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Labour is not a commodity

Jukka Takala

When we think of poverty, normally we associate it with developing countries and with a lack of things like food or clean water. Europe, however, is also affected by poverty.

Despite efforts made by the European Union and Member States to combat poverty and social exclusion, 16% of EU citizens have presently such limited resources that they cannot afford the basics, 9.3% of working age adults still live in jobless households and 8% of the employed live below the poverty line.

At-risk-of-poverty rate, total population, 2003


Source: Income Poverty in the European Union” European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions

One of the objectives and guiding principles of the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, launched on 21 January is the recognition of rights: the right of people in a situation of poverty and social exclusion to live in dignity and to play a full part in society. However, I ask myself, is poverty in itself not a denial of human rights? And I recall a something said by Mary Robinson (President of Ireland (1990-1997) and United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002)): “I am often asked what is the most serious form of human rights violations in the world today, and my reply is consistent: extreme poverty”.

The Human Development Report 2000 published by the United Nations Development Programme expressed that poverty is an infringement on freedom, and that the elimination of poverty should be addressed as a basic entitlement and a human right.

The enjoyment of one right is indivisibly inter-related to the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a “good job” in a healthy and safe work environment (as mentioned in my previous post) so I was pleased to hear Commissioner-designate László Andor during his confirmation hearing last month rebutting concerns that worker’s health and safety is a burden for companies. He said policymakers should rather see it as an investment. "I am an economist, but I don't see labour as a commodity. It is about the livelihood of people”.

This clear reference to one of the fundamental principles of the ILO Declaration of PhiladelphiaLabour is not a commodity”, brings to my mind Zafar Shaheed’s presentation “ A rights-based approach to poverty reduction ” which highlights the need to expand the notion of poverty beyond income and consumption to include other elements of well-being such as education, health, etc.

Confucius said that already the risk of poverty is serious: “Insecurity is worse than poverty”. Insecurity equals exposure to risks and limited or no capacity to cope and limited or no capacity to recover ( Guy Standing. “Beyond the new paternalism). We have such a risk with us now.

Undoubtedly in 2010 and beyond we will still suffer from the negative consequences of the 2008 economic and financial crisis with regard to growth and employment in the EU. Nevertheless, during this European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, I invite you to reflect on another fundamental principle of the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia: “Poverty anywhere is a danger to prosperity everywhere”.

This is a joint contribution by Kate Palmer and Jukka Takala