What’s wrong with work?

Work is an ethical issue. Here I will explain what is wrong with work, and present some solutions for the problems. Some proposals will seem extreme, but that simply reflects the extreme disadvantages of work. First a disclaimer: this applies to western Europe. Some of what is said about jobs and work applies in any modern economy – but some is specific to the western European liberal democracies and their welfare states. For legal reasons, all proposed policy and legislation is intended to apply only within the territory of the European Union. To start with, I will explain the background: jobs and work in western Europe.

Jobs and work

There is a job market, also known as the labour market. Jobs are distributed by a market mechanism. That is usually taken for granted, but it has significant consequences, especially if you compare it with a hypothetical society which allocates jobs at random.

In the job market, jobs are allocated by competition. The competition is between applicants, people who seek employment in a specific job. Employers choose between applicants, but most applicants can not choose employers. Applicants cannot force an employer to employ them, except in rare cases where they can prove discrimination in favour of another applicant (and if they are the sole alternative to that candidate).

Applicants are either strong, average or weak. Exactly what that means, depends on the employers preferences – which are only partly determined by the actual work done. Individuals who have a weak position in society, usually have a weak position in the job market.

Some jobs are worse than others. The strongest applicants get the best jobs. Those with average characteristics get average jobs. The weakest get the worst jobs.

Because jobs are allocated by competition, most individuals can never get a better job. By definition, the competitive job market allocates each individual to the best job they can get. Individuals cannot improve their competitive position, since it is primarily determined by factors such as age, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and personality type.

In western Europe, a section of the adult population lives semi-permanently on social benefits. They have the weakest position on the job market, and therefore they get the very worst jobs. Since work is so unpleasant, they often use the benefits system to avoid work, although the system was never intended for that purpose. Work avoidance, not personal misfortune or capitalist oppression, is the prime cause of long-term unemployment in western Europe.

Normal people do not live on benefit. Normal people work. If they become unemployed, they might live for a time on short-term unemployment insurance payments, but they soon find another job. Those who live on long-term benefits are from despised minorities: they are the mentally ill, the obese, the permanently sick or disabled, widely hated ethnic minorities, dyslexics, anorexics, introverts, the socially inadequate, and political extremists. They are far from the traditional idea of the ‘working class’, although they perhaps resemble the pre-modern underclass. Most of them are unemployable, in any normal modern business or service.

Governments refuse to acknowledge the existence of this workshy minority, who form the bulk of the social underclass in western Europe. In fact, despite all the right-wing rhetoric about ‘the workshy’, governments and political elites seem incapable of abandoning the idea, that everyone really wants to work. Policy also assumes that everyone can find work if they try, at least when the economy is functioning normally. Technological and social changes have made that an unrealistic assumption.

Objections to work itself

Some people have good jobs, but most do not. Most do unpleasant or boring work, in a group of 10 to 30 employees, on the orders of a supervisor – ‘the boss’, or ‘the manager’ or ‘the foreman’. The supervisor acts on behalf of the employer, and is always hostile to the employees – and often aggressive.

The work done is rarely pleasant in itself: it is not simply a random task. That is clear if you compare work with leisure activities and hobbies. Professional athletes and professional musicians are paid to do something they want to do, but most people are not. Nobody welds pipelines as a hobby, and nobody stacks shelves in their spare time. Conversely, a business will not pay you to collect stamps, listen to your favourite music, or to plant flowers in your garden. The things you like doing are not the things you do at work, and the things you do at work are not things that people like doing.

Work always requires effort, and if it requires unpleasant effort, then it causes stress. The worst kinds of work cause more stress. For the employee to recover from stress, a break from work is necessary, but working hours do not usually allow that.

The employee needs physical rest, including a minimum of sleep. Commuting to work, and household tasks, reduce the amount of time available for physical rest and sleep. Insufficient sleep is very common among employees.

Employees also require mental rest, to recover from the stress of work. That is more difficult to quantify than sleep, and it can take much longer to recover. In extreme cases, where the conditions of work are traumatic, an employee might take years to recover from one day’s work. Even for average jobs, the recovery period can be longer than the time available – the time until the next working day.

If employees do not recover from work-related stress, before they start work again, they will inevitably develop a fear of work. Fear and anxiety are a logical response, if there is a certainty that something unpleasant will happen, and an inability to cope with it. This can happen even if working conditions are not in themselves extreme. The fear of the next working day then reduces the ability to sleep and recover from stress. It is a vicious circle, which can affect physical health, and typically ends with clinical depression.

A possible state response to this issue is a drastic reduction in working hours, as suggested in my earlier proposal to reduce working hours in the European Union. Unlike traditional legislation, which simply sets a maximum per day and week, these proposals stipulate minimum breaks, which get longer as more hours are worked. They include:

  • a 30 minute break after two hours of work
  • a one-hour break after four hours of work
  • 12 consecutive hours break after 6 hours of work
  • 48 consecutive hours break after 18 hours of work
  • in every calendar month, three breaks of at least 72 consecutive hours, separated by no less than five full calendar days.

In practice this would limit working time to about 15 hours per week, but the primary intention is to allow rest and recovery. For that reason, the proposal also specifies separate rest areas at the place of work.

Any job can cause stress, but some jobs are much worse than others. The work itself can be inherently unhealthy or dangerous. That can be due to the location: very cold (construction work in winter), or very hot and humid (kitchens and mines). The work may involve hazardous chemicals, or dust and fibres, or infection risk (hospitals and slaughterhouses). Work can require extreme physical effort, or repetitive movements which cause strain. It may involve long hours of sitting or standing in one position. In such cases, the work can cause pain, which itself results in additional stress.

There is legislation to protect the health of workers, and it has had some effect since the 19th century, but it has failed to eliminate this problem. That is partly because some risks are inherent: the chemical industry must work with chemicals. The legislation is never fully enforced either, especially at the lower end of the labour market. The main problem, however, is that the legislation simply does not prohibit all unhealthy and dangerous working conditions: it only prohibits some of them.

Discrimination and harassment

Since the job market is competitive, it is also discriminatory. Applicants for a job have an advantage, if they are from a group preferred by employers. That would only cease to be true, if no employer had any preference or bias. In the real world, it is inevitable that prejudices play a significant role in the labour market.

In each country there is a hierarchy of groups within society. Some people have lower status than others, and cannot usually escape that. The social hierarchy is not identical with the political power structure, since there is also a political elite. The social hierarchy, which is relevant for the labour market in western Europe, is summarised below. ‘White’ means the ethnic majority in each country, English in England, Dutch in the Netherlands, Swedes in Sweden, Danes in Denmark, and so on.

  • Level 1. White extrovert right-wing heterosexual males.
  • Level 2. Extrovert white women, extrovert white gays.
  • Level 3. East European immigrants, white left wing, white introvert , Afro-Caribbean, white disabled, introvert women.
  • Level 4. Somali’s, North Africans, West Africans, non-white gays.
  • Level 5. Paedophiles, transgender, Roma, anorexics, Salafists.

Of course that is an estimate, and not all groups are included. Sociologists could compile a more accurate table of the social hierarchy – but they don’t want to, since they prefer to think in terms of ‘social class’.

There are also specific hostilities between different groups, including mutual hostility. Xenophobes, who are about one-fifth of the population, are inherently hostile to immigrants. Homophobes are hostile to gays, and gays are often hostile to Christians. There is animosity between Jews and Muslims, between patriots and ‘cosmopolitans’, and between left and right.

Social hierarchy and enmity determine the allocation of jobs, more than education or experience. (Age is also a significant factor, but everyone passes through the same age groups). Individuals from low-status groups will therefore be subjected to discrimination when they seek a job. They can avoid this discrimination by not working, and living on state benefits.

If low-status individuals do have a job, the employer will discriminate against them during their employment. If their supervisor has a higher social status, then their supervisor will harass them. Higher management does not protect low-status employees against supervisor harassment, because higher management is itself from a high-status group, and therefore hostile to low-status groups.

Harassment by supervisors can be minimised, by physically separating the supervisor from the employees. A supervisor should not enter the place where work is actually done. If proximity is required, he can supervise from behind security glass, and otherwise by video. All communication between supervisor and employee should be electronic: text or voice message. It should all be recorded, and made available on request to government, senior management, and trade unions. The knowledge that they are being recorded, will deter supervisors from verbal aggression.

If the supervisor enters the room or location where employees are working , there should be a panic room available, where employees can take refuge. From there, they could call the police to remove the supervisor. As a last resort, if other measures do not prevent supervisor harassment, employees should have the right to kill their direct supervisor, after giving 48 hours notice to police. (In practice, the supervisor would simply not show up for work, after begin warned by police).

Threat of dismissal

Another major source of stress is the threat of dismissal. All workers can lose their jobs, and only a minority have indefinite contracts of employment. Threats are inherent in the employer-employee relationship. The employer pays employees, and if they don’t work, that money is wasted. However, the employees often don’t want to work: they use strategies to minimise effort and stress. The employer therefore threatens them, to make them work. In practice, it is the supervisor who issues the threats, often repeatedly.

The primary threat is that the employee will be dismissed, and replaced by someone else. It seems a paradox that employers spend money on selecting and training employees, and then immediately threaten to replace them. However it is effective in creating a culture of fear in the workplace, and that is the deliberate intention. Many employees fear both work (employment) and unemployment. The only way to escape the culture of fear at work, is to accept the threatened sanction, and voluntarily choose unemployment.

Workfare projects duplicate the culture of fear at the workplace, and often intensify it. Since benefit claimants have no job, they can not be threatened with dismissal. They are threatened with loss of benefits instead, to make them work. Governments have shown that they are prepared to take this to its logical conclusion, withdraw the support of the welfare state, and allow individuals to starve to death in modern Europe. Workfare projects are notable for their deliberate culture of threat, often directed at very vulnerable people. Again the only way to avoid the constant threats is to accept the threatened sanction, and refuse participation in either work or workfare.

In both work and workfare, the culture of threat exacerbates the stress of work itself. It is itself a factor in work-related health issues, especially depression. It is further exacerbated when employers demand a ‘positive attitude’ at the workplace, and a positive attitude toward the employer. It is not rational to have a positive attitude toward someone who threatens you, and maintaining a facade of satisfaction adds to the demands of the workplace, and increases stress.

Harassment by co-workers

Many employees feel that their colleagues are the worst thing about their job. Persecution, verbal aggression, and harassment are endemic. Harassment by co-workers is not random: it follows the same pattern as discrimination by the employers. It its directed at specific groups, by specific types of person.

Harassment follows from the workplace hierarchy, which in turn derives from the social hierarchy and inter-group animosity, in each country. High status individuals harass low status individuals, particularly those who are two or more levels below them. Individuals who are hostile to specific minorities harass members of those minorities. Members of mutually hostile groups harass each other.

A white extrovert right-wing heterosexual male employee, for instance, will typically harass co-workers who are introvert or black or muslim, often also women and the disabled. White extrovert women will tend to harass Somalis, Roma, gays and the disabled. Transgenders and paedophiles can expect harassment from almost everyone.

The solution is rigorous segregation of workplaces by ethnic origin, gender, political ideology, sexual orientation, and personality type. Extroverts should not work alongside introverts, Jews should not work alongside muslims, gays should not work alongside Christians, and right-wing males should not work alongside female or left-wing employees. Preferably each group should work in separate buildings. If that is not possible, then the various groups should be separated by prison-level security, to prevent them coming into contact with each other.

Segregation from colleagues would be additional to segregation of employees from their supervisors. The anti-supervisor panic rooms could also protect individual employees, from direct aggression and violence by co-workers. As a last resort, if other measures do not prevent bullying and harassment, workers should have the right to kill a named co-worker, after giving 48 hours notice to police.

Some readers will be shocked by the idea, that workers could legally kill their colleagues. It is however morally right and necessary, because neither employers nor the state protect the weak from harassment and bullying. If such acts were effectively prohibited, then there would be no victims, and no need for drastic measures to protect them. In reality, workplace bullying and harassment are the norm for the weakest groups in society, and violence in self-defence must be legalised, in order to prevent this harm. In effect this would be a quasi-legalisation of workplace killings, which are sometimes a last-resort defence against harassment.

State policy on employment

Work is a harm. State policy on employment must start with that fact. Work is a harm because its effects are negative, as described above. Work often causes immense suffering, and many weak people are driven to suicide by their work.

Employers hate their employees. That too is a fact, because work is a harm. It is an act of hatred to subject a person to harm without moral necessity. The state must recognise the hostility of employers towards employees.

The state must recognise the workshy as a specific group in society. It must accept that being workshy is a logical response, to the harm and suffering caused by work. The state must accept that a substantial section of the population rationally reject work, and must provide for their support.

Nevertheless work is a necessity for the production of goods and services. That does not mean, that production of any good or service can justify the harm done to employees. An ethical principle is that work should only be done when it is absolutely necessary, and when it is ethically arranged. That means in practice that only ethical organisations, including the state itself, should employ people. Private enterprises, which by definition have no ethical goals, should not act as employers. (That principle does not prevent individual entrepreneurs from producing goods and services, or voluntary associations of individual entrepreneurs).

An ethical policy on work requires a complete reversal of the employment policy paradigm, which has prevailed since the late 19th century. All western European states see it as their duty to create employment, and that is sometimes written into the constitution. The European Union adopted this attitude without discussion. The paradigm is accepted by both the left and right, and indeed parties compete to ‘create jobs’. That must be turned upside down – a very radical shift in European politics.

