A will to change the global cycle

Global Labour Flexibility
May 19, 2000

No one can be better qualified than Guy Standing to explain the emergence of global labour flexibility and to advise on the urgent task of devising policies to remedy the social ills that societies worldwide now suffer as a result. The author is senior economist at the International Labour Office, has published numerous books and articles on labour economics and labour policy, and, as director of the ILO's central and eastern European office in the early 1990s, advised governments, employers, and trades unions in those regions on reforms in social policy.

Global labour flexibility is already a major issue that must be addressed in the 21st century. This book should be of great interest to policy-makers and to academic readerships in the spheres of labour economics, business studies, political science, modern history, sociology, and industrial relations.

The 20th century, beginning as it did with clamorous demands for the rights of labour, moving to an era promoting the right to labour, and concluding with calls for the duty to labour, has been represented as the century of labour. The century's two dominant labourist models of society - state socialism and welfare state capitalism - reached their peak in promoting various forms of labour security in the 1970s. Since then, insecurity and inequality have increased in the context of globalisation, flexible labour markets, and supply-side economics. The thrust of Standing's argument is that politicians, social theorists, and reformers must now discover ways and means to foster distributive justice, founded upon basic security and effective forms of representation and regulation. The vision of the next century offered by the author combines security of income and representation without moralistic state control, where the highest priority is given to people's right to occupational security.

The book, with its numerous intelligible figures and statistical tables and its detailed bibliography, is lucidly written in a fluent prose style. It is a scholarly piece of work, which courageously addresses a most important social issue. The disadvantages of global labour flexibility are emphasized rationally and realistically without the kind of alarmist exaggeration that induces derision.

Even so, while agreeing with much that the author has to say, the reader might wonder how the right to occupational security can be reconciled with ongoing change and development, which many claim to be necessary to dynamic economic growth, without imposing the kind of rigidities and constraints believed not long ago to have impeded business efficiency and firms' ability to respond readily to market volatility and new technological opportunities. To endeavour to square the circle, which Standing may seem to be urging at times, is to attempt the impossible. There is no excuse for not trying to move some way towards the reforms that light his vision of the future, however; and, as history has shown, what seemed impossible yesterday may be achieved tomorrow if there is a will.

Alice Russell is lecturer in economic and social history, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Global Labour Flexibility: Seeking Distributive Justice

Author - Guy Standing
ISBN - 0 333 77314 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £55.00 and £20.50
Pages - 441

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