There are fundamental changes underway in the world of work, driven by technological experiments, climate change, shifts in scale and organising of production, increasing inequalities, and demographic differentials of different regions.

At an international symposium on the Future of Work organised in Geneva in April by the International Labour Organisation – which completes its centenary next year – labour historian Marcel Van Der Linden traced the historical causes of some of these shifts in the world of work.

Van Der Linden is the former research director of the International Institute of Social History at the University of Amsterdam, and is the author of Workers of the World. Essays toward a Global Labour History, and the co-author of several books on working class history in India. The historian, who is recognised for his approach of a “global labour history”, developed in the 1990s, which stresses on a global perspective rather than national, spoke of how the current changes affect the relationship of the individual as a worker or a migrant to society and political structures.

He also spoke of the specific situation of Indian workers caught in increasingly precarious forms of employment, and what possibilities of collective action exist even as tighter restrictions are imposed on freedoms to organise.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

We are seeing the rise of so-called non-standard forms of employment, precarious forms of wage labour, or self-employment, including in developed countries. How can we understand this phenomenon from a historical perspective?
Casualised wage labour is not only a phenomenon of the modern era. It has existed for thousands of years, and we read about it in the New Testament, probably written around 200 AD.

In 15th and 16th century western Europe, the number of landless labourers working in enterprises outside the manorial system and outside the guilds were very large. Only the highest strata of the working class could escape from the existential insecurity.

It was much later, among the 19th century skilled labourers, that the ideal of the male breadwinner [or the family wage] became popular – the idea that the wage of the husband should be sufficient to support a wife and small children.

After the Second World War, when capitalist economies experienced unprecedented growth and when the expansion of social security became possible, a large part of the working classes in western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan obtained a standard employment relationship. It was an effect of the recognition by large corporations that the creation of stable labour relations required “making long-term investments in employee good will”. A gendered division of labour tended to emerge: Standard employment mainly concerned men, while in other kinds of labour relationship of unpaid, precarious work, women were over-represented.

But standard employment is again becoming scarcer even in the advanced capitalist countries too. And it seems to be becoming even more of a male privilege than was the case previously.

The difference between earlier and now is that precarious labour before the Second World War was an effect of a temporary oversupply of labour.

Now, precarious labour in the developed and developing countries looks to be much more persistent and structural due to a rapid growth of the productive forces worldwide, which enables much more output to be produced with much less labour.

Marcel Van Der Linden.

How will new technological possibilities, often described as the new Industrial Revolution, impact how we work, including the use of robots? How do the current reactions compare to those in the past, when the steam machine, the factory system, the assembly line, and the computer were first introduced?
Under the current economic conditions, robotisation will lead to a gigantic loss of jobs, and this would mean destitution for all those for whose labour there is no longer an effective demand. It is likely that workers whose jobs are routinised will be replaced by machines and they will become unemployed, while simultaneously new jobs are created for workers who design, produce and repair these machines. Those who keep the work, their work may become more interesting. Non-routine work may become more interesting. We will have fewer people doing more interesting work and others will become unemployed.

Naturally, the reactions to the new Industrial Revolution depend on the wider social, political and cultural context. Do dismissed workers have alternative means of existence, for instance in their home villages, or through social-security provisions?

In those situations in which such alternative means of survival are lacking, several kinds of responses of the workers can be foreseen. Some of them may become apathetic, and a minority might even consider suicide. Another option is violence.

In the previous Industrial Revolutions, a sizeable minority of the workers opposed the introduction of labour-saving machinery. Machine-breaking [Luddism] was a well-known practice in early 19th-century Europe. It later returned in the Ottoman Empire, Brazil and China. Sometimes dynamite was used, if available. Miners sometimes blew up the manager’s house. Physical and sexual violence was also used against hated employers, their family members, or their representatives.

So, it is essential that technological innovation is embedded in robust social-security systems.

Women workers at a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme work-site in Latehar, Jharkhand. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

The current system of mass production is not sustainable ecologically. At the same time, labour reform has come to denote retrenchment, informality, and uncertainty and anxiety for workers. There is an under-visibility of those covered by labour laws and welfare schemes. What processes explain this?
The word “reform” has undergone perversion. Reform earlier meant an improvement, but now is used to hide a worsening of conditions for workers.

Till the 1970s, labour movements gained strength vis-a-vis capital. But that point onwards, there has been a continuous counter-attack by capital. This weakening of labour started to occur through the stagnation or decline in real wages. When the real wage – wages adjusted for inflation – did not grow, or even declined over decades in many regions, on the face of it, it seemed nothing was happening, but by the 2000s, labour had substantially weakened.

What is also going on is that during the last four or five decades, nation states have lost much of their sovereignty. But this loss of power has not been compensated by supranational [or world] authorities. We are in a transitional period in which many challenges can no longer be dealt with by national authorities, and not yet [if ever] by supranational authorities.

There is no equivalent of the nation state at the world level that could effectively implement fiscal and welfare policies, or labour and environmental laws aimed at regulating markets and correcting market failures. Nor is there a world independent judiciary which can control and sanction illegal behaviour. Nor is there a democratic polity at the world level.

As the nation states have less power, even social movements do not have an address for their demands. As a result, movements such as Occupy have negative demands, and speak in defensive terms. Even if there is a positive demand such as Tobin Tax – a proposal by American economist James Tobin in the 1970s to tax speculative capital moving from one country to another – there is no authority that could tax big capital. The United Nations could not do it. There is a vacuum.

