Is there such thing as a “right to a job”? Working gives us a sense of identity, dignity, and a place in society. At the extremes, it is the difference between making ends meet or not. Since the early 1800s, the concept of a “Right to Work” has existed, and since 1948 has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, the Right to Work is usually conceived of as a negative right (a freedom from interference in the process of finding employment, rather than a guarantee of a job). After the Second World War, however, governments often considered it one of their primary tasks to guarantee “full employment”.
This might seem abstract and philosophical, but it matters. Disruptive new technologies such as automation and machine learning are predicted to have a huge impact on the way we work, so it’s important we have a clear conception of what it means to be employed. Should governments work to guarantee work for as many people as possible? Or should they just stay out of the way?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Eric, who argued in no uncertain terms that he believes work should be considered a ‘privilege’:
A job is not a ‘Right’, it’s a privilege. The problem some people have is they think they have a right to everything, they have a right to work even though they are stupid, they have a right to have children even though they cannot afford to support them, they have a right to live off others even though they are too lazy to get off their backsides.
When did gifts, favours and privileges become rights? You don’t have the “right” to live off my taxes. Sorry, I’m not a socialist, I work bloody hard, run my own business, don’t take hand-outs, and came from nothing. If you can’t or won’t do the same then tough!
Most of our readers would probably find Eric’s comments too strongly put, even offensive (particularly the implication that people are unemployed because they are ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’). Nevertheless, we wanted to get a response, so we put his comment to Esther Lynch, Deputy General Secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). How would she respond?
I would say to Eric that he’s quite wrong to think that people who haven’t got a job don’t want one. You only have to look at the number of applications for jobs when they’re advertised – hundreds of people will apply for, say, a job advertised in the local supermarket or coffee shop. A lot of people will apply for those jobs.
Then, when people get jobs, they work really hard. They turn up, and they bring all of themselves to work; they bring everything that they have invested in themselves, whether it’s the education that they’ve got, the fact they’ve bought their clothes to go to work, they’ve paid their bus fair or transport to go to work, their car park, their childcare, they’ve paid all of that and they turn up and do a good day’s work. And to say that’s a privilege I think is so out of touch with the reality of working people’s lives. And it’s part, actually, of what’s gone wrong with our society, in that we don’t seem to be able to have a full understanding and empathy for the people who are working for us. And I read more and more about narcissistic managers who only see themselves, they don’t see their workforce, they don’t see how important to society it is that there’s a role for everyone and that everyone is respected and given a chance and opportunity.
Also, certainly, people who are finding it hard to get a job, the last thing they need is that type of disrespectful attitude. What they need is assistance to get retraining, to get the chance of work experience. Certainly, that’s what the trade unions in Europe are trying to do; trying to ensure that Member States around Europe don’t treat people as if you just pick them up and put them on the scrap heap when it doesn’t suit you anymore. That rather, you have a proper approach that identifies workers whose skills won’t be needed because they’re going to be replaced by artificial intelligence or robots, and you already start investing courses for people, time off for people to do those courses. And you don’t see that as people getting something they’re not entitled to, that instead you see that it’s good for society if we have everybody in society able to actively contribute the best they can, and for them to achieve what everybody wants in life, which is that you do a good week’s work and get a good week’s pay.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank based in the UK. What would he say?
It’s a rather hard-edged way of putting it, and I certainly wouldn’t put it like that and, in fact, I wouldn’t actually agree with all of that.
I think he’s right to say that if you are unemployable, how can you really think that you have a right to work? If we’re going to go to extremes like that and, let’s say – rather theoretically – that there are people who are simply unemployable, what do we do in that situation?
Well, I don’t know what Eric would do with them – perhaps he’d leave them to starve, I don’t know. I believe in having a welfare state to provide a safety net for people, not to necessarily create jobs for people, although I do actually think that people are better off in work than they are on benefits, so we don’t have people dying in the streets. And I don’t think that’s a hugely socialistic way of looking at it.
Is a job a privilege? Well, I think that’s too strong a word, again. If you’re going to ask somebody else to employ you, as opposed to doing what Eric does and creating his own business and working for himself, then to some extent it is a privilege or a favour if you want to look at it in those terms. But, again, I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful framing. You are providing your labour to the employer, they’re not doing you a ‘favour’ as such, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Whereas if the government just decides to employ people to break up rocks and stick them back together so they can break them up again, which would be the kind of Über-Keynesian approach, that’s not actually mutually beneficial. It’s not clear that it really benefits anybody.
Is having a job a right or a privilege? Or is it a mutually beneficial arrangement? Given the rise of automation and AI, how should we think about the concept of employment? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!