Identifiedin 1833, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ refers to a public resource facingdepletion, exploitation and eventual extinction, when used exclusively forprivate gain.
1At first glance, this concept might seem unrelated to labour, as it is neithera free resource, nor is it exhaustible, as people have bargaining power. Thatbeing said, in a socio-economic context, this conception of labour is untrue. Onecannot live without sustaining themselves in some capacity and often, this needfor survival is what creates a system where society’s most marginalizedindividuals must give up their bargaining power to survive. In this way, labouris a ‘free’ or public resource for large, global companies as there is such adire need for work in some areas of the world, that they need only cast a lineand regardless of the circumstances, they will find people willing to work.
Thismethod of large companies relocating operations to profit, often unethically, fromcheap labour, is one that has been criticized time and time again without any changeto the industry. To discuss this in the context of the Commons principlehowever, it should be noted that while the resource deteriorates, the loss inquestion is not of the labour itself, but rather the value of labour. Considering unregulatedlabour markets a public resource, their devaluation is something we are wellaware of, as we watch those at the top-end of global value chains capitalize thedivisions within a society (i.e. gender, race, class, age, etc.
) to create different”classes of labour”. Female labour, for example, iswell-documented to be much more poorly compensated than male labour. These precedents then, help create systems inwhich other businesses employ the same method to cut costs, compensating workersless and less, as these individuals generally do not have collective bargainingpower.2Ultimately, this value of this labour force is eroded over time, as they haveno voice and no other options.3 With this in mind, goingback to the Commons principal, we can see that the exploitation of a labourforce 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 practiceis nothing but institutionalized enslavement. However, ethics aside, there are other implications ofthis systematic devaluation of labour.
This unequal exchange creates a polarizationbetween the various classes of labour, meaning at each end, people have tostrive further than before, to prove their value. 4 In developed nations thisis evident through degree inflation, for example in America “over 12 millionare unemployed and underemployed while 3 in 5 employers report difficulty infilling middle-skill jobs and analysis shows that ifthe current pace of degree inflation continues, 6.2 million more middle-skillsjobs will be at risk”.5 Global trends echo thisand a recent United Nations Labour Agency publication revealed that while theglobal economy has kept up modest growth, the total number of unemployed peoplewill 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-GeneralGuy Ryder “even though global unemployment has stabilized, decent workdeficits 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 forjobholders and to ensure that the gains of growth are shared equitably.
“7Trends project that the number of unemployed workers worldwide will grow by 1.3million in 2019 and the number of workers in vulnerable forms will increase by17 million each, in both 2018 and 2019.8 It also referenced around 430million workers worldwide as a are part of the ‘working poor’ i.e.
earningbetween $1.90 to $3.10 per day, showing that with decreasing value, regardlessof effort, quality of life declines too.9Today, it isbecoming increasingly more common for large companies to have globally sourcedsupply chains and while this allows them to optimize costs, it also exposesthem to various political, environmental, social and legal risks.
McKinseyreports that the value at stake from sustainability concerns can be as a highas 70% of earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation.10 However, unlike conventionalrisks, social risks manifest over the long term, often affecting various industrydimensions before being realized and ultimately, being out of theorganization’s control.11 So, the lesson to take isthat rising consumer awareness coupled with increasing social risk meanscompanies can no long afford to be complicit in driving the global devaluationof human labour and should shift focus to strategic and ethical operations, ifthey plan to sustain operations in the long-run.Endnotes 1 Brent McKnight, “Class 1 – Introduction and Tragedy of theCommons”, 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, https://probdes.iiec.
unam.mx/en/revistas/v46n183/body/v46n183a1_1.php. 3 Ibid. 4 Shuang Frost, “Devaluing HumanLabor | Anthropology-News,” AnthropologyNews, August 3, 2017,http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2017/08/03/devaluing-human-labor/.
5 Grads of LifeVoice Team, “Gradsof LifeVoice: New Report On The Harmful Effects Of Degree Inflation,” Forbes, October 31, 2017,https://www.forbes.com/sites/gradsoflife/2017/10/31/new-report-on-the-harmful-effects-of-degree-inflation/#5efd7be72288.
6 “Unemployment to Remain High,Quality Jobs Harder to Find in 2018 – UN Labour Agency,” UN News Center, January 22, 2018,http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=58457. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid 9 Ibid. 10 Carly Fink and Tensie Whelan, “TheComprehensive Business Case for Sustainability,” Harvard Business Review.
June 01, 2017, https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-comprehensive-business-case-for-sustainability. 11 Ibid.