AIER’s Executive Director, Clare Ozich, contributed to a recently released report, “Can Less Work Be More Fair? A discussion paper on Universal Basic Income and shorter working week”.

The report contains a number of contributions from different perspectives. Godfrey Moase from the NUW writes about the history of regulating working hours and the benefits of a shorter working week. Louise Tarrant ponders the political consequences of our current economic system and the potential for UBI to assist in reinvigorating democracy. Eva Cox writes about the gendered division of work and what a UBI could mean for women.

In her essay, Clare writes about the the potential of changing our society’s relationship to work.The full report can be downloaded here.

The Emancipatory Potential of a Universal Basic Income

The nature of work is changing challenging the dominant notion that a job leads to economic security. In a world of growing inequality and insecurity[1], universal basic income is a proposal gaining renewed attention.

For a significant period of the 20th century, economic security in industrialised nations was underpinned by standard working arrangements – full time well paid jobs – and a universal social security safety net. Since the 1970s and 80s, both these pillars for prosperity have been undermined and fractured by government policy, globalisation and technology.

Employment insecurity is now a feature for many workers across the Australian economy. The ACTU estimates up to 40% of the workforce is in insecure employment via casualisation, independent contracting, labour hire and other forms of work that places workers in a vulnerable position.[2]  Furthermore, there is significant underemployment coupled with stagnant wage growth. The “uberisation” of work is seeing the economic risk of business shifted onto workers.

In addition, technology and automation are predicted to replace significant parts of the labour force. Research has suggested over 40% of jobs that currently exist will no longer require human labour. While this does not mean there will be no jobs in the future – capitalism is good at creating jobs – the impact of technology raises the question of what kind of jobs will exist in the future, and what needs are those jobs meeting? David Greaber, in discussing his concept of “bullshit jobs”, argues that:

“[T]echnology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people in the Western world spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.”[3]

Guy Standing has sought to define an emerging class of workers as ‘the precariat’. Distinguished from the dwindling salariat – workers with employment security, retirement incomes and paid vacations, the precariat live “bits-and-pieces lives, without occupational careers and experiencing declining real wages.”[4] The precariat lacks various forms of security including labour market security (access to decent work); employment security (protection against arbitrary loss of employment); job security (access to job stability and upwards mobility); work security (protection in case of accidents or illness); income security (adequate stable income); and representation security (possessing a collective voice in the labour market). Basically the precariat lack all the protections and securities that came from the post-war consensus and workers’ struggles. The precariat is growing and exists throughout the world and in all parts of the economy.

To now conclude, as John Buchanan has, that “employment is now the bearer of inequality and unfairness”[5] is a stark break with the long-standing and dominant narrative that a job is the path to economic security. In such a world insecurity and inequality will continue to grow – and alongside it support for a renewed populist authoritarian politics – unless a new mechanism for providing basic economic security is implemented. Universal basic income is one such mechanism that makes sense in a world where a job is no longer the path to economic security.

What is work?

The intersection of automation, the digital economy and insecure work provides a compelling argument for universal basic income. However, the changing nature of work and intersection of insecurity and technology raises other questions. Given there was nothing inevitable about the what has happened to work in the last few decades, one question is whether it is possible, or desirable, to seek to recreate decent employment relationships and jobs that provide necessary levels of economic security? Is a goal of full employment a better option to pursue? Or is continuing to place employment as a central feature of our identity and society desirable?

I think the most exciting aspect of the debate on UBI is that it opens up a discussion about how we conceive of work; and what value we place on what forms of work. UBI forces us to think about these questions. One of the critiques of UBI is that it is giving people something for nothing. Is it really? Aren’t there already multiple ways we all contribute to our society all the time outside the narrow concept of paid employment?

Guy Standing argues for re-establishing the distinction between work and labour (paid work). Our society values labour over all other forms of work. This valuing is reinforced at every turn: how we measure economic activity; the lesser value we place on caring work; the rationale of our conditional and regulatory social security system that focuses on getting people back into jobs, regardless of the quality of those jobs.

Standing argues in The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class:

“Work must be rescued from jobs and labour. All forms of work should be treated with equal respect… One should not lose a sense of proportion. Labour is needed; jobs are needed. It is just they are not the be-all-and-end-all of life. Other forms of work and time uses are just as important.

Unless we insist on a richer concept of work, we will continue to be led by the folly of measuring a person’s worth by the job they are doing and by the folly that job generation is the mark of a successful economy.”[6]

Our current economic system cannot function without unpaid work; something not new to feminists. But we live in a society that is structured around and values paid work. It is not for nothing that the first question we usually ask a new acquaintance is what do you do.

Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, argues in a similar vein:

“One of the reasons I am so attracted to the demand for a basic income is because of the way that it challenges some of the basic tenets of the work ethic— what I would describe as that cultural overvaluation of work that sings the praises of hard work as an inherent value, highest calling and individual moral obligation. This longstanding ethic of work remains a crucial ideological support for an economic system that accumulates great wealth for a few and lifetimes of poorly paid and all-consuming waged work for the rest… Where a strong work ethic is a key element of productivity, our willingness to call these values and modes of being into question is a potentially effective mode of rebellion.”[7]

Can we imagine a world that recognises and values all forms of work? What if we valued “work to reproduce, regenerate and conserve resources and communities, not jobs and labour that tend to deplete or eat up resources or that do nothing for the quality of life, in families, in communities”[8]?

Paul Mason, in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, makes a slightly different argument for a basic income and its relationship to work. He believes info-tech is fundamentally changing modes of production, making the abolition of work possible, and that it is only the social structure of capitalism that is preventing it. He argues “Work – the defining activity of capitalism – is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance.”[9] Citing the Oxford Martin School study that 47% of all jobs in the advanced economy will be redundant due to automation, he argues a basic income will give people the chance to build positions in the non-market economy, for example volunteering, co-ops, or just existing. A UBI becomes the mechanism to redistribute working hours in a world where there will be too few to go around.

He argues that with a UBI:

“there would be no stigma attached to not working. The labour market would be stacked in favour of high paying job and the high paying employer. The universal basic income, then, is an antidote to …”bullshit jobs”: the low-paid service jobs capitalism has managed to create over the past 25 years that pay little, demean the workers and probably don’t need to exist. But it is only a transitional measure for the first stage of the post capitalist project.

The ultimate aim is to reduce to a minimum the hours it takes to produce what humanity needs. Once this happens, the tax base in the market sector of the economy would be too small to pay for the basic income. Wages themselves would increasingly be either social – in the form of collectively provided services – or disappear, So as a post capitalist measure, the basic income in the first benefit in history whose success measures is that is shrinks to zero.”[10]

Regardless of whether we can join Mason in envisaging a utopia without waged work, the debate over a UBI can be used to advance a conceptual shift in our understanding of work. In severing the link between economic security and labour, a universal basic income opens up the potential to break down the illogical way our society values certain forms of productive labour over the many other varied ways we all contribute to our society and community.

Gender and work

Feminists have long pointed out that the capitalist economy cannot function without unpaid reproductive work, mostly performed by women. There have been broadly two responses to this: one has been advocating for women to engage in waged work on equal terms to men; the other to better value the work women do in the home and the community. Both these projects remain unfulfilled. There continues to be significant structural inequality in the paid workforce and our society continues to value labour over reproductive and caring work.

As Kathi Weeks argues, there is no guarantee that the introduction of a universal basic income scheme would necessarily disrupt the gendered nature of work, both paid and unpaid:

“The demand for a basic income does not directly address either the gendered division of household-based reproductive labour or its privatization. I can imagine scenarios wherein it would serve simply to offer more support for the traditional heteropatriarchal family’s gender division of productive and reproductive labour, with more men participating in waged work and more women working in the home. I can also imagine it shaking things up more by offering both men and women the opportunity to experience their working lives a little differently and to reorient their relationships to their jobs and households accordingly.”[11]

While there remains the potential for a universal basic income to be a mechanism to break down the gendered nature of work, it is not inevitable. It is important that as the debate over UBI progresses we keep in mind the ways it can disrupt existing structural inequalities or just as easily reinforce them. In this way UBI should not be pursued separate from broader political objectives for a just and more equal society.

Labour market segmentation

One of the risks of UBI is further labour market segmentation, and not just along gender lines. If the amount of the basic income is set too low, a UBI could act to reduce wages, particularly for low-income jobs. It could essentially operate as a wage subsidy program.

Australia already has a large temporary migrant workforce. One in ten workers is a temporary foreign worker on a 457, study or backpacker visa. These workers are particular vulnerable to exploitation as highlighted by the recent scandals on farms, 7/11 and Caltex.

The introduction of a UBI for citizens and/or residents without consideration of the interaction with the temporary foreign workforce could easily replicate the pattern of the prosperity and economic security of Australians being built on the back of the exploitation of workers via structural racism.

UBI and collective power

Putting Paul Mason’s post-capitalist utopia to one side, the introduction of a universal basic income will not see jobs or paid work disappear. Instead, there is an argument that UBI could be a mechanism to create better, higher paid and more secure employment. Better working conditions have always come about because workers have fought for them. With a basic degree of economic security already provided, workers will arguably be in a stronger position to bargain for better working conditions.

One of the key features of the current labour market and the world of insecure work is the collapse of the trade union movement. In Australia, union density in the private sector is around 11%. Most workers in insecure work have no collective voice in relation to their jobs.

Unions have been historically resistant to the idea of universal basic income.  Unions are organisations of people whose identity is that of a worker engaged in productive labour.  If a basic income has the potential to reconceptualise work and reduce the importance of an identity based on employment, this presents a challenge to existing union models. However, this model is already in crisis and requiring new responses to the changing nature of work.

There is a strong argument that a universal basic income will enable greater collective action, both in relation to jobs and labour conditions but also more widely in society. Standing argues that a basic income would “give people more control over their time, and enable them to bargain for a more dignifying pace of labour.”[12]

Conclusion

Universal basic income is no silver bullet. It cannot bring economic security for all or address income and wealth inequalities on its own.  It has the potential to break down structural inequalities such as the gendered nature of work. However, if not implemented properly, it will do the opposite and reinforce these inequities. It has the potential to either undermine collective action or enhance it. It could lead to lower wages and a withdrawal of state services, if not implemented in such a way to avoid those risks.

As Kathi Weeks notes:

“If it is established as a minimum liveable income, which is what I advocate, it could give employees a better strategic position to negotiate better working conditions, provide support for unwaged practices like caring work, allow some to opt out of waged work entirely or for a period, and lend some relief to the pressures that constrain our choices of family membership and household formation. If it is too low, then rather than providing workers with a stronger position from which to demand better jobs, it would serve only to subsidize low-wage employers by providing their workers with a small supplement. For me, this is one of the most critical issues to consider and one of the more difficult traps to navigate.”[13]

The debate on UBI should not be limited to merely replacing the existing social security system in the age of insecure work. Instead, “the political movement for a basic income can be advanced as a way to open conversations about what counts as work, about the value of different kinds of work, and also about what else besides work we might want to do with our time, what other models of care, creativity and cooperation we might want to build.”[14] This is the emancipatory potential for universal basic income.

The debate towards a UBI needs to proceed from the idea of the type of society we want and how UBI fits as one of the mechanisms to achieve that vision.

[1] Australian Institute of Employment Rights, Inequality and Insecurity: Discussion Paper, October 2016, http://www.aierights.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Inequality-and-Insecurity-Discussion-Paper-2016-McCallum-Debate.pdf

[2] Australian Council of Trade Unions, Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia, May 2012, http://www.actu.org.au/our-work/independent-inquiry-into-insecure-work-in-australia

[3] Graeber, David, “The Modern Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, Canberra Times, September 3, 2013, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/public-service/the-modern-phenomenon-of-bullshit-jobs-20130831-2sy3j.html

[4] Standing, Guy, “The Growing Precariat: Why We Need a Universal Basic Income”, Singularity Hub, March 30, 2015, http://singularityhub.com/2015/03/30/the-growing-precariat-why-a-basic-income-is-needed/

[5] Buchanan, John, “A new model for fairness in employment”, Australian Options Magazine, May 31, 2014, http://www.australian-options.org.au/2014/05/1596/

[6] Standing, Guy, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011, 160.

[7] Cruz, Katie, “A Feminist Case for Basic Income: an interview with Kathi Weeks”, Critical legal Thinking, August 22, 2016, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/08/22/feminist-case-basic-income-interview-kathi-weeks/

[8] Standing, Guy, “The Precariat and Basic Income”, Speech to Towards 2010: European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, Naples, November 2009, http://www.guystanding.com/files/documents/forum_poverta_napoli_-_guy_standing.pdf

[9] Mason, Paul, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London: Allen Lane, 2015, 179.

[10] Ibid, 285.

[11] Cruz, “A Feminist Case for Basic Income: an interview with Kathi Weeks”.

[12] Standing, Guy, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, electronic book, (Chapter 5; Article 25 Move towards a Universal Basic Income).

[13] Cruz, “A Feminist Case for Basic Income: an interview with Kathi Weeks.

[14] Ibid.