in Context
November 4, 2020

“Working humans are so much more than ‚resources‘. This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis.“ The worldwide political call of several thousand scientists who are taking the corona pandemic as an occasion to demand changes in the world of work begins with these words. The initiators argue for a „democratization“, „decommodification“ and „remediation“ of work by: 1. giving work councils the same voting rights as supervisory boards, 2. distributing and organizing work not exclusively as a commodity and via market mechanisms, but by creating a job guarantee, and 3. implementing these goals in line with a „Green Deal“ that takes into account the current ecological challenges. Depending on the understanding of democracy that underpins these demands and what exactly is meant by decommodification, the transformation of the world of work is less or more profound. As part of our series of events “In Context” discussed the arguments behind these demands with three of the main initiators of this call – Neera Chandhoke, Isabelle Ferreras and Lisa Herzog.

The list of problems and contradictions that the corona pandemic has made visible in the current world of work is long. First of all, the pandemic has shown that it is difficult to speak of world of work at all. On the one hand, there is the relatively protected world of highly qualified employment, which largely corresponds to the normative standards of modern working societies. On the other hand, there is the world of underpaid, precarious work, which runs counter to these standards. The boundaries of these different worlds are largely determined by the political and social inequalities that run along the lines of class, race and gender. In the pandemic, it is precisely the underpaid and precarious fields of activity that have proven to be „systemically relevant“. Furthermore, the pandemic has made visible how strongly western industrial nations are dependent on workers and products from countries whose citizens are simultaneously denied legal migration and access to national labor rights. How far must the transformation of labor relations and their institutions go to enable a more just distribution and organization of work? Do we simply need more effective political means to enforce the normative standards already recognized? Or should we question the understanding of work that shapes our normative standards and labor institutions?


Neera Chandhoke is National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and was formerly Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi. In her last book Rethinking Pluralism, Secularism and Tolerance. Anxieties of Coexistence (2019) Chandhoke examines how people of different languages, religions and ethics live together with a degree of civility, dignity and mutual respect.

Isabelle Ferreras is a sociologist and political scientist and Professor at the University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium). In her book Firms as Political Entities. Saving Democracy through Economic Bicameralism (2017) Ferreras suggests to organize firms in a “bicameral” structure that grants the same rights to workers as the ones held by capital investors.

Lisa Herzog is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics of the University of Groningen. In her book Die Rettung der Arbeit. Ein politischer Aufruf (2019) Herzog argues for a political shaping of the present and future world of work that sees work as an essential source of social integration.


Background material: Isabelle Ferreras and Lisa Herzog introduce the initiative #DemocratizingWork: