More democracy, less market, more environmental recovery

by Guest Editor Dr Martin Nicol

In May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic passed its first peak in Europe, over 5,000 researchers at more than 700 universities worldwide put their name to the opinion-piece printed below. It was written by three scholars: Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Méda, and Julie Battilana and published on 16 May in 41 newspapers in 36 countries. The focus is on “what we are learning from this pandemic around the specific issue of work”.[1] Read again what they had to say. It is more relevant than ever, but can it be universally applied? The Institute for African Alternative (IFAA) looks at the African context and raises some questions. However, although translated into 27 languages, the opinion piece is not attuned to the circumstances of every country. Characteristics of European countries and the USA are mentioned in a way that invites one to imagine perspectives from other market economies. This editorial is aimed to stimulate debate to take this opinion piece further. Also read the article by Ari Sitas in this issue of New Agenda in which he tackles similar issues.

 Work: democratize, decommodify, remediate

“Working humans are so much more than “resources.” This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis. Caring for the sick; delivering food, medication, and other essentials; clearing away our waste; stocking the shelves and running the registers in our grocery stores – the people who have kept life going through the Covid-19 pandemic are living proof that work cannot be reduced to a mere commodity. Human health and the care of the most vulnerable cannot be governed by market forces alone. If we leave these things solely to the market, we run the risk of exacerbating inequalities to the point of forfeiting the very lives of the least advantaged. How to avoid this unacceptable situation? By involving employees in decisions relating to their lives and futures in the workplace – by democratizing firms. By decommodifying work – by collectively guaranteeing useful employment to all. As we face the monstrous risk of pandemic and environmental collapse, making these strategic changes would allow us to ensure the dignity of all citizens while marshalling the collective strength and effort we need to preserve our life together on this planet.

“Why democratize? Every morning, men and women, especially members of racialised communities, migrants and informal economy workers, rise to serve those among us who are able to remain under quarantine. They keep watch through the night. The dignity of their jobs needs no other explanation than that eloquently simple term, ‘essential worker.’ That term also reveals a key fact that capitalism has always sought to render invisible with another term, ‘human resource’. Human beings are not one resource among many. Without labour investors, there would be no production, no services, no businesses at all.

“Every morning, quarantined men and women rise in their homes to fulfil from afar the missions of the organizations for which they work. They work into the night. To those who believe that employees cannot be trusted to do their jobs without supervision, that workers require surveillance and external discipline, these men and women are proving the contrary. They are demonstrating, day and night, that workers are not one type of stakeholder among many: they hold the keys to their employers’ success. They are the core constituency of the firm, but are, nonetheless, mostly excluded from participating in the government of their workplaces – a right monopolized by capital investors.

“To the question of how firms and how society as a whole might recognize the contributions of their employees in times of crisis, democracy is the answer. Certainly, we must close the yawning chasm of income inequality and raise the income floor – but that alone is not enough. After the two World Wars, women’s undeniable contribution to society helped win them the right to vote. By the same token, it is time to enfranchise workers.

“Representation of labour investors in the workplace has existed in Europe since the close of WWII, through institutions known as Work Councils. Yet, these representative bodies have a weak voice at best in the government of firms, and are subordinate to the choices of the executive management teams appointed by shareholders. They have been unable to stop or even slow the relentless momentum of self-serving capital accumulation, ever more powerful in its destruction of our environment. These bodies should now be granted similar rights to those exercised by boards. To do so, firm governments (that is, top management) could be required to obtain double majority approval, from chambers representing workers as well as shareholders. In Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, different forms of codetermination (mitbestimmung) put in place progressively after WWII were a crucial step toward giving a voice to workers – but they are still insufficient to create actual citizenship in firms. Even in the United States, where worker organizing and union rights have been considerably suppressed, there is now a growing call to give labour investors the right to elect representatives with a supermajority within boards. Issues such as the choice of a CEO, setting major strategies, and profit distribution are too important to be left to shareholders alone. A personal investment of labour; that is, of one’s mind and body, one’s health – one’s very life – ought to come with the collective right to validate or veto these decisions.

“Why decommodify? This crisis also shows that work must not be treated as a commodity, that market mechanisms alone cannot be left in charge of the choices that affect our communities most deeply. For years now, jobs and supplies in the health sector have been subject to the guiding principle of profitability; today, the pandemic is revealing the extent to which this principle has led us astray. Certain strategic and collective needs must simply be made immune to such considerations. The rising body count across the globe is a terrible reminder that some things must never be treated as commodities. Those who continue arguing to the contrary are imperilling us with their dangerous ideology. Profitability is an intolerable yardstick when it comes to our health and our life on this planet.

“Decommodifying work means preserving certain sectors from the laws of the so-called “free market;” it also means ensuring that all people have access to work and the dignity it brings. One way to do this is with the creation of a Job Guarantee. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. A Job Guarantee would not only offer each person access to work that allows them to live with dignity, it would also provide a crucial boost to our collective capability to meet the many pressing social and environmental challenges we currently face. Guaranteed employment would allow governments, working through local communities, to provide dignified work while contributing to the immense effort of fighting environmental collapse. Across the globe, as unemployment skyrockets, job guarantee programs can play a crucial role in assuring the social, economic, and environmental stability of our democratic societies.

