Reduction of Work

Aug 10, 2020 by

Finishing off the second week of the AEMS Summer University, the overarching topic of the Friday’s lectures was waged work today and its implications for society. The main common message of the lectures was to significantly reduce working time as well as the dependency on waged labour.

Stefania Barca, who is a senior researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (CES/UC), made a strong point: everyone should have the opportunity of waged work, but nobody should be forced to do jobs they do not want. As she contributed to the Green New Deal for Europe her ideas about work are reflected in there. Furthermore, Stefania makes a strong point about the current care work system, where mostly women engage in care work and do not get paid nor appreciated for it. She offers a solution in paying care work appropriately to make it more attractive to both genders as well as give it the value it deserves. Unlike the other two lecturers, this topic is central for her.

The second lecturer of the day, writer and researcher David Frayne focused his presentation mostly on the social implications of waged work. As he wrote the book “The Refusal of Work,” his work revolves around the idea, that the status waged work has in our society has detrimental effects on many people. He argues that there is peer pressure to have a job, which in turn forces people to do jobs they do not want to do. As a solution he wants to change the societal status of waged work. This allows the ones who want to work the to do so, but others can engage in activities they enjoy more like sports, music or care. Similarly, to Stefania he proposes a combination of UBI and UBS to make people more independent from having a job.

Finally, Ernest Aigner, whose research focuses on sustainable work, plural economics and societies without money, gave his lecture mostly revolving around the environmental implications of waged work. This was interesting to learn about, given that the other two lecturers did not really touch on this topic. Firstly, he showed that, historically speaking, work or labour had very different standing in society as compared to today. He then presented some studies which displayed his main points. He showed the detrimental effects that working time has compared to leisure time in the context of GHG-Emissions. This is because many people are self-determined in their free time but feel like they are heteronomous when it comes to their working time. As possible solutions, he shows analyses on existing working time reduction models, which are used in the economy already.

Friday’s afternoon session with the lecturers (where unfortunately David Frayne was unable to attend but questions were answered by Ernest), began with a check-in trying to work out some of the differences between the lectures, including those discussed above. In summary, Stefania concentrated on care income, Europe Green New Deal (as opposed to the Green Deal by the European Commission), proposing UBI/UBS as part of such a deal from a Marxist and Ecofeminist viewpoint to this topic and emphasizing socio-metabolic regimes. David approaches this topic from the perspective of a social scientist and bases his ideas on work ethics on the right to refuse work as part of a transformation of the work ethics in society, which can be supported by UBI/UBS to free us from the need to do unwanted or unneeded work. Ernest takes the environmental considerations into account, promoting the idea of sustainable work by also calling for a transformation of our work ethics. This occurs not only through work time reductions but also through a Green Life Course. A Green Life course involves changing work times and regimes over a person’s lifetime to consider changing life circumstances and needs, which is currently not accounted for in our one-size-fits-all work arrangements common in most industries.

The discussion circled around a number of quite diverse and specific topics:

Q: What do you think about a Job Guarantee?

It is a part of the EGND which includes green public work programs with the idea of full employment for reconstructing the economy to fight climate change and other crisis (for our survival). Everyone should contribute but it is not mandatory to take up work but everyone has a right to access dignified, sustainable jobs for a good life for health and wellbeing of all but also changing our work ethics will be necessary in this regard.

Q: Care Income? How do we shift from production value to value of care without commodifying it?

There are many pros and cons discussed with respect to this question over 5 decades from within the feminist community. Behind it is not just the idea to value and compensate it as wage per hour, but also with the notion that care workers are highly undervalued. This could be in form of a Basic Care Income, with difference from UBI where care income starts where UBI ends for people who do the care. Inherently, work in our society is regarded as good, even though it is distorted (e.g. the view of who works a lot earns a lot – does not hold true, especially if non-paid work is included). In this context it is also important to note that a myth exists regarding the environment: impact levels for work are no different to consumption for leisure but valued differently (e.g. not OK to fly for leisure but OK for business). The norm of idleness, talking to people, being with people, strolling, fishing etc. as valuable activities needs to enter our value system. This is also a matter of our time-poor lives, which in turn is based on the extractivist, productivist capitalist system for valuing profits above people.

Q: How to change to a new regime, including the degrowth idea?

There is a potential role of labour organisations in these developments, but it needs to overcome the rift between labour and environment movement. Unions are unfortunately at a minimum of representation worldwide, due to the historical processes of the neoliberal paradigm with an aim to destroy the power of a labour movement as an obstacle to economic and social progress into which many people have bought into. A Globalisation of the labour movement is a necessary pre-condition with a view to enlarge power of unions together with other movements (e.g. Via Campesina for small farmers as part of it).

Q: EGND – are there discussions with people in power and do they listen?

There has not been a lot of discussion with politicians yet and so far, there are no plans to connect with the EU, but rather with social movements. At the moment EGND is a platform to come together and connect to share what we would like to develop and how it could work and work with movements to see how it compares to real life and how to integrate it into existing systems.

Q: Conceptualisation of work: How would research be seen in context of commodification of this area now?

Academic research is a privileged activity often with high environmental impacts and also contradicts care responsibilities. There is need for a freeing up of academia from the treadmill of production, productivity, the machine paradigm, efficiency, and lack of research freedom due to funding, which creates direction and bias of research but also what questions are answered at all.

Q: Refusal to work: Who is it targeted at?

Workers at factory lines, in businesses, corporations, but mostly at workers in services (teachers, nurses, doctors, etc.). Who would be doing the socially/systemic necessary work? Refusal to work is a way to better support necessary work, and what is needed to work for a good life for all. It is not about not-working, but more about what kind of work is beneficial for the health and wellbeing of people and society. Unions should also promote wider societal goals, but a question of what to do with workers and unions in problematic industries remains. Refusal of work is a symbolic claim of the work ethic, to overcome the conventional view of work as paid work in a commodified economy.


Written by: Peter and Jonah

Based on the session with David Frayne, Stefania Barca and Ernest Aigner.