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The Decent Work Hyperbole

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose

Department of Economics, SRCC

The ILO-sponsored intellectuals have raked up since long the worldwide indecent work scandal with their ‘decent work’ agenda. They continue to be on song that work is decent when it pays a fair income; it guarantees a secure form of employment and safe working conditions; it ensures equal opportunities and treatment for all; it includes social protection for the workers and their families; it offers prospects for personal development and encourages social integration, and workers are free to express their concerns and to organise.

What is the policy coherence and developmental effectiveness with which decent work can be globally achieved, is not spelt out though, by these utopian intellectuals even as the ILO as the “custodian of the working class” has sanctified temping arrangements for labour market flexibility.

In this milieu, a research paper of more than two-decade-long-vintage from Cambridge University is worth revisiting. This paper has talked about the impossibility of realising “creative work systems” as the proxy for the ILO’s decent work so that it is time to bury the pretensions of the ILO once and for all.

As the scholars of this paper point out, a work system is “creative” when it promotes operational and dynamic efficiency, which together rely on a high degree of both technical and social cooperation among and between managers and workers. In general, creative work systems feature innovative forms of work organisation and management methods with flatter, less hierarchical employment structures with fewer middle managers and greater worker participation in decision making. There is greater flexibility in job definitions. Enlightened human resource policies feature greater employment security and incentive pay systems such as profit sharing. Continuous training is an important component of creative work systems, contributing positively to the reproduction of a highly skilled labour force and hence to quality of the labour supply in the external labour market and the long run strength of the broader productive system.

In contrast, destructive work systems feature adversarial management methods and human resource policies, and the regular blackmailing through the threat of job loss, especially through relocation or outsourcing, particularly during labour negotiations. These systems economise on training, thereby undermining the long-term reproduction of labour force skills.

These scholars (Konzelman and Forrant, mentioned below) have argued that creative work systems are expensive to implement and maintain. And they require a long-term commitment to production relationships in order to ensure sufficient time to recover short-run costs and to generate long-term performance benefits. They are thus particularly vulnerable to competition from low road firms, that is, firms that focus on cutting short-run costs. They are also vulnerable to financial and stock market pressures to generate continuous share value appreciation through cost-cutbacks. There are destructive product market pressures which can originate in competitive relationships with low road firms as well as in supply relationships with customers who are either low road firms themselves or in competition with them. Stock markets have exerted important destructive pressures on firms and their work systems.

Pressures on publicly traded firms to maintain high and appreciating short-run share values have been intense, resulting in efforts to continuously reduce costs and/or to expand market share and global reach. Thus, in a long-term sense, there is no escaping the global race to the bottom. In the face of the viruses spawned by this new world economy of heightened global production mobility, even the best shopfloors are not immune, so to say.

In this milieu, the ILO-Research to construct an “index of decent work” is rather odious. Even when “In God we trust and everything else we measure”, can we really construct a composite index to evaluate summarily the changes in work organisation, skills development, job security and staffing patterns, compensation systems, and enterprise governance and labour management relations? A major problem in constructing an index of quality of employment or quality of work-life or an index of work systems is that positive and negative outcomes can coexist. For example, relatively high wages may exist alongside an ill treatment of workers. Further, will the industrial firms cooperate in giving the relevant data to evaluate their workplaces in terms of an index of decent work? The answer is a definitive NO in the context of neoliberalism wherein the firms are not in favour of any social auditing of their activities. “Self Regulation” is what the employers prefer and this can be deconstructed to really mean a laissez-faire, free-for-all bipartite relationship with labour with no third party to act as an ombudsman. In such a word, the employers can speak positively about their workplaces for public consumption. For instance, a lead brand firm such as Reebok in the buyer-driven global commodity chains professes “human rights production standards” as its policy even as sweated labour and other brutalized exploitation of workers, including sexual exploitation of women workers, was found in its supply chains. Labour researchers are now finding out a widespread incidence of “discipline and punish labour regimes” that are typically found in the Chinese factories, in the supply chains of not only buyer-driven global commodity chains such as in the footwear and garment industries but also in the producer-driven global and national commodity chains such as in the automotive industry. Researchers are finding this even as the theory of the academic classroom says that business organisations must implement nonpunitive performance management systems.

Clearly, the neoclassical theory of the firm has got no clue to the politics of production within firms, and to the destructive markets outside the firms that induce predatory labour relations within firms. And the management literature, especially coming out of the Harvard Business School, is blind to the fact that there is a distinct tendency for larger bureaucracy to emerge with growing monopolisation of the industries with a very few large firms becoming dominant as in the high-tech sector. Furthermore, there is now increasing use of standardized management systems within the so-called flexible firms. These systems based on input-output calculations monitor how organisations are performing at any hour, or indeed minute, of the day. This amounts to more regulation and repression as also degradation and destruction of labour, and surely not “worker empowerment”!


Richard Sennet. 2005. The Culture of New Capitalism. Yale University Press.

S.J. Konzelmann and R. Forrant. 2000. Creative Work Systems and Destructive Markets. Working Paper 187. ESRC Centre for Business Research. University of Cambridge. December.

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