Within this global vacuum, the International Labour Organiation is a crucial institution. But, in view of the challenges, one weak spot of the ILO has to be stressed. The ILO does not have enough power. It could use additional competences.

(Photo credit: Raveendran/AFP)

There is the demise of labour as a political category and globally even labour parties have shifted their social constituencies away from trade unions. Why is this so? In this context, how do you view the political situation of workers organising in India?
India never had a strong labour party. Communist parties, including the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), the mainstream Left parties did not do enough.

Officially, union density in India – the percentage of workers in unions – is estimated at 9%-10%. But this figure is false as it looks only at the formal industrial sector in India, when 92% workers are in the informal sector. In reality just 2% of total workers are members of unions.

The situation in India is worrisome, but it is also a positive challenge, an opportunity.

The rise of the International Domestic Workers Network since 2009, and their campaign resulting in ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers has been an inspiration for many. In many countries, including India, trade unions are trying to open up to informal and illegal workers.

Quite spectacular is India’s New Trade Union Initiative, founded in 2006, which recognises the importance of both paid and unpaid women’s work. It attempts to organise not only the formal sector, but also contract workers, casual workers, household workers, the self-employed, and the urban and rural poor, it also tries to restructure collective bargaining frameworks accordingly.

On a global scale too, union density is almost insignificant, which also explains the decline in political strength. Independent trade unions organise only a small percentage worldwide, and the majority of them live in the relatively wealthy North Atlantic region. The All China Trade Union claims it has 280 million members, the largest, but it is government controlled, and not a real union.

The International Trade Union Confederation, by far the most important global umbrella labour organisation, estimates that the total number of workers is roughly 2.9 billion [of whom 1.2 billion are in the informal economy], and of these, it organises 176 million workers.

So, global union density currently amounts to just 7%.

But, I think radical unions are very much possible. A revival, especially in the developing countries like India will require that trade unions change their operational systems drastically, and expand to different social groups. Why can’t housewives or students be new union members?

The autocracy in the governance structures in current unions must be attacked. We need grassroots democracy. But right now, in many labour organisations, leadership is in the hands of males, or other dominant groups.

Unions need to really think in terms of new strategies. This, I think, would also imply ending the centrality of collective bargaining strategies, which just cannot be effective where workers do casual labour, change jobs frequently, and so on. There is the example such as the Industrial Workers of the World, a very influential workers organisation in the United States before the First World War, whose membership was not very stable, which did not engage in collective bargaining. The aim was not collective bargaining but just forcing employers to do something.

But what was most important was that they did not differentiate between different branches of workers, or exclude any group, they welcomed all workers – miners, harvest workers, others.

The decline or absence of trade unions is also a spur for the re-invention of classical mutualist structures. Early forms of organisational cooperation in Europe were usually based on mutualism, that is on mutual help as in friendly societies and similar structures in which self-employed workers assist each other in times of sickness or unemployment. Trade unions often came later or developed out of these mutualist organisations.

All over the world, we are seeing the re-emergence of mutual aid societies. New means of communication and transport may then also make it easier and cheaper to build organisational structures. In a few advanced economies, even academics looking for regular work, surviving on translation work, have formed informal networks, which is similar to mutualist structures. In India too, such informal networks of casual workers exist.

Worker at a construction site in New Delhi. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Where does the sharing economy – based on sharing of assets on the internet such as by cab aggregators like Uber or websites like Airbnb – leave workers’ rights?
With the arrival of the modern communication and transport technologies [including the Internet] transaction costs become much less important, relatively speaking.

But the sharing economy is not very new. For instance, in The Netherlands, decades back, women would share a washing machine as most households could not afford it, and paid the owner for its use.

What is different now is that there is also a lot of ideology going on in its current form around this idea of a gig economy. In a lot of places, sharing assets through websites like Airbnb is simply increasing the rents in cities where tourists come to. This cannot be called social progress if it does not enhance individuals’ capacities.

The assumptions of the last 25 years around globalisation are being questioned, and political and social barriers to migration are higher than before. There is a trend of strident, anti-immigration nationalism. What are the political implications categorising workers in terms of ethnicity, or as migrants?
In the world economy, there is a group which is stable and well paid, and then there are migrants who are willing to work for less pay, and this has hardened into a tough distinction. “We cannot trust them”, “They will take away our jobs”, and “They do not smell ok” – such biases against migrants is a global phenomenon, whether Mexican workers in the United States, or Bihari workers in Mumbai.

Some workers are resisting [this] by wanting to throw the migrants out. A second response is to have a system where the migrants are legally sidelined, like apartheid. The third option is that of solidarity – to say, “We want to raise the levels of all workers, so that they are no longer competitors”, but this is rare.

Inequalities are increasing, yet we see the continuation of structures and policies that reinforce income and social inequalities. A few working class intellectuals in India have questioned that despite changes in government we are stuck in systems where workers remain workers, and employers remain employers.
Distinctions between employers and workers may reduce over time, especially if all children get access to at least a good secondary-level education. Then, more and more intellectuals will come from working class backgrounds. In India, there are also the rigid divisions of a caste society. There has been a President [of India] from a lower caste, but that has definitely not led to a substantive difference from the logic of development.