The state must pursue a policy of work reduction. The total number of hours worked, average working hours, the number of people in employment, and if necessary the number of jobs, must all fall.

An essential instrument in such a policy is a job creation ban, which again goes contrary to everything the average politician tries to sell to voters. Creation of jobs undermines efforts to reduce total work, so it must be effectively suppressed. As technology changes, it will certainly be necessary to introduce new forms of work and new tasks, but that should always occur through displacement of existing work. Licensing and tax penalties would be the initial instruments to discourage private-sector job creation, but if necessary job creation should be criminalised.

To reduce the bulk of existing employment, some sectors must be abolished or shrunk, and some products (goods and services) must be prohibited. The fast-food sector is an example of a sector that can be easily targeted: it creates many low-paid and unpleasant jobs. The best strategy is simple closure of establishments, rather than taxation or licensing. Many traditional restaurants and bars, which as employers are not much better than the fast-food sector, should also be closed. A good example of a product which should be banned is asparagus: it is usually picked by hand, work which always causes back strain and injury. On a much larger scale, meat products should generally be banned – not simply to protect the animals, but because the meat processing sector creates low-paid and dirty jobs.

Human beings don’t need to eat hamburgers or asparagus, so their production cannot morally justify work. Mere consumer preference, even if as pervasive as the preference for meat, is not a sufficient justification for making people work.

In many other sectors, production can be drastically reduced because there are alternatives (goods or services). Cars are a good example. The motor vehicle sector, and associated industries and services, employ tens of millions of people in Europe. The alternatives to mass private car use are well known and understood, and society functioned without mass car use in the recent past. Although the EU and some national governments have policies to reduce dependence on the car, that is usually for environmental and energy policy reasons. Cutting car production in order to destroy jobs, would be an entirely new strategy.

Obviously there will be a significant drop in economic output, if entire sectors disappear or shrink. It is not clear that the true ‘standard of living’ will drop as much as the economic indicators suggest. If people eat less fast food and therefore need less health care, economists count this a double loss. In reality it is a gain: the economists are wrong. Nevertheless, product bans and sector shrinkage will not always show such gains. An anti-work policy will inevitably lead to real economic contraction, and consumers will experience some loss of product availability.

Some work is essential, and will remain essential. To minimise its negative effects, the EU should also introduce a policy of compulsory mechanisation and automation. Although we tend to think that almost everything has already been mechanised and automated, that is far from the case. The construction industry still employs bricklayers, for instance, who do exactly the same work as their mediaeval predecessors. In fact most work on construction sites is still done by hand – that’s why the sector can absorb millions of low-skilled workers. That needs to change, and since the sector will not mechanise itself, it must be forced to mechanise. Such strategies can destroy tens of millions of jobs in core sectors – and in this case the economists will be pleased, since productivity will increase dramatically.

The long term

The European Union has 505 million inhabitants. Two-thirds of the adult population (15-65) is ‘economically active’. In 2013, 217 million people were in employment – which includes the self-employed and part-time workers. Of those 217 million, 83% are employees. These are the people who would be affected by job destruction.

All figures are guesswork, but a radical policy shift could probably destroy about 20 million jobs in the short term, and reduce jobs by up to 5% annually, in the medium term. In the long term, concentration on core production, major productivity gains, and deliberate reduction in living standards, can probably cut employment by half, and total work hours by more than half. Since the majority of the population would then have no source of income, introduction of a European Basic Income is a precondition for such policies.

Basic income is often presented as an antipoverty measure, which has the additional advantage of simplifying complex welfare systems. It is usually its opponents who say that it would ‘discourage people from working’. If true, that would be an advantage, but it is not in itself an anti-work policy. In reality, a basic income is work-neutral. It is however the best state response, to a large proportion of income-less households – the inevitable consequence of anti-work policies. It will also prevent job creation at the lowest end of the layout market – where unscrupulous entrepreneurs meet desperate job-seekers. Basic income creates an income floor, which is a disincentive for people to work in abhorrent conditions.

After about 20 years, anti-work policies would result in a Europe where most of the population was economically inactive. Average incomes would be lower, and people would have fewer consumer goods, but that would be offset by better quality, especially in consumer electronics. Probably most people would work during the course of their lifetime, but they might stay out of work for long periods. Those who did work, would usually work ‘part-time’ by present standards.

So what would people do all day? That is simply not relevant here. The issue is that people suffer terribly because of work: their health is damaged, they become depressed, they kill themselves. An anti-work policy is necessary because work is evil, not because non-work is necessarily good.