Published: 27/04/2006

The millions of French workers and youth who took to the streets in growing numbers over recent months captured the sympathy and imagination of working people around the world for good reason. Their tenacious mobilization against legislation which would have made it possible for employers to fire newly hired workers without formal justification was correctly seen as a stand against the rampant insecurity which has invaded workplaces over the past two decades.

Workers everywhere – in factories, offices, fields and services, from the smallest enterprise to the global TNCs – have not only lived with grotesquely high levels of unemployment over two decades of “jobless growth”. The jobs that remain are increasingly unstable, insecure and precarious. Productive investment is shrinking as a percentage of social wealth, as rising profits feed “shareholder value” and jobs go up in financial smoke. Voracious private equity and hedge funds gobble up companies only in order to gut payrolls and recycle them on a financial carousel that effectively destroys them as places of employment. Agriculture no longer feeds people, it feeds futures markets, equity and hedge funds.

Job creation remains elusive, but there is no lack of new schemes for outsourcing, casualizing, co-packing and otherwise destroying permanent work. TNCs have taken the lead in shifting definitions of what is “core” and what is not, giving rise to vast systems of subcontracting in which a growing army of workers produce, pack, transport and market the products of the leading companies but are no longer employed by them. Outsourcing has become so predominant at Nestlé, for example, that in Indonesia what was formerly called the outsourcing department has had to change its name to reflect the proliferation of new arrangements. The common denominator in all of these schemes is precariousness. The insecurity of the sweatshop has captured the mainstream.

The corporate appetite for non-permanent employment today knows no bounds. Some 8.5 million workers in Korea are employed on “temporary” contracts out of a workforce of 15 million. The government and employers continue to press for new legislation to further widen the use of casual labour. Precarious work is not only growing in manufacturing and services. Permanent jobs are a rapidly vanishing species in agriculture, the world’s largest employer.

Workers around the world continue to fight the casualization of work through a variety of means, but they are fighting a rearguard, guerilla war as long as action is confined to enterprise level. The strikes and demonstrations in France – and the ongoing mobilization in Korea – have succeeded in blocking new laws seeking to further casualize employment relations. They have shown that resistance is possible on a national level. These important victories must now be given political and industrial coherence to roll back the global expansion of precarious employment.

Work remains the ultimate source of social wealth, but we have entered a phase in which job destruction rather than job creation is the quickest route to profit. May Day 2006 should be the occasion for unions everywhere to announce the struggle for decent, permanent work for all as the labour movements’ number one priority.