It’s Tough to Celebrate Labour Day Without Work

It is likely that the most iconic image we have of Mahatma Gandhi is of him seated before his spinning wheel in simple and humble labour. The effect of it on the Indian people was especially profound for how it portrayed the roughly 600 million average workers toiling away during his lifetime.

Colonial authorities in India sought to stifle Indian competition from artisans and merchants. The decline of Indian industry was so severe that widespread impoverishment was everywhere. Observing this with increasing alarm, Gandhi came to understand that India was being ruined economically, spiritually, culturally, and politically.

And so the spinning wheel. Though a successful lawyer, Gandhi took to the machine as not only a sign of his solidarity with the workers but as his way of showing that dedicated work was as worthy of a dignified label as any noble act. As celebrates Labour Day weekend, there are important questions concerning Gandhi’s premise that we must begin asking ourselves. For example, how do we deal with a world of wealth without work?

What would Gandhi think today of a world in which globalization has extended to places that easily eclipse the sheer reach of the old British Empire? If he desired to launch a worker’s movement now, where would he begin? Who would he be fighting against? How would he deal with work that is processed through the brain and not merely the working of the hands? How could he possibly bring a global economic juggernaut to its knees?

It’s likely he couldn’t. Tens of thousands of groups are fighting worldwide everyday to put some value back into work and labour, yet the global economic system marches on as if unaware of their existence.

Upon entering an era of ironies, we find ourselves forced to deal with some increasing contradictions — employability replaces employment, people without jobs, jobs without people, numerous part-time jobs replacing full-time ones, employment numbers going down because people have stopped looking for work altogether.

All this is just another way of saying that modern economic growth is less linked to human labour than at any other time in human history. Wealth without work: who would have imagined such a possibility even a generation ago, save for those who already had wealth through holdings and real estate?

But there was more. Holding work was also having status in the community, even when it was the most mundane of labour. One provided for their family. They had skills that could be put to good use for the economy or the community. Diligent work also became one of the undergirding virtues of a society. Yes, there was abuse from the bosses, and the ever-present desire to keep wages low to maintain high profits, but the work meant something and reflected a greater outlook and impact on society. In time, it’s great value was secured in legislation, securing benefits, workplace compensation, and pensions, as it became clear that an employed middle class meant a vibrant economy for almost everyone.

The historic decoupling of consumption and production hasn’t let to some kind of utopia but a kind of global disruption that has dislocated key sectors of modern society. This is even true in the emerging economies of the developed world, where the spread of wealth in those nations is causing an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. In other words, greater parts of those populations will be working longer hours for less remuneration — a mirror image of the affluent world.

Work, which has anchored our modern value system since the days of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously close to becoming untethered to the ability to acquire wealth. The centuries-old theory that to be a responsible and productive human being is to work, to engage oneself in the production of goods necessary to the overall wellbeing of society, is under great stress. Where once people looked at their retirement years as a time of worth and pleasure derived from a lifetime of work, they now view it as a time of diminishing returns.

Canada is about to celebrate Labour Day and many of the successes of the labour movement over the decades in bringing recognition to the important of this country’s workers and their contribution to community. But with work itself changing in its very structure, how will we prepare ourselves for the new workplace challenges to come? We stand at a precipice, considering the possibility of turning history back on itself and putting humankind into a kind of forced servitude reminiscent of earlier centuries. The irony would be rich if it weren’t so troubling: just at the moment of our greatest wealth, we run the risk of a future without work.


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About Glen Pearson