Conor Cradden 1st June 2018

The latest draft of the World Bank’s working draft of its 2019 World Development Report (‘The Changing Nature of Work’) was posted on the 25th of May. Thankfully some of the worst of the errors and distortions in the April 20th draft have been abandoned. I have no idea if they were dropped in response to my post criticising the earlier draft, but I reckon I’m going to claim the credit anyway. Go me! Unfortunately many of the other problems remain. The overall anti-regulatory thrust of the paper certainly has not changed one iota.

The authors would probably argue that they’re arguing for deregulation of business at the same time as the development of enhanced social protections systems but really, who are they trying to kid? They’re telling employers exactly what they want to hear, which is that it’s not up to employers to be fair. They just do what the market says and the state will take up the slack. This not only ignores the very low likelihood that states can or will step in, but also the enormous benefit—to workers, businesses and society as a whole—of involving workers in decision-making at work.

What’s gone?

The May 25th draft drops the claim that “Technology adoption is negatively associated with the strictness of labor regulations”. In the earlier version this was referenced to a paper that actually found that the association between regulation and technology use varied with the type of regulation. High minimum wages were positively associated with digital technology use.

Also dropped is the reference to France’s requirement for businesses with more than 49 employees to have a joint safety and health committee. In the earlier draft this was given as an example of ‘burdensome’ regulation in the context of a claim that ‘business-friendly’ regulation is associated with lower levels of poverty. The latter claim remains, but we are at least not being asked to accept that a requirement for employers to talk to workers about how to improve safety is a burdensome regulation.

The incorrect claim that “labor regulations apply only to formal work” has been replaced with “most governments are unable to regulate a substantial part of the economy” (para 337 of May 25th draft). On the other hand, the equally incorrect claim that labour regulations “cover few, only formal workers whose labor is observed, regulated and taxed by the state” is left unchanged.

Finally, the ludicrous argument that there is a need to ‘level the playfield’ in favour of businesses is gone. We should be thankful for small mercies I suppose, but the claim that minimum wages and the regulation of firing are economically damaging remains unchanged.

What’s still there?

The May 25th draft maintains its bizarre attempt to argue that we have Napoleon to blame for burdensome and ‘ill fitting’ labour regulation in emerging economies. It still tries to argue that pension schemes jointly funded by workers and employers are economically counterproductive on the basis of a single paper that also reports evidence that the introduction of this type of pension in Ethiopia has had significant positive effects. It still tries to argue that ‘heavier’ regulations are a cause of informal employment on the basis of one out-of-date comparative report that looked only at the procedural aspects of starting a business.

Where to now?

The draft report is still a work in progress, but none of the changes made since the April 20th draft have made any real difference—it is still a shoddy and potentially dangerous piece of work. At this stage there seems little prospect of it being significantly improved. I’ve heard people in other international organizations express shock and bemusement that the Bank could release such an embarassingly bad paper as a flagship report. The tragedy of it is that it would be really useful to have a serious and properly informed discussion about the topics that it raises. It is long past time that we talked about the balance between the resposibilities of the state, of businesses, of trade unions and of individuals. There is an obvious need to think critically about existing models, particularly about how to make labour rights effective for non-standard and informal sector workers. But WDR2019 is not shaping up to be a useful contribution to that discussion.


Conor Cradden    30 April 2018

I’ve just read the April 20th draft of the 2019 World Development Report on The Changing Nature of Work. Duncan Green of Oxfam has already given a useful overall assessment of an earlier draft that you can read here. Duncan picks up in particular on the report’s absolute neglect of questions of power and its rather magical thinking about what might be possible in terms of the creation of social safety nets. An even more critical analysis is posted here by the ITUC’s Peter Bakvis, a longtime World Bank watcher. Peter doesn’t mince his words on the topic of the report’s attitude to labour regulation, but I think he’s still being too diplomatic.

I’ve already taken issue with the Bank’s overall approach based on a look at the concept note that was released in February. Among the other questions I raised in that piece was why the bank has chosen to focus on work and employment in 2019. They know perfectly well that next year is the International Labour Organization’s 100th anniversary and that it will be producing a major report on the future of work. Given that the raison d’être of the ILO is to agree international law on labour and employment, producing a report whose main aim is to attack labour regulation adds insult to injury. What’s even more insulting is that the argument in the report is so breathtakingly bad. The World Bank has a poor record when it comes to work and employment, but this is a new low. Having produced a report that is intellectually dishonest where it is not simply incompetent, the authors have managed the extraordinary feat of rolling their tanks onto the ILO’s lawn only to fire off a series of squibs that are not so much damp as soaking wet.

It’s hard to get into the detail of what the authors do wrong without very quickly running into the thousands of words, so this sort of analysis is not well-suited to a social media format. The short version below is extremely compressed and doesn’t give examples of how the authors do what they do. This is kind of important—a lot of what I want to highlight is the inherent dishonesty of the method—so please take a look at the long version if you can.


