Living Wages in the Paradigm Transition
The Imperative Challenge of Transcending the Market
Álvaro J. de Regil
The living wage is a human right even though most governments do not recognise it as such. Most workers in the world still earn less than a living wage for their labour. Living on an unliveable wage is a global challenge of immense proportions, affecting the wellbeing of billions worldwide and dragging on the prospects for achieving just and sustainable societies. Although we must work to transform the system and transcend the market, through a systemic transition, the right to a living wage must be recognised in its own right irrespective of the prevailing system. Transcending the dominant marketocratic paradigm is essential not only because of its incompatibility with basic human rights but because the market cannot sustain limitless growth without violating ecological limits. Achieving this requires building a new truly democratic ethos, rooted in harmonious coexistence for people and the planet.
The premise of this paper is that the living wage is a prerequisite to a life with dignity and security. A remuneration for labour must be enough to fulfil basic household needs for food, housing, clothing, healthcare, education, transportation, and leisure. Both the living wage and environmental preservation are essential components of a just and sustainable future. The current market-driven system, where poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation are deemed acceptable and inevitable, cannot be compatible with the equity and inter-generation tenets that lie at the heart of sustainable development.
The living wage is an essential element of true democratic practice to uphold the rights and responsibilities inherent to the social contract. The primordial responsibility of a truly democratic government is to procure and protect the economic and social welfare of all members of society. Citizens consent to delegate certain powers to government in return for the government’s provision for basic needs, public goods and the respect and protection of all citizen rights. Conversely, citizens have the responsibility and vested interest to actively participate in the democratic process and engage in the public matter to protect and enhance the general welfare of the community. Yet if workers are not remunerated with the income necessary to fulfil all the basic needs of their families, they are excluded from participating as citizens in the democratic life of their countries. Because, every day they must struggle to scrape a living they are automatically disenfranchised from the sphere of citizenship, the agora. Thus, truly democratic governments, more than anything, have the fundamental responsibility to guarantee an ethos that provides wage remunerations worthy of human dignity. Without such agreement, democratic institutions cannot flourish, and trust and accountability, the underpinnings of the social contract, will not exist. Today, though a majority of countries enjoy at least nominally democratic governments, significant segments of workers in the Centre (the major economies of global capitalism) and the vast majority of workers in the Periphery (the so-called emerging markets and the rest of the developing world) still do not receive a living wage. Despite the historical recognition of the living wage as a human right in international law, it has yet to be realised in practice. This is why we must continue to pursue the making of the living wage a fundamental element of true sustainability in both the current marketocratic paradigm and in the new paradigm of people and planet, as we gradually transcend the market.