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The Dignity of Having a Job? Head of Oxfam Points to a New Way of Thinking About Employment.

  • Opinion

Jacob Loose, MA International Studies and Diplomacy

The viral clip from Davos 2019 featured members of a panel talking about tax evasion. The panellists pointed out the hypocrisy of aiming to end inequality but not being willing to talk about those dodging their taxes. It is certainly powerful to hear tax evasion being discussed in the rarefied environment of the World Economic Forum, and the audience reacts first in shock and then with applause.

However, when watched in the context of the whole panel, these comments are obviously pre-prepared statements and are therefore less authentic. It was the comments that Winnie Byanyima (one of the panellists and executive director of Oxfam International) made in response to a later question, that was the more effective critique of the whole system we live in.

Byanyima was responding to a question from Ken Goldman, who introduced himself as “from Silicon Valley”. Goldman called the panel biased and argued that in their discussion of tax evasion, they had ignored the fact that the US has its lowest employment rate ever and has helped reduce unemployment around the world. Goldman said that this put everyone closer to what we really want, the dignity of having a job.

Byanyima then used Goldman’s word “dignity” to tear down his argument. She challenged Goldman’s claim about the dignity of employment in the US, she described the humiliation of chicken plant workers who were forced to work wearing diapers as they were not allowed toilet breaks. Byanyima then throws doubt on Goldman’s claim about rising employment around the world being a sure sign of progress. She told a story of a cab ride in Nairobi that had cost her only $2. When she asked the driver whether this was enough money for him to live on, he said that he gives most of it back to the company and he only has enough to rent a single room shared with two other drivers. She questioned whether sleeping in 5 hour shifts can be considered the “dignity of having a job”.

What Goldman’s question ignored is the potential of this huge divide between the rich and poor in the US, and around the world being harmful in itself.

Goldman’s focus on the inherent dignity of employment means that the system of widening inequality we live in today is viewed as acceptable, as long as people at the bottom have some kind of job.

Byanyima has exposed to Goldman the uncomfortable truth that “the quality of the jobs matter” and the “correlation between inequality and efficiency has been disproved”. In other words, we need to do better than forcing someone to work in diapers while making the false claim that this kind of labour exploitation is required in order to have “efficient markets”. As Byanyima argues, to only talk about unemployment levels misses the point, the quality of the job matters.

I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Oxfam’s latest report on Inequality as part of my role of Co-President at the Oxfam society here at SOAS. The campaign that we are promoting is Behind the Barcodes, which shines the spotlight on this very issue, specifically the mistreatment of those in the supply chains of big supermarkets. Goldman telling these food producers that they at least have the dignity of a job is not what is required. Instead, a radical change is needed in the way we conceptualise our relationship with the distant suppliers of our food.


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