visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Work in a SustainabIe Society - Introduction to the Issues
Kohler, Page 1 of 2

by Larry R. Kohler

At the time of the consultation, Larry Kohler was head of the Focal Point for Environment and Sustainable Development and Project Manager, Interdepartmental Project on Environmental and the World of Work, Working Conditions and Environment Department, International Labour Office.
Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) I. Background dot.gif (101 bytes) IV. Inter-Relationship between Work and a Sustainable Society
dot.gif (101 bytes) II. Insights into the World of Work dot.gif (101 bytes) V. Role of Churches in Promoting a more Sustainable Society
dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Insights into the Concept of Sustainable Societies dot.gif (101 bytes) VI. Factors influencing the Transition to a more Sustainable Society


home.gif (503 bytes) index.gif (483 bytes) feedback.gif (656 bytes) glossary.gif (710 bytes) links.gif (499 bytes)

I. Background

The First Visser 't Hooft Memorial Consultation in 1993 set out to focus Christian thinking on the challenges confronting humanity resulting from the present and projected future state of our planet. It reflects a rather unique ecological, economic and social assessment of our past approaches to economic growth and development The report of that Consultation, Sustainable Growth -- A Contradiction in Terms? provided useful guidance--and a foundation for the preparation of this second consultation.

If the September 1994 Planning Session is any "test" of potential interest, relevance, priority and complexity of the issues we are about to discuss--and I personally think it was-- then this second consultation is destined to be both stimulating and successful. It may be useful, however, to provide the participants with a very brief review of the process of discussion last September--so we might begin where the Planning Session left off--or go back and question some of the initial ideas and suggestions.

The working paper following the Planning Session was distributed to participants, providing a review of perspectives and questions which evolved from that discussion. It gives particular attention to potential conflicts or tradeoffs on the horizon, for example: North versus South; economic growth versus employment creation; short-term versus inter-generational time perspectives; protection of natural environmental resources versus protection of peoples' livelihood; legal approaches versus voluntary approaches; access to technology versus protection of intellectual property; democratic, participatory action versus social exclusion and discrimination; local action versus global action; urban versus rural; women versus men; etc. The Planning Session recognized that Christian churches have contributed (positively and/or negatively?) to the present situation, and more importantly, they envisioned a more active role and response from Christians for the future.

The working title for the Planning Session was: Sustainable Production and Employment. The meeting quickly perceived that the concept of sustainable production was only one half of the equation, that the consultation would need to examine BOTH production and consumption patterns. In fact, the meeting opted for the term "sustainable society" which provided a link between the First Consultation's reflection on sustainable development and the need for special attention to be given to the role of institutions within our societies, churches, which must play a role in the transition to a more sustainable society. Considerable heat--and insight -- was generated through a provocative review of the churches past views regarding the "Protestant Work Ethic", conspicuous consumption and accumulation of wealth--as well as a somewhat surprised--and therefore challenging-- recognition that these issues seemed to have faded from the Christian agenda.

At the same time, the Planning Session challenged the focus on "employment" as being potentially too narrow and restrictive Employment was seen as a term which reflected a bias towards paid full-time employment and left aside such critical factors as women's unpaid work, homeworkers, the informal sector in both rural and urban areas of developing countries; precarious part-time jobs, indentured, slave and forced labour, child labour, and subsistence farming, forestry and fisheries, etc. As a result, the meeting opted for the word "work" over that of employment as a way to stress the varied nature of employment situations around the world.  I remember very well one comments which captured the scope and tone of our discussion:  The fragility of the environment was amply reflected in the multitude of studies and reports in the media; but somehow, not enough attention was being given to the tragic "waste" of human beings. While this human perspective was less visible in the media -- it was indeed very visible in the following "signals": rapidly increasingly levels of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion!

This same perspective, let me label it as "polite indifference", towards the blatant imbalance against social, ethical and human concerns, will no doubt be one of the critical driving forces of this consultation.

The challenge of this Consultation is to identify ways and means through which the Christian churches can help overcome this indifference towards the social and human fate of others -- and promote a new sense of solidarity!

Another factor was the general consensus that any response to these issues needs to give particular priority to the development of an on-going and participatory "PROCESS" of change (including churches) -- rather than for us to try to come up with detailed, explicit global and local prescriptions as to what each of us must do.

The final point I would like to share with you about the Planning Session was the following remark made during discussion of employment:

Show me a politician who is not in favour of full employment -- and I will show you an unemployed politician!

As I reviewed our work in September and now in the papers prepared for this Consultation, I realize how long it may be before we can say:

Show me a politican who sets WORK AND A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY as a top priority -- and I will show you a successful politician -- and an equitable, peacemful and satisfied society.

