Work in a
SustainabIe Society - Introduction to the
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.
|I. Background||IV. Inter-Relationship between Work and a Sustainable Society|
|II. Insights into the World of Work||V. Role of Churches in Promoting a more Sustainable Society|
|III. Insights into the Concept of Sustainable Societies||VI. Factors influencing the Transition to a more Sustainable Society|
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.
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:
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:
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:
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