The World Bank has just released a ‘concept note’ for its 2019 World Development Report (WDR), which is going to be about ‘The Changing Nature of Work’. The WDR is the Bank’s flagship research and policy publication. Every year it chooses some development-related topic and produces what’s intended to be a headline-grabbing report on it. This has been going on since 1978. Topics have included everything from conflict to climate change to education to finance. Work is one of the few subjects to have been a theme of the WDR more than once. Unfortunately, it’s also the subject about which the Bank is most frequently on the wrong side of the argument.


World Bank President Jim Kim


dialogThe paper below has been submitted for open discussion by members and friends of the New Unionism Network1. Our conclusions will be presented to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on or before 30th April 2018, in the run up to their centenary ‘Future of Work’ project. In order to join the discussion we suggest you look at this ILO paper first (download). In particular, we are concerned with Chapter 5: The Governance of Work. What do you think? We have a draft reply below and we invite you to share your feedback, thoughts and/or questions. Because many of you work directly with the ILO, at local or global level, our discussion will take place with in an anonymised meeting room here:


Solidarity and the gig economy

by Peter Hall-Jones
for the New Unionism Network

Gig economyIt’s a credit to the tireless efforts of Professor Guy Standing that the word ‘precariat’ has made its way into most English dictionaries. In case you’re not up to speed (and who is these days?) it means: “the class of people who are poor and do not have secure jobs” (Cambridge Dictionary). Sure, there has been a bit of debate around whether this group really constitutes a separate ‘class’, but nobody disputes that the phenomenon itself is very real.

Almost 40% of young workers in the OECD are in non-standard work, such as contract or temporary work, or involuntary part-time employment (more). At global level more than 60% of workers, predominantly women, are in temporary, part-time or short-term jobs in which wages are falling (ILO 2015).  And of the top 20 global employers in 2017, five are outsourcing and ‘workforce solutions’ companies (more).

In the twenty-first century Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’ just doesn’t work as an anthem anymore.

Naturally, the English language being what it is, we have a range of apolitical synonyms for the word ‘precariat’. Workers who survive by performing a series of temporary jobs, and/or juggle bits and pieces of contract work, are called ‘casuals’ or ‘freelancers’ or even ‘micro-entrepreneurs’. Their stamping ground is ‘the gig economy’. It’s all very rock’n’roll. Being your own boss, meeting endless new people, wide horizons, flexible hours, maximum variety… what’s not to like? In fact, there is a lot of research to suggest that the majority of such independent workers – in the USA and Europe at least – have ‘chosen’ to work this way (eg McKinsey Global 2016).

At this point you might like to reflect for a moment upon the use of the word ‘choice’ in industrial relations. I was one of a generation who ‘chose’ to go on the dole in New Zealand in the 1980s. In reality, the employment market had collapsed around our ears. There were no jobs for us to go to. The only real choice we had was whether or not to interpret our situation in a cheerful light.

Anyway, choice or no choice, all this is about to change.


safespace anonymous email and web forumsBestu oskir from Iceland — the Switzerland of data! That’s where you’ll find safeSpace, an anonymized communication tool created by volunteers from the New Unionism Network. It’s an online facility where workers can discuss issues without fear of being identified, and where they can meet securely with union organizers and/or colleagues from other countries. safeSpace also provides email addresses which have been stripped of any identifying information — a handy tool for whistleblowers and those who want to bring attention to crap they are witnessing. Unlike anything we’ve done before this is a user-pays service, but there wasn’t any way we could get the project off the ground otherwise. We’re sticking to our non-profit roots by offering free accounts to union organizers in a series of ultra-repressive regimes; initially Algeria, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, North Korea, Paraguay and Somalia.

The safeSpace system is still in Beta, and we’ve got a few details to iron out, so we’re offering folks a 50% discount until the end of 2017. Financial members of the New Unionism Network will continue to get a discount after that. If you’d like to know more about the project check out the FAQ here.

signs“We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organized workers’ associations… We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade…”

So declared the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1848 election manifesto. Prior to this, demands for workplace democracy had been largely the preserve of liberal democrats such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey. Then, soon afterwards, this became a key platform for many socialists. Then syndicalists and trade unionists chimed in, supported by various left intellectuals. Endless variations were developed upon the basic theme, until: “Taken together, the socialist tradition of workers’ democracy was one of the driving forces of political developments in the nineteenth and twentieth century.” This is the view of network member Markus Pausch, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology based in Austria, in his recent paper “Workplace Democracy: From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back” (2014).

Then something kind of weird happened. As Pausch describes it: “In the 1990s, the idea was co-opted by organizational development and management studies and underwent a change: Workplace democracy, then mostly operationalized as limited participation, became a managerial tool that should help to increase employees’ motivation and efficiency and thereby contribute to entrepreneurial success”. (more…)