9th Dec 2023

UN poverty expert proposes penalising pay of 'harmful' jobs

  • Fossil fuels, pesticides, plastics and tobacco are just some of the industries cited by the report as being among those where pay should be capped (Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland)
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Wages should be based on a worker's contribution to wider society — rather than their ability to generate profit, according to a new report of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter.

"It is absurd that the jobs that are most valuable to others, especially people in poverty, such as care, charity work or health care, are among the lowest-paid, while others are paid so handsomely for the social and environmental damage they create," said De Schutter ahead of a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday (20 October).

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  • UN special rapporteur Olivier De Schutter: 'In the most labour-intensive segments of global supply chains, keeping workers poor is still seen as the source of a comparative advantage' (Photo: Wikimedia)

Fossil fuels, pesticides, plastics, and tobacco are just some industries cited by the report as being among those where pay should be capped.

"In today's job market, looking after others and the planet doesn't pay," De Schutter lamented. "Governments should draw up lists of the most socially valuable professions and pay them accordingly, while also listing the professions where pay should be capped to mitigate their harmful side effects."

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than one-in-five workers in the world lived in poverty, i.e. on less than $3.10 per day (€2.93).

At an EU level, more than 11 percent of workers were considered to be at risk of poverty in 2022, which means that their income was below 60 percent of the median wage in their country.

The problem existed long before the pandemic, but the high rate of inflation, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, has made it even more difficult for these wages to be considered a living wage, especially in cases where they have not been adjusted to the rising cost-of-living.

Worse still, in sectors such as food production, transport, cleaning and sanitation, workers are underpaid, and the minimum wage often does not provide a decent living. This phenomena is known as 'in-work poverty', meaning that even when people have a job, their income is not enough to keep them out of poverty.

"Low wages are driving in-work poverty, with global wage growth falling in early 2022 for the first time this century, even as corporate profits rise," De Schutter warned.

The impact has been felt more keenly by women, young people and informal workers, the report says.

Already in 2019, working women earned 73 cents for every dollar (69 cents for every euro) earned by men in high-income countries, and only 43 cents in low-income countries (41 cents for every euro).

'Keep workers poor' — a feature, not a bug

"In the most labour-intensive segments of global supply chains, keeping workers poor is still seen as the source of a comparative advantage," the UN special rapporteur said, pointing out that global value chains have thrived due to lead companies' ability to outsource production to areas with lower labour costs.

Behind these figures, De Schutter cites the decline in full-time employment contracts, the rise of new and non-standard forms of work (such as gig economy jobs) and the weakening of workers' bargaining power in recent decades.

The sharp decline in trade union membership is one of the main reason for the loss of bargaining power. In OECD countries, it fell from 30 percent of workers in 1985 to 17 percent in 2017.

There are a variety of reasons for the decline in just over 30 years, including the creation of new jobs, the rise of the self-employed and the private sector, as well as a more restrictive legal climate for trade unions in some countries, says the UN report.

On the other hand, 'casual', 'flexible' or basically temporary contracts have also increased, as well as the use of bogus self-employed to keep wages low.

"The level of the minimum wage should be regularly adapted to the cost of living in order to protect the purchasing power of the workers who depend on it," De Schutter recommended to both states and corporations.

And labour legislation should reach all workers, including undocumented migrants and those in non-standard forms of employment.

"No worker should be threatened with arrest or deportation for filing a complaint against employer abuses," the UN rapporteur added.

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