“Environmental remediation. We should not react now with the same innocence as in 2008, when we responded to the economic crisis with an unconditional bailout [of businesses] that swelled public debt while demanding nothing in return. If our governments step in to save businesses in the current crisis, then businesses must step in as well, and meet the general basic conditions of democracy. In the name of the democratic societies they serve, and which constitute them, in the name of their responsibility to ensure our survival on this planet, our governments must make their aid to firms conditional on certain changes to their behaviours. In addition to hewing to strict environmental standards, firms must be required to fulfil certain conditions of democratic internal government. A successful transition from environmental destruction to environmental recovery and regeneration will be best led by democratically governed firms, in which the voices of those who invest their labour carry the same weight as those who invest their capital when it comes to strategic decisions. We have had more than enough time to see what happens when labour, the planet, and capital gains are placed in the balance under the current system: labour and the planet always lose.

… when labour, the planet, and profits of capital are placed in the balance under the current system: labour and the planet always lose.

“Thanks to research from the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering[2]  we know that “achievable design changes” could reduce global energy consumption by 73%. But … those changes are labour intensive, and require choices that are often costlier over the short term. So long as firms are run in ways that seek to maximize profit for their capital investors alone, and in a world where energy is cheap, why make these changes? Despite the challenges of this transition, certain socially-minded or cooperatively run businesses – pursuing hybrid goals that take financial, social, and environmental considerations into account, and developing democratic internal governments – have already shown the potential of such positive impact.

“Let us fool ourselves no longer: left to their own devices, most capital investors will not care for the dignity of labour investors; nor will they lead the fight against environmental catastrophe. Another option is available. Democratize firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet.[3]


The opinion piece bore the signatures of intellectual icon Naom Chomsky and academic rock-stars such as Thomas Piketty, Nancy Fraser, Susan Neiman, Chantal Mouffe, Saskia Sassen, Guy Standing, Gabriel Zucman, Ha-Joon Chang, and Dani Rodrik (a member of President Ramaphosa’s Economic Advisory Council. [4]) South African signatories (you can see them all on the website) include Jeremy Cronin, Elaine Unterhalter and Melanie Walker.


Comment from the New Agenda guest editor, Dr Martin Nicol

In South Africa, democratising workplaces was a missed opportunity when the Labour Relations Act was negotiated at Nedlac in 1994/5. The Act tried to introduce ’Workplace Forums’, but these threatened to undermine existing shop steward councils, and the provision was rejected by unions. The Workplace Forum/codetermination aspects of the LRA fell into disuse from the outset.[5]

The right to work is not part of the Bill of Rights in the SA Constitution. The Freedom Charter – ANC policy – states “The state shall recognise the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full unemployment benefits”. Free choice of employment is guaranteed.[6]

Just and favourable conditions of work are not guaranteed in the Constitution, but are open to negotiation through collective bargaining – in principle.[7] Protection against unemployment is limited.[8] The labour market in South Africa reflects and re-inforces inequality.


In a post-COVID-19 economy, people are not all going back to the jobs they had before. The shape of this economy has been up for speculation since the severity of the disease – and the lack of effective treatment – became apparent.

In mid-April 2020, 50 African intellectuals co-signed a call “to mobilize the intelligence, resources and creativity of Africans to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic”. While focused on immediate health priorities, the call also looked to the future. In the medium term, Africa will continue to be vulnerable to external shocks if it does not find a structural response to its development challenges.

“The urgent tasks for Africa are the local production of quality health services, the local processing of raw materials to create value and employment, and productive base diversification.”

“We must set an optimistic course….Another Africa is possible as is another humanity in which compassion, empathy, equity and solidarity would define societies. What might have seemed like a utopia has now entered the realm of the possible. … “Let us dare to remain confident in the future or in ourselves. Let us dare to fight together against the spread of COVID-19, let us dare to defeat together the global precariat[9] created by the pandemic.

“Yes, Africa will defeat the coronavirus and will not collapse.

The opinion piece could be a springboard for imagining a re-calibrated South Africa, that really builds a resilient public health system, invests in relieving poverty, ensures a just transition to a low-carbon, wage-led, sustainable and equitable economy that tackles inequality, racism and xenophobia.

New Agenda welcomes comments from readers on the opinion piece and the issues it raises.


[1] Ferreras, I.; Battilana, J.; and Méda, D. (2020) Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate. 16 May. https://democratizingwork.org (accessed 17 May 2020). “The three [authors] share an abiding interest in democratic and sustainable ways of working and organizing that diverge from the model of shareholder value maximization.” Dutch title translation: “Arbeid: Meer Democratie, Minder Markt, Meer Milieuherstel”

[2] Cullen, Allwood, and Borgstein, Envir. Sci. & Tech. 2011 45, 1711–1718.

[3] Translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot  Source: https://democratizingwork.org/

[4] The Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC) was appointed in September 2019. <http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/press-statements/president-appoints-economic-advisory-council&gt;

[5] Researchers into the Nedlac Workplace Challenge project reported examples of general union policy opposition to workplace cooperation. Dickinson, D. (2005) Beyond Marshmallow Mountain page 191in Webster, E. and Von Holdt, K. (2005) Beyond the Apartheid Workplace. UKZN Press. See Workplace Forums: Can they tame management? Karl von Holdt SA Labour Bulletin 19(1) 1995. 31-34.

[6] Section 22 of the Constitution 1996 (Bill of Rights)

[7] Section 13 of the Constitution 1996 (Bill of Rights), says “No one may be subject to slavery, servitude of forced labour.” Legislation and legal precedent regulate basic conditions of work and health and safety at work.

[8] Legislation provides insurance for employed contributors to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), but unemployed people – except those eligible for social grants (mainly the aged and people with disabilities) – are not protected against unemployment to any meaningful degree. [Indigent households do not have to pay property rates and have rights under the Constitution to minimal amounts of water and electricity and to housing where this is within the capacity of the state.]

[9] Precariat (the precariat) people whose employment and income are insecure, especially when considered as a class (OED)

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