Decent Work and Economic Growth

Decent work and economic growth, is goal number eight of the Sustainable Development Goals. While there is definitely an interlink between work and economic growth, there is not necessarily a connection between decent work and economic growth. United Nations’ International Labour Organization or ILO estimates that by 2030 there needs to be 600 million new jobs created, that’s 40 million new jobs every year. But how do we ensure that all these jobs are decent work? And furthermore how do we ensure that workers are treated as humans and not just as a commodity?

The fashion industry has created millions of jobs and contributes to economic growth in several countries in Asia over the last decades. The CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson states in their most recent annual Conscious Action Report:

“Buying products made in developing countries is the most
effective way to lift people out of poverty and give them
opportunities for decent life”

While this might be true, at least according to a neoliberal worldview, the fashion industry has caused some serious social issues as a side effect. Sweatshops are known to use humans as machines; letting them work long hours, under bad working conditions and low wages. This is something even referred to as a form modern slavery.

If we look at economic theory, specifically at Karl Marx (1884), he argues that humans through their labour can become commodities that can be bought and sold, and used as machines. And that this alienates the worker from his or her real value as a human being.

“The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”

So how can we deal with the need for rapid economic growth without compromising the value of a human being? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not seem to be enough to protect the workers in the sweatshops and garment factories. Do we have to rethink the norms and structures of working?

New Economic Foundation has played with the idea that everyone works no more than 30 hours a week. The idea is that this would create jobs for more people, because more people have to share the burden. Furthermore this would mean that each individual would have more leisure time. But this thought doesn’t not seem to fit with a neoliberal growth paradigm – it would probably also lead to lower level of individual consumption, but maybe spread more prosperity around.

Is neoliberalism and free-markets actually as Karl-Johan Persson say, an effective way to lift people out of poverty? How do we create enough jobs without compromising human dignity and acknowledging that humans are not machines? Put in an another way, how do we ensure decent work for all?