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4 April 2013

Inequality and working conditions: the ‘exhaustion’ of labour

Philippe Askenazy

Growing inequality in Europe should not only be seen from the perspective of pressure on wages but also in terms of deteriorating working conditions at the workplace. Flexibility, intensification of work and loss of autonomy are key indicators of the “exhaustion” of the current productive model, according to French economist Philippe Askenazy.

Professor Askenazy was the third high-level academic to speak in the ETUI’s conference cycle on the crisis and inequality. His presentation on 20 March looked at Europe’s economic and financial crisis from the angle of deteriorating working conditions in European companies. What we can observe from lots of statistics, says Askenazy, is that the worsening of working conditions is leading to new inequalities. The French economist interprets these trends as proof of the fact that the European productive model is running out of steam. He calls this the “exhaustion of labour” (‘l’épuisement du travail’).

Most of the data on which Askenazy builds his gloomy analysis can be found in the periodic European Working Conditions surveys of the Dublin-based Eurofoundation. These statistics show that the increased intensification of work (less autonomy, tighter deadlines, and more health and safety challenges) is reaching its limits. The French economist demonstrated that productivity gains as a result of these tougher working conditions had been exhausted despite continuous structural reforms. This productivity stagnation already started from 2004, Askenazy said. And this turned investors away from investing in the real economy and made them put their money into financially risky assets and the bubble economy.

“We’ve gone from simple intensification of labour to wearing out of workers. This poses the problem of the overall sustainability of our social models. Work is more and more destructive. Our productive model is at the end of its rope,” said Askenazy. He believes a new productive model is needed which would focus on high quality of work and goes beyond reliance on ever-lower wages, unskilled work and lower quality labour.

Agnes Parent-Thirion of the Eurofoundation agreed with professor Askenazy’s statement that quality of working conditions “is one of the means of promoting a new productive model.” She concluded: ““There are very high costs for everyone with the exhaustion of labour. An alternative is possible and it already exists in certain sectors.”

Józef Niemiec, deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) gave an account of his organisation’s work on labour exhaustion. In this context he also criticized the current EU approach to the crisis: “the cost of labour is the sole ‘adjustment variable’ for the European institutions. The other aspects are not being taken into account at all”, Niemiec argued. “All the elements of the framework protecting work quality were termed ‘negative’ for the economy and for growth”, said ETUC’s deputy secretary general.

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