Neoimperialism is about the influx of new multinational corporations into Asia over the last three decades for the extraction of labour power from labour that is cheap, unorganized, and undemanding, willing to work long hours for low wages in substandard conditions in order to produce goods for export, especially in the markets in developed countries. The developing countries of Asia, on their part, have condemned themselves to a neocolonial status by exploiting their cheap labour to produce things for export to the developed countries through export-led models of development. The World Trade Organisation, which supervises this neoimperialism and neocolonialism, “is not prepared even to consider questions concerning human rights, labour rights, the use of natural resources, or the environment…In a free trade world, politics stops at the cash register”. Economists, on their part, have generally hailed the positive role of low wage factory jobs (without talking about them as wretched sweatshops) due to neoliberal-imperial globalisation (i.e. neoimperialsm and neocolonialism) in economic development and in alleviating poverty in the developing countries even as lately they are perturbed by the anti-globalisation trends as reflected, for example, in the aggressive rise of Trump administration or the turbulence of Brexit. Economists have also simply ignored worker protests all over the world or looked down upon the history of workers struggles as “one f..king thing after the other”.
What about “Industrial Relations” as taught in B-schools and commerce departments? It is perhaps the most hoary interdisciplinary subject derived from parent disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology and law. It deals broadly with all aspects of people at work and rather narrowly with negotiations between employers and unions, industrial action and conflict. A much better way of knowing this subject is in terms of its early 20th century origins whereby it actually took birth as a “strategy and set of tactics developed by social reformers” in the United States and later on elsewhere in order to keep the “labour problem” from boiling over into destructive class struggle”. And so it has all along been very much a subject of managerial perspectives. This managerialism has been, right from the beginning, in essence an attempt to apply the engineering approach (standardizing and rationalizing tools, processes, and systems) to the organization of factory or society, as a solution to the problem of horrific possibility of class warfare. Not surprising that it grew in American academic joints because of private support from wealthy industrialists, and not the rise of unions.
However, over the last thirty years, a global tipping point for frustration having been reached, perhaps, in terms of the working people protesting that they have had enough under neoimperialism and neocolonialism, it seems that the subject of industrial relations is now reviewed and reinvented in light of ethical theories and moral philosophy.
As an example of ethicality in the employment relationship, we may refer to, in Australia, the so-called “Harvester wage ruling in 1907 by Justice Higgins, whose decision emanated from the remarkably progressive and compassionate view of industrial relations and social justice. The Harvester wage determination was path-breaking in that it was based on a family’s needs for income rather than what an employer could afford. If employers could not afford to pay at least the income a family of four needed to live in modest comfort, then they had no right to employ staff”. Consider another example in terms of the ethical rule thus: “Any full-time job that any employer finds necessary, desirable, or convenient is entitled to compensation sufficient to support a life of decency and dignity. If the job is not worth at least that much, it is not worth being done except as a favour or a hoppy or a punishment…It is obvious that ‘full time’ and ‘a life of decency and dignity’ require definition. Furthermore, it is obvious that the definitions are social and historical…Finally, it is obvious that to be truly effective the definitions will be codified and enforced by the state. It is then that we show the world and ourselves the sort of people we are.” A similar ethical concern can be simply stated thus: if employers violate labour rights as human rights vide the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, 1948, should they have the right to do business?
In so critiquing, the moral philosophy implicit in the laissez-faire economic model of capitalism by way of the ethical theories of utilitarianism and libertarianism has come under heavy fire. For example, the Kantian ethical perspective can be invoked to say that it is ethically unacceptable that in the modern workplace, workers have almost no rights, and that many practices such as low or no regard at all for unions and lack of voice are unethical. Union acceptance, participative management and transparent management procedures are not only ethically desirable but they also make sound economic sense.
Some scholars have argued that the academic field of industrial relations can have a future only if it becomes worker-centric. For example, there is the argument that the worker needs to be made the central reference point in the subject of industrial relations, in contrast to so much that is written in this field, in which the employee is either completely ignored, or is treated as a regrettable and sometimes troublesome cost of doing business. Worker perspectives are also valued by some other industrial relations scholars who define the heart of industrial relations research as INJUSTICE and therefore are concerned about the ways in which workers define and respond to it. These scholars believe that the field of industrial relations will not be preserved as a valuable area of future study unless it takes its distance from the intellectual agenda of dominant class interests including its intellectual focus on “how work get done” and starts examining how workers fight or do not fight for dignity, justice and respect against their rapacious bosses as found in the context of globalization.
A recent examination of changing industrial relations in the Asian countries under neoimperialism does testify to the contradiction between the unethical industrial relations integral to the political economy of competitive race to the bottom under neoimperialism on the one hand, and the ‘good labour relations’ integral to the concerns of justice that characterize the rise of new worker protests. What the employers, aided by the state, want (hire and fire labour system without obligations) is at loggerheads with what the workers want (employment stability, job and income security, trade union rights, fair sharing of gains due to increased productivity). The academic euphoria created in the name of Human Resource Management for good labour relations sans unions in the 1980s and 1990s has turned out to be false verbose and conspicuous by its absence.
The historically established truth continues to prevail, which is that a life of decency and dignity through open ended employment contracts associated with worker rights has seldom been extended to workers out of good will, but won after long struggles: “Rights are rarely given. They have to be asserted and taken. Whether it is the right to form trade unions, the right against unfair dismissal or the right to strike, a struggle has been necessary. More often, workers had established their rights through collective action before it was recognized by law. It is necessary to keep this in mind”. Evidence does point to the fact that the murky mess in the academic field of industrial relations is matched by the murky mess in the real world conduct of industrial relations. There is a crisis on either side in terms of not resolving the contradiction between the concerns of efficiency on the one hand, and the concerns of equity on the other.
The inability to resolve this fundamental antagonism stems from the stubborn refusal on the part of the power elites as also intellectual elites to consider humanizing the political economy foundations of social organization based on ethical rules and action on the non-negotiable recognition that “justice is actually more important to us than is efficiency or cost-effectiveness or market discipline”.
The International Labour Organisation, on its part as the good angel in the labour market, demonstrates the most pathetic way of resolving this contradiction. On the one hand, it has sanctified the widespread temping (i.e. garbage labour contracts) and on the other, it wants core international labour standards incorporated into industrial relations systems in the world. In so doing it has actually promoted “bastard labourism” and turned out to be a pro-employer think-tank instead of being the global custodian of the working class interests. The research output by the cabal of intellectuals working for the ILO reflects this confused state of affairs much to the detriment of the interests of the helpless workers.
Furthermore, it is also a moot question whether academic research on workplace administration as a subset of industrial relations, especially with a view to arriving at a “more complete understanding of human behavior”, really influences good employer behavior, leave alone worker behavior, at the workplace at all.
One thing is surely very clear: there is no credible civilizing mission either in academics or praxis of industrial relations under neoimperialism.
By Annavajhula J.C. Bose
Department of Economics, SRCC
Extracted and adapted from Pratap, Surendra and Bose, Annavajhula J.C. 2015. Industrial Relations in a Mess: A Review of Asian Realities under Neoimperialism. Gorakhpur Social Scientist. Vol.VI. No.2. December.