CSR Issue Series  Re-framing labour law:

A Labour Code for the 21st Century

Alain Supiot

Today’s labour laws were designed for a world of work that no longer exists. The pressures of neoliberalism on the individual and society require labour laws that go beyond defending or destroying past certainties and that instead give workers power over the quality, organisation, and purpose of their work.

You would have to be blind to deny the need for fundamental reform of labour laws. Throughout history, technological advances have always led to a restructuring of institutions. This was the case in past industrial revolutions which, after overturning the old order by opening the floodgates to proletarianisation, colonisation, and the Dual Perspective (2006) industrialisation of war and killing, resulted in the rebuilding of international institutions and the invention of the welfare state.

At an international level, we should fully acknowledge what is stated in the preamble to the ILO’s constitution: “The failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.” And we should take account of the fact that the international division of labour and our environmental impact on the planet are inseparable. Social and environmental standards must therefore be given the same legal force as those governing international trade. This would require the creation of an international dispute settlement body with the power to authorise countries complying with these standards to close their markets to products made under conditions that do not. The European Union could regain political legitimacy by championing such a reform, thus renewing the commitment enshrined in EU treaties to “improved living and working conditions, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained”, rather than encouraging a social and fiscal race to the bottom between Member States, as its Court of Justice does.

Ambitious reform of labour law should also include unpaid work, such as raising children and caring for elderly parents, which is as vital for society as it is ignored by economic indicators. Ever since artificial lighting made working 24 hours a day possible, labour law has provided a spatial and temporal framework compatible with our biological clock and the (human) right to respect for private and family life. This framework is now threatened by neoliberalism and information technology, which together extend paid work to any place and any time. The price, particularly in terms of family life, is exorbitant but never acknowledged by those obsessed with Sunday and night working, which are destroying the last vestiges of social time to have escaped the commodification of human life.

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