The Declaration of Philadelphia adopted on 10 May 1944, reaffirmed and defined the aims and purposes of the International Labour Organization (ILO) established in 1919. The very first article declares:
(a) labour is not a commodity;
The Declaration came at an important historical juncture, marking the beginning of the end of colonialism for many countries struggling for independence. In many newly independent countries the remnants of colonialism would continue in language, education, law, borders, land ownership, as well as structures of governance. Colonial practices would also continue in various forms of racism, discrimination, slavery, and bonded labour, as well as grand corruption. (1)
One of the practices that would also continue to flourish is the system of piece-rate wages and quotas, designed to compel workers to work harder to produce more. Understood in modern industry as a system of rewards and incentives – and in the current gig economy and tech world as opportunity and self-employed privilege – the piece-rate wage system is rooted in labour discipline. It is designed to compel workers; to extract more from workers.
The effectiveness of this system is that it appears as though workers are working harder to extract more from themselves. So the thinking goes, workers are pushing themselves to meet targets and quotas, producing more and more pieces of whatever the piece-rate wages are designed to produce. The compulsion to do this is justified by employers as nurturing the inherent competitiveness of humans, often misusing Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” to justify this. (2)
For hundreds of millions of workers this compulsion – this relentless pressure – has not changed. The pressure exerted by piece-rate wages and quotas stems not from an internal desire to compete, but merely to survive. This occurs because workers and their families are denied both a guaranteed living wage and the social protection needed to ensure access to decent health, education, housing and food & nutrition, and a better quality of life. As we have explained elsewhere, piece-rate wages and quotas are a key driver of child labour.
The pressure created by piece-rate wages and quotas has a devastating impact on workers’ health.
Under the pressure of piece-rates, quotas or targets, workers work beyond their physical limitations. Excessive workloads and long working hours without rest or food are as common to plantation and farm workers and meat industry workers as it is to workers in luxury hotels and fast food chains around the world. Quotas, targets and piece-rates drive workers to work longer than they physically should. Their brains and nervous system tell them to stop working and rest. Their body sends repeated signals (i.e. pain). Quotas tell them to ignore all this and keep going. (3)
The time needed to meet quotas or earn enough wages through piece-rates becomes critical. It is so critical that workers must forgo rest breaks, meal breaks and toilet breaks, and push themselves beyond their physical limits. Indeed, in an effort not to lose time and reach their targets, workers are compelled to abandon occupational health and safety measures, increasing the risk to their health and to their lives. When under pressure from piece-rates or quotas, workers cannot stop to put on personal protective equipment or carefully follow safety instructions because they are losing income at that point. The greater the need for that income, the greater the risk.
Employers ignore the effects of piece-rates and quotas and instead blame workers for working unsafely. Instead of guaranteeing living wages through collective bargaining and redesigning workloads to be done safely in eight hours, employers introduce all sorts of training … and all sorts of punishment. It is a deeply disturbing irony that even the biggest companies in the world compel workers to shortcut health and safety under the pressure of piece-rates and quotas then introduce complex systems of punishment for these shortcuts.
There can be no doubt that as climate change leads to rising temperatures, there will be greater risk of heat stress or heat exhaustion and hyperthermia (4). If workers cannot stop for rest breaks to drink water, seek shade and rest now, then imagine what it will be like in the next two decades. In these conditions, the pressure of piece-rates and quotas will kill many more workers.
Ultimately it’s about fear. Fear of not earning enough or fear of losing their jobs is what compels most workers who are dependent on piece-rate wages and quotas. There is also fear of being blamed, of “letting the team down”, which generates significant mental stress. In fact, for many young workers I’ve met, fear of being blamed for not working hard enough or letting the team down outweighs their fear of losing their job. Yet for many employers it seems that this fear is the lynchpin of their modern employment practices.
Seventy-seven years after the Philadelphia Declaration, we should question why we are not making enough progress. Labour is very much a commodity and one of the factors that sustains this is the pressure of the piece-rate wage system, quotas and targets. This is pressure that relies on fear and the absence of a living wage and social protection.
Overcoming this fear and the absence of a living wage and social protection may in fact depend on the second principle declared in the Declaration of Philadelphia on 10 May 1944:
(b) freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress;
It’s time to start making progress.
Dr Muhammad Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary
- Grand corruption is corruption at the highest levels of government and/or corruption among holders of public office that undermines the fundamental rights of a people or a particular social group. See for example Transparency International’s legal definition of grand corruption.
- The concept of survival of the fittest refers to a biological concept of reproduction in a particular natural environment. “Fitness” refers to the rate of reproductive output among a specific class of genetic variants. So Darwin was referring to how some living organisms are better designed for an immediate, local environment than others and how they adapt. It has nothing to do with competition or competing. As it is used today, survival of the fittest is simply an excuse for the unfair or inhumane treatment of others, justifying why they are left behind. Obviously biologists have moved on since 1869 and scientific thinking has fundamentally changed. Corporate thinking hasn’t.
- It remains a common practice for employers in several industries to provide or encourage various kinds of “pain killers” for workers. This also dates back to colonial times when opiates were used widely as part of the work regime. It often formed payment in kind and addiction to opiates led to debt and bondage. The use of pain killers today is widespread in the poultry processing and seafood processing industries, for example, where in-house doctors or nurses are only permitted to prescribe or provide pain killers and must advise workers to keep working. Pain killers of course only kill the signals the body is sending us to stop and rest. The compulsion to keep working of course comes from the piece-rate and quota system itself.
- Hyperthermia refers to dangerously high body temperatures that threaten our health.