Identified resource, their devaluation is something we are


in 1833, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ refers to a public resource facing
depletion, exploitation and eventual extinction, when used exclusively for
private gain. 1
At first glance, this concept might seem unrelated to labour, as it is neither
a free resource, nor is it exhaustible, as people have bargaining power. That
being said, in a socio-economic context, this conception of labour is untrue. One
cannot live without sustaining themselves in some capacity and often, this need
for survival is what creates a system where society’s most marginalized
individuals must give up their bargaining power to survive. In this way, labour
is a ‘free’ or public resource for large, global companies as there is such a
dire need for work in some areas of the world, that they need only cast a line
and regardless of the circumstances, they will find people willing to work. This
method of large companies relocating operations to profit, often unethically, from
cheap labour, is one that has been criticized time and time again without any change
to the industry. To discuss this in the context of the Commons principle
however, it should be noted that while the resource deteriorates, the loss in
question is not of the labour itself, but rather the value of labour.

Considering unregulated
labour markets a public resource, their devaluation is something we are well
aware of, as we watch those at the top-end of global value chains capitalize the
divisions within a society (i.e. gender, race, class, age, etc.) to create different
“classes of labour”. Female labour, for example, is
well-documented to be much more poorly compensated than male labour. These precedents then, help create systems in
which other businesses employ the same method to cut costs, compensating workers
less and less, as these individuals generally do not have collective bargaining
Ultimately, this value of this labour force is eroded over time, as they have
no voice and no other options.3 With this in mind, going
back to the Commons principal, we can see that the exploitation of a labour
force reduces its value and much like over-fishing until the fish are gone,
this continued effort will reduce the value of that labour until the practice
is nothing but institutionalized enslavement.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

            However, ethics aside, there are other implications of
this systematic devaluation of labour. This unequal exchange creates a polarization
between the various classes of labour, meaning at each end, people have to
strive further than before, to prove their value. 4 In developed nations this
is evident through degree inflation, for example in America “over 12 million
are unemployed and underemployed while 3 in 5 employers report difficulty in
filling middle-skill jobs and analysis shows that if
the current pace of degree inflation continues, 6.2 million more middle-skills
jobs will be at risk”.5 Global trends echo this
and a recent United Nations Labour Agency publication revealed that while the
global economy has kept up modest growth, the total number of unemployed people
will likely remain high in 2018 (over 192 million), highlighting that worldwide,
for the average worker it will be much harder to find a ‘decent’ job.6 As per the Director-General
Guy Ryder “even though global unemployment has stabilized, decent work
deficits remain widespread: the global economy is still not creating enough jobs.
Additional efforts need to be put in place to improve the quality of work for
jobholders and to ensure that the gains of growth are shared equitably.”7
Trends project that the number of unemployed workers worldwide will grow by 1.3
million in 2019 and the number of workers in vulnerable forms will increase by
17 million each, in both 2018 and 2019.8 It also referenced around 430
million workers worldwide as a are part of the ‘working poor’ i.e. earning
between $1.90 to $3.10 per day, showing that with decreasing value, regardless
of effort, quality of life declines too.9

Today, it is
becoming increasingly more common for large companies to have globally sourced
supply chains and while this allows them to optimize costs, it also exposes
them to various political, environmental, social and legal risks. McKinsey
reports that the value at stake from sustainability concerns can be as a high
as 70% of earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation.10 However, unlike conventional
risks, social risks manifest over the long term, often affecting various industry
dimensions before being realized and ultimately, being out of the
organization’s control.11 So, the lesson to take is
that rising consumer awareness coupled with increasing social risk means
companies can no long afford to be complicit in driving the global devaluation
of human labour and should shift focus to strategic and ethical operations, if
they plan to sustain operations in the long-run.



1 Brent McKnight, “Class 1 – Introduction and Tragedy of the
Commons”, Lecture at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.


2 Raúl Delgado Wise and David Martin,
“The Political Economy of Global Labor Arbitrage” Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México,
June 15, 2015,


3 Ibid.


4 Shuang Frost, “Devaluing Human
Labor | Anthropology-News,” Anthropology
News, August 3, 2017,


5 Grads of LifeVoice Team, “Grads
of LifeVoice: New Report On The Harmful Effects Of Degree Inflation,” Forbes, October 31, 2017,


6 “Unemployment to Remain High,
Quality Jobs Harder to Find in 2018 – UN Labour Agency,” UN News Center, January 22, 2018,


7 Ibid.


8 Ibid


9 Ibid.


10 Carly Fink and Tensie Whelan, “The
Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability,” Harvard Business Review. June 01, 2017,


11 Ibid.