Therefore, there is much to discuss and there is much to do over the next five or six days. My objective is to raise a number of key issues related to each of the following themes: the world of work; the concept of sustainable societies; inter-relationships between the world of work and society; the role of churches in promoting a more sustainable society and a review of several key factors influencing the transition to a more sustainable society.

II. Insights into the World of Work

Everyone on this planet plays a role in the world of work!

Lukas Vischer's document concerning Human Work in God's Creation focuses our attention on what the churches have said--and not said-- about the meaning and limits of work. His analysis of the origins of today's understanding of the meaning of work is indeed helpful because it enables us to see the historical link between work and consumerism in the writings of the church. He stresses that neither Luther nor Calvin provides us with a modem understanding of work, although numerous citations are provided concerning the many warnings about work which is undertaken with the goal of achieving wealth. "The Reformers were still far from seeing an intrinsic value in work itself."  He reminds us that it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that human work began to be seen "as the essential quality of humans" and a "genuine glorification of work sets in". "The success of work is now measured by its productivity" and is no longer just to be seen as linked to God's gift's in satisfying our material needs. This was further expanded by John Locke when he developed the idea that work was the basis for property and whatever was gained from the earth should therefore become one's property. Despite the contradiction this concept of property had to the Reformer's original warnings about work and the pursuit of wealth--their views were conveniently reinterpreted to meet modern needs (a skill we seem to have overdeveloped in the past decades!) and they became the "Apostles of Work".

I look forward to discussion of this philosophical and historical review of the churches' "teachings" about the meaning of work, but how does this relate to today's world of work? The excellent papers prepared for this Consultation have drawn attention to the realities of today's world of work--from a geographical perspective--as we learn about specific conditions in Africa (Florence Ziumbe), Latin America (Jose Ricardo Ramalho), Asia (Junzuo Zhang) and Central and Eastern Europe (András Csanady). Other papers help us to better understand the problems of specific groups within our societies who are confronted with severe work and social challenges, such as women (Maria Mies), and workers covered by the possible application of social clauses in future trade arrangements, i.e. child labour, forced labour and workers who do not have the right to freedom of association ( Alan Matheson and Mariama Marjorie Williams). Our assumptions and biases regarding the issue of assessing the value of work in today's society  (Amata Miller), the economic relationships (Beat Burgenmeier) in a sustainable society of the future through economics have also been challenged. Each of these areas will no doubt lead to new insights for all of us regarding the world of work.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be helpful to explicitly raise a number of factors regarding the world of work which our Consultation might usefully include within its reflections: Let me just list them--and we can come back to them later during the discussion of this paper-- or in the appropriate sessions and working groups during the next week:

