need to investigate the effectiveness of public and private measures to address the root causes of labour exploitation in supply chains, such as by changing patterns of value distribution, empowering workforces, and through bottom-up efforts to reorganise supply chains in ways that address the structural drivers of exploitation.    

Multiple futures of work

There is much to learn from current debates about the ‘future of work’ in policy spheres. Yet it is also worth noting that these debates are often dominated by depoliticised and technocratic discussions about the potential of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to transform work. Questions must also be raised about the potential of such technologies to concentrate capital ownership and reduce returns to labour. There is not a linear path towards a single ‘future of work’ but rather multiple potential futures.

In engaging with the political economic barriers to decent work in today’s global economy, a focus on technology needs to be placed alongside the fundamental issues of living wages, workers’ rights, the gendered and racialised nature of labour markets and patterns of exploitation. Political economy research on labour and work needs to address a wide range of factors: an analysis of companies and how they function, of migration and border regimes, of the opportunities and barriers for state involvement to raise labour standards, of the shifting geography of consumption and production, and of technological developments. Only by doing so can we fully understand the condition of labour in the global economy and identify ways to enable millions of people secure decent work.


Read the rest of our new blog series here

This blog series was collectively planned and written by members of the SPERI research team: Andrew Baker, Laura Bennett, Matt Bishop, Martin Craig, Remi Edwards, Desiree Fields, Laura Foley, Katy Fox-Hodess, Andrew Gamble, Jon Kishen Gamu, Ellie Gore, Colin Hay, Andrew Hindmoor, Tom Hunt, Michael Jacobs, Patrick Kaczmarczyk, Scott Lavery, Genevieve LeBaron, Owen Parker, Tony Payne, Ed Pemberton, Kaisa Pietilä, Andreas Rühmkorf, Liam Stanley and Peter Verovšek.