C Gopinath

What the French protests teach us about economic systems

C Gopinath | Updated on January 05, 2020 Published on January 05, 2020

As customers get used to using the machines, workers fear they would gradually be replaced   -  Bloomberg

The opposition against the advent of technology which can potentially replace human labour, brings to light that economics prefers profitability rather than humanity

The French make you sit up and question your assumptions. I am not referring to the 1789 revolution when they overthrew a queen who wanted her people who had no bread to eat cake instead. Although Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say that, it aptly captures the insouciance of the ruling elite.

The French public has been focussed on what is best for labour rather than capital. They also don’t like the rich and American capitalists would snidely remark that the French would like everyone to remain poor.

Thus, French laws severely restrict the ease with which employers can lay off their workers. The legal working week is 35 hours. Over 95 per cent employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements, even in non-unionised industries; employee delegates or works councils have an important voice in the running of the company, and so on.

All this has resulted in France often being cited as a place where it is difficult to do business. President Emmanuel Macron has made it his mission to change that, and hence invited a series of protests. His current target is the pensions system, that burdens businesses with added costs.

Since 2018, the French ‘yellow vest’ movement has argued for economic justice. Starting with protests against rising fuel prices and high cost of living, it has expanded more broadly against stagnant wages and falling living standards. It has garnered a wide spectrum of support from both rural and urban areas. Some of the protests have resulted in the destruction of public property and disrupted normal life. In April 2019, when the famous Notre Dame cathedral was severely damaged by fire, billionaires pledged millions towards its repairs. The ‘yellow vests’ rightly wondered why the rich were prepared to contribute to fixing the cathedral but ignored the economic inequality against which the former were protesting.

Job insecurity

And now, there is something else that is bothering the French.

French labour laws generally prohibit shops from employing workers after 1 pm on Sundays, since it is a day of rest for workers and their families. To compete with e-commerce, which operates on a 24-hour basis, some French supermarkets have installed self-checkout machines so the store can remain open even after the cashiers have gone home.

You would think this is an excellent way to use technology and meet consumer needs without violating labour laws. But the workers and their unions are worried that this is the thin edge of the wedge. As customers get used to using the machines, they fear these machines would gradually replace cashiers and thus reduce job positions available.

One continent over, in South Africa, unemployment is estimated at 29 per cent. The business lobby recently managed to get a court order to stop the planned strike of the bank employees’ union which was protesting the plans of several banks to reduce thousands of staff since ATMs/electronic banking was doing the job.

Progress, but at what cost?

Online banking and self-service checkouts have been around for a while, and if the South Africans and French are beginning to express their concerns, it is not a reaction to a ‘new’ system but the logic of the system that we have accepted. That logic believes that an economic system should be oriented towards productivity and profitability, rather than towards the humanity of its people.

Mahatma Gandhi thought so too, and was laughed at by his successors. Of course, apart from the morality of the issues, the French and South Africans will be told that in our globalised society, you cannot swim against the tide. You cannot stop the progress of technology.

Meanwhile, let’s hope there are some economists and policy specialists figuring out how we would find decent work for all the people in this world displaced by ‘progress’, and give them some dignity of labour to earn a livelihood.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on January 05, 2020
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