07
Jul

Economics and doomed jobs

There are a great many people in this world — particularly in third-world countries — that spend their entire lives performing jobs that are dangerous, labour-intensive, unhealthy, and altogether better-suited for machines. I've often heard the argument that "it's better that they do what they do, than that they have no job at all". Examples of such jobs include labouring in textile sweatshops, packaging raw meat in processing plants, taking care of dangerous and disease-prone animals, and working in mines with atrocious conditions and poisonous fumes.

After visiting the hellish mines of Potosí in Bolivia, I disagree with the "better than no job at all" argument more strongly than ever. I'm now 100% convinced that it's better for jobs as atrocious as this to disappear from the face of the Earth; and that it's better for those affected to become unemployed and to face economic hardship in the short-term, while eventually finding newer and better jobs; than to continue in their doomed and unpleasant occupations forever.

As far as I've been able to tell so far, most people in this world seem to believe that it's better for really unpleasant jobs to exist, than for all the people performing them to be unemployed. In fact, more than anyone else, the majority of people performing these jobs believe this (apparently) logical rhetoric. Most people believe it, because it is very simple, and on the surface it does make sense. Yes, a lot of people have jobs that are barely fit for humans to perform. Yes, it affects their health and the health of their children. Yes, they get paid peanuts for it, and they're being exploited. But then again, they have little or no education, and there are almost no other jobs available in their area. And it's all they know. Isn't it better that they're at least able to put food on the table, and to feed their family, than that they're able to do nothing at all?

But the thing is, if there's one thing that the past 200 years of industrial progress have shown us, it's that replacing manual-labour human-performed jobs with machines does not destroy employment opportunities. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sure, it makes a lot of people unemployed and angry in the short-term. But in the long-term, it creates a lot of newer and much better jobs. Jobs that foster education, good working conditions, and higher levels of skill and innovation. Jobs that are not ridiculously dangerous and unpleasant. Jobs that are fit for intelligent, capable 21st-century human beings to get involved in.

Take the textile industry, for example. Originally, all clothing was made by hand, by artisans such as weavers, sewing people, and knitters. These days, much of the time those jobs are performed by machines, and the human occupations that used to exist for them are largely obsolete. However, there are now new jobs. There are people who perform maintenance work on the weaving machines, and on the sewing machines. There are people who design new ways of making the weaving machines and the sewing machines work better. There are people who consult with the public, on what they'd like to see done better in the textile industry, and on what they'd be willing to pay more for if it was done to a higher calibre. There are an endless number of newer and better jobs, that have sprung up as a result of the lower jobs changing from human labour to automated mechanisation.

And the other economic issue that the Potosí experience has brought to my attention, is that of small ventures vs. big companies. Now, this is another one where a lot of people are not going to be on my side. The classic argument is that it's a real shame that the single-man or the family-run business is being swallowed up, by the beast that is the multi-national corporation. In the old days, people say, a man was able to earn an honest living; and he was able to really create an enterprise of his own, and to reap the rewards of working for himself. These days, everyone has sold their soul to big corporations; and the corporation owns everything, while exploiting the people at the bottom, and only giving each of them the measliest pittance of a salary that it can get away with.

For some industries, I agree that this really is a shame. For many of the industries that humans can, and have, performed better and more skilfully in small-group enterprises for thousands of years — such as medicine, sport, literature, and most especially music — the big corporation has definitely done more harm than good. But for the industries that are built on mechanisation, and that require large amounts of investment and organisation — such as transportation, modern agriculture, and mining — I've now seen it being done with the big corporation (in Western countries, such as Australia), and without the big corporation (in third-world countries, such as Bolivia). And it's clear that the big corporation is actually needed, if the operation is to be carried out with any degree of planning, safety, or efficiency.

The sad fact is that big ventures require big organisations behind them. Mining is a big venture: it involves huge amounts of raw material, machinery, personnel, transportation, land, and money. It is, by its very nature, an unsustainable and an environmentally destructive venture, and as such is is "bad": but it is also necessary, in order for the products and the goods of our modern world to be produced; and as such, I'm sorry to say that it's not going away any time soon. And so, bearing that in mind, I'd rather see mining done "right" — by big corporations, that know what they're doing — than done "wrong", by 400 co-operatives that squabble and compete, and that get very little done, while also doing nothing to improve the lives or the jobs of their people.

This is why I now look at "doomed jobs" and "doomed little-man ventures" in many industries, and instead of feeling sorry for their inevitable demise and hardship, I instead believe that their doom is ultimately for the best. In due course, all those unemployed labourers will, inevitably, move up in the world, and will be able to contribute to humanity in bigger and more meaningful ways, while having a more pleasant and a more fulfilling life. And, in due course, the corporate-run ventures will actually be more organised and more beneficial for everyone, than a gaggle of individually-run ventures could ever possibly be.

Of course, the forced change of occupation will be rejected by some; it will be unattainable for others; and it will come at a high cost for all. And naturally, the corporations will cut corners and will exploit the people at the bottom, unless (and, in many cases, even when) subject to the most rigorous of government regulations and union pressures. But ultimately, for modern and industrialised fields of work, it's the only way.

Because of all this, I look forward to the day when the mountain of Cerro Rico in Bolivia comes crashing down, and when the miners of Potosí (most of whom hopefully will not get killed by the mountain collapsing) are left wondering what the hell to do with their lives. The day that this happens, will be the day that those people stop spending their lives doing work that's barely fit for cattle, and start finding other jobs, that are more appropriate for adult human beings with a brain and a decent amount of common sense.

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17
Oct
2008

regarding the textile industry comment : many people are supporting the local craft industries where hand made items are made. they often are more expensive though are more unique too than machine made mass-produced wares. it's important to support these also to keep local cultures alive and to assist some of the minorities eg women in 'developing' countries. even in the West there's a shift taking place. check out etsy.com - just one example where hand crafted goods in the West are sold. their site is doing well and many of the contributers gave up jobs and are earning a living from craft/art. if more people valued the time/effort put into locally, hand-made goods there could be an even larger global shift away from mass produced goods.

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