Labor-centered development: the change we need

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Carmel V. Abao


Labor-centered development: the change we need

Boracay shutdown. Bungled OFW rescue mission in Kuwait. Presidential signing of an executive order on contractualization unacceptable to organized labor. A common thread obviously weaves through these recent controversies: the labor-development-governance nexus.

In the Boracay case, the President’s order to “save Boracay” caused 36,000 workers to lose their jobs. In the Kuwait case, the 260,000 OFWs being urged by President Duterte to come home point to a possible immediate increase of the country’s labor statistics from 2.4 million to 2.6 million unemployed workers.

The Presidential signing of the EO, meanwhile, signals the looming erosion of the President’s image as a “strong man” capable of fulfilling all his campaign promises including the promise to end contractualization.

Certain groups have already called for the resignation of government officials involved in said labor-related controversies.

In this piece I argue that the replacement of erring, inefficient government officials, while justified, may not be sufficient to solve the labor-development-governance problem. What is needed is not just a change in government personnel but a shift in paradigms as well.

To be truly different from governments of the past, the current government must abandon its elite-centered development paradigm and work towards labor-centered development.

According to Benjamin Selwyn, senior lecturer in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and author of “Workers, State and Development in Brazil” (2012) and “Global Development Crisis” (2014), elite-centered development “conceives of the poor (including laboring classes) as human inputs into or at best as junior partners within elite-led development processes.”

The centrality of the elite, Selwyn argues, is seen in both market-led and state-led development models which view development from the perspective of capital and material wealth. Labor-centered development (LCD), on the other hand, focuses on “social wealth” or “the concept of rich social beings who identify, meet and expand their own development needs.”

Selwyn posits that the following cases can be considered as examples of LCD: shack-dweller’s movements in South Africa, the landless laborer’s movement in Brazil, unemployed worker’s movements in Argentina, and large-scale collective action by formal sector workers across East Asia.

In his view, these cases have shown that “collective actions by laboring classes can generate tangible development gains” and workers can be considered as “primary development actors.”

Still according to Selwyn, the concept of LCD is inspired by Amartya Sen’s notion of development as a process of enlarging people’s choices and freedoms. It departs from Sen’s “development as freedom” framework, however, on three counts: (i) the people are not “abstract individuals” but labor or laboring classes defined as “the growing numbers… who now depend — directly and indirectly — on the sale of their labour power for their own daily reproduction” ; (ii) the needs of the labouring classes can be met through their collective action and “not by the state on behalf of the poor” and (iii) the freedoms of the labouring classes cannot be achieved within the capitalistic system of development.

A world without the economic elite may seem unthinkable, especially in the Philippine context where development has always been driven predominantly by a few powerful families. The concept of a development centered on labor instead of the elite sounds utopian and impractical for developing countries where the elite is very influential and the laboring class is very fragmented. How exactly can development be centered on a labouring class that has an underclass within it (i.e the contractuals)?

How can national development be centered on labor when a substantial section of said labor is based overseas?

Perhaps the challenge is not so much to embrace labor-centered development as a grand narrative, rather, to use it as an approach to elevate the status of labor in both the workplace and in society. This requires the reversal of societal priorities within and beyond the workplace: regular not precarious work, higher wages not cheap labor, increased and sustainable welfare benefits not pork barrel deployment, lesser not more management prerogatives, stronger not weaker unions, a public sector that is service and task-oriented not partisan-oriented, infrastructure for commuters not private car owners, affordable public schools not inaccessible private schools, universal not market-driven health care, jobs here not abroad.

Duterte supporters may argue that the current government is exactly doing that — reversing societal priorities — and that the Duterte regime is controversial and “disruptive” precisely because it is overhauling society. The three controversies mentioned above, however, disprove such positioning. In all three cases, the needs of labor were made subordinate to government’s priority of projecting itself as a strong government. In all three cases, the negative outcomes are also highly visible: thousands of jobs actually and potentially lost, a diplomatic crisis, and, where contractualization is concerned: the status quo.

Yes, only a strong government can close Boracay for environmental concerns but should the needs of labor be deliberately dismissed or neglected in the process? Yes, only a strong government can protect and rescue OFWs in distress, but does it really need to publicize its strength in social media? Yes, only a strong government can publicly profess that it will end contractualization, but shouldn’t its actions follow its rhetoric? Why reject proposals of organized labor and privilege industry players on a policy that is supposed to address industry’s abusive labor practices?

Moreover, the current government’s economic policies are no different from those of past governments: “build build build, grow grow grow” — and such growth is simply assumed to trickle down to the masses. The development paradigm is essentially the same: equity will follow growth; ergo, there must be more incentives for capital as the drivers of growth — for only said growth can generate employment and increase incomes.

Labor-centered development, meanwhile, argues that capital will always view development in terms of where profits can be highest, not in terms of employment generation or national development. Labor-centered development thus is an alternative to capitalist development. It asserts that people cannot progress under capitalist development and that, in fact, the former suffer under the auspices of the latter.

Karl Marx, the great German philosopher, sociologist and political economist whose 200th birth anniversary we celebrate this year, already criticized this system more than a century ago. In his inaugural address to the First International in 1864, Marx declared: “It is a great fact that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864, and yet this period is unrivalled for the development of its industry and the growth of commerce.”

Who really creates the wealth of nations? Who should be enriched with the creation of the wealth of nations? As a self-proclaimed “socialist,” President Duterte should have grappled with these questions before signing that useless, misleading “anti-contractualization” executive order on Labor Day.


Carmel V. Abao is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept of the Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches political theory and international political economy.