  1. How can we promote a more equitable distribution of work within our societies? This concerns not only the problem of unemployment, but as well under-employment, unpaid work, subsistence activities, voluntary work, and , of course, the inequitable, patriarchal system of the sexual division of labour in ALL of our societies, etc.
  2. Assuming that Maslow's classification of hierarchy of meeting human needs referred to in Beat Burgenmeier's paper is correct (i.e. income, intrinsic enjoyment of work, social contact. and self-realization), how can we encourage a shift in the present balance between these motives in developed and developing countries, and in transition economies?
  3. How can we protect workers from potential "negative" aspects of work: e.g. loss of dignity, fatigue, boredom, health and safety risks?
  4. We have more capacity to influence our social choices then we sometimes are willing to admit. For example, the crisis of the 1980's led to the significant re-structuring of our economies and labour markets in the North. In the European Union, it was "decided" that the costs of this re-structuring would be carried--by significantly increased unemployment levels. In the United States, on the other hand, it was "decided" that the costs would be carried by drastic decreases in income levels. These are important choices for our societies. How can we make this process more transparent and responsive to our social and human priorities?
  5. The Social Summit gave particular attention to the issue of "social integration" as a response to the process of "social exclusion", which is increasingly apparent in our societies, i.e. loss of human rights and fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion, inability to participate in public institutions and decision-making processes at all levels, lack of access to employment, to land, to credit, to education. to health services, to clean water, etc. etc. How can we promote integration versus exclusion. Without integration and equitable participation of all people in the costs and benefits of society, there cannot be a sustainable society!
  6. While so much of our media and political attention is devoted to the problem of unemployment, increasingly we see a growing world of "over-employment" in the sense of excessive overtime and stress (human and environmental). While this is most often seen in the industrialized countries--it is even more evident in developing countries where the rural and urban poor must devote increasing effort to survive. Their problem is not lack of work-- it is lack of reward for their work! In urban areas it is often the lack of income related to their work. In rural areas it is often the lack of productivity of their lands and resources --often due to environmental degradation or the distorted system of pricing of their inputs and outputs-so that despite their efforts they are unable to meet their basic subsistence requirements. How can we improve the balance in the distribution of work and its benefits?
  7. It is sometimes suggested that it may be possible to solve our unemployment problems through changes in our environmental policies. While environment-related employment is an important new source of employment, in industrialized countries with some of the strongest environmental policies, it represents only about 1-3% of overall national employment. In addition, environment-related employment often does not match the skills and capacity of the unemployed. Nevertheless, when designing environmental policies we should take into account employment considerations and vice-versa, when designing employment policies take into account environmental issues. Beware, however, of programs which try to achieve both environmental and employment objectives at one time-they often are more public relations driven--then public policy driven,
  8. We tend to focus on a single level of analysis when we deal with work. --it is a concept of individuals--it is totally personalized. For the future we may need to expand the concept of work more equitably within the family, village, community, nation, and even internationally. As a start, should it not be a more important factor within our churches?
  9. Despite the level of analysis of work which is "personalized"--increasingly we are encountering work situations which are becoming de-personalized, even "de-humanized". This is evidenced by the work itself--or the personal tragedy often resulting from the loss of one's employment or livelihood. Given the importance of self-identity which often comes from work, the de-personalization of work risks to lead to great social disruption within our families (nuclear and extended families) and communities. Is there a role for the churches to help to respond to this problem?
  10. Finally, again returning to the issue of "overwork", how does the Churches' attitude and policy towards the Fourth Commandment concerning the Sabbath influence the world of work? Has the Church really "erred in caving in before the so-called necessities of modern practices of production" (Vischer, p.31)--or has the Church itself failed to capture the meaning and value of the Sabbath and to share it with its members? In other words, are people turning from observing the Sabbath because of "production practices"--or because of church practices-- or because they are caught up on a conveyor belt of "progress" and "consumption" and other values which do not recognize or encourage them to observe the Sabbath!

One of the fundamental problems we face in this Consultation is the tendency to apply very different criteria when placing a "value" on work. Discussions will be most useful if we can develop a better understanding of why we publicly and economically value some work so highly--and we refuse to attribute similar value to other comparable activities--which are indeed work!. The most blatant example of this is women's unpaid work--but it also includes all other unpaid work that is widely prevalent in the North and South. This includes voluntary work, including church related activities! The inequity in the present system used to "value" work is a fundamental obstacle to the achievement of a sustainable society!

Even work that is economically highly valued is confronted with problems. Today's economists and politicians tend to see employment as the critical factor. For many, the term employment is primarily reserved for full-time paid employment-- a so-called "real job". Such employment has tended to come with such benefits as a contract, a regular wage, attractive benefits, and even 'job security". These "good" jobs are found particularly in key industrial sectors or in the public sector in both industrialised and developing countries. These jobs were also primarily a reserved domain of men. Increasingly in the 60s, 70s, and 80s--these benefits were extended to workers in the services sectors and to smaller enterprises. The model of large transnational and national corporations with very formalized organizational structures and personnel and "industrial relations" procedures which was the foundation of such formal employment arrangements, however, has come under increasing pressure to "down-size", to become more "flexible", "leaner and greener", and more "competitive". No where is this process more magnified than in Central and Eastern Europe, as was noted in the paper by András Csanady. There are many examples today, whereby these large industrial and commercial entities--and as well many public entities--are dividing themselves into an interwoven network of smaller and more independent entities that can move more quickly in response to rapidly changing global market conditions. This on-going shift--some might even say avalanche-- has had a tremendous influence on "work" and "employment" realities and future expectations, particularly in the North.

Alan Matheson has drawn our attention to the impact these changes are having upon the role of trade unions and pleads for a more proactive effort by the Christian churches to involve trade unions in their reflections--and action--related to economic and social issues. His paper shifts the focus of our attention from "work" to "workers" and their trade unions. This dualistic approach--including both work and workers--should help us to go beyond the concept of work and also take into account the protection of WORKERS. This is important because, similar to our concerns about the word "employment", the protection of workers also has been primarily targeted on those workers who have full-time paid employment. Given the plight of workers everywhere, however, increasing attention will be needed to find ways to reach out to all workers including unorganized workers and other in very precarious work situations.

Kohler, Page 1 of 2       index.gif (483 bytes)

home.gif (503 bytes) feedback.gif (656 bytes) glossary.gif (710 bytes) links.gif (499 bytes)