Work, Europe and Utopia – part six by Henri Brugmans

6. Composition of the labour force

Re-reading Engels on The Condition of the Working Class in England – or the first volume of CAPITAL – produces the impression that the labour force described there is quite homogeneous. broadly speaking, it can be summed up with the words “proletariat” and “exploitation”. It is a cohesive socail group. But social history has taken a step forward since then. Many things have considerably improved; the metal worker of today is no longer one of “the damned of the earth”, a “starveling” (an undernourished or emaciated person or animal). On the other hand, we have witnessed, especially since the last war, the emergence of a sub-proletariat, which in Germany has been graced with the fine name of “Gastarbeiter”, “guest worker”. These people are most often saddled with the work that involves the greatest drudgery, filth or danger, and they live in the most underprivileged parts of town, not that anyone has put them there by force – they aren’t “ghettos” in the true sense of the word – but they have gone there to be close to their compatriots.

It is a relatively new phenomenon but one which is likely to persist. It is not restricted to any one industrial country in particular, even if, in France one sees especially North Africans and in Germany above all Turks and Yugoslavs, while in Britain immigrants from the “blacks” commonwealth take advantage of ex-colonial status. But, because of some absurd instinct, each nation experiments with “its” immigrants as if “its” case was unique. It is at least true that the European Economic Community has commissioned a series of studies on what education should be provided for the children of these more or less permanent foreigners and that the Churches have made an effort to create reception centres. That is not much, when one considers that we are dealing with a tragedy involving hundreds of millions of men, women and children, throughout Europe.

In this area, it is necessary to take a stand against two equally sterile, if contradictory, attitudes.

On the one hand, the presence of a more or less homogeneous foreign group always risks arousing racist reactions, even in countries not traditionally prone to this. The phenomenon can be compared to that of Blacks in the United States, and it is always the poor whites who display the greatest hostility: what else have they to be proud of but the colour of their skin? To associate oneself with htese movements is unworthy of an honourable man. The Queen of the Netherlands gave a timely reminder of this to her subjects on the occasion of some deplorable (deserving strong condemnation) racist incidents.

But on the other hand, it is not sufficient to protest against the mistrust, vilification (speak or write about in an abusively disparaging manner) and violence which occurs in this area. It is also necessary to ask oneself if the presence of this sub-proletariat constitutes a necessity that will become permanent and whether this is a matter for rejoicing. For it would be justifiable to conclude that the situation is profoundly unhealthy.

First and foremost for the interested parties themselves: undoubtedly they earn, here, much better salaries than they would get at home. But for just that reason many of them have no other thought but to accept miserable living conditions in order to be able to send more money “home”. Certainly, this is a source of wealth for their country of origin and a useful adjustment to the balance of payments. But obtained at how great a social cost!? In short, it is difficult to tolerate being more or less permanently uprooted.

But major difficulties also emerge for the “host” countries. Undboubtedly, it is too easy – in fact false – to say that sending the aliens home will immediately create jobs for the nationals. But it remains no less so that it is offensive to see that national workers are always exempt from a certain category of work. Unemployment hits the human being at the deepest level of his dignity and someone who becomes accustomed to it has suffered a total moral breakdown. In conclusion: for all interested parties, the current situation becomes intolerable. We must look for solutions.

On the one hand, if certain countries, especially in the South and around the Mediterranean, send a surplus of “human resources” to other countries, it is because they are suffering from chronic under-development. Those, therefore, who get worked up about the presence of the “Gastarbeiter” in our towns, ought to show an exceptional interest in everything concerning the development of these poor regions. They ought especially to insist categorically on the necessity of a European regional policy – because we know only too well to what extent such a policy has been overlooked, in the midst of a community organisation too one-sidely in favour of free trade and cautious about radical measures.

One the other hand, is it established (as many people claim) that the workers of the “rich” countries recoil(suddenly spring or flinch back in fear, horror, or disgust) from unskilled work, preferring to be unemployed than (for example) sweeping the street? We do not know the answer. But if such a state of affairs has come to pass – and it remains to be proved – this would be a serious sign of decadence, against which it would be necessary to react. A possible response to this might be a period of compulsory work for everyone, young people of both sexes. The example of the People’s Republic of China ought to be studied in this respect, but in any case, we cannot allow things to go on like this.

However, the appearance of so many foreigners in the labour market does not constitue the only profound change in the structure of our labour force. The entry of women into economic life produced another upheaval.

This phenomenon begann in the course of the First World War: especially the armament factories. But the way had been opened, and now the economic, social and finally cultural emancipation of woman constitutes a reality which could not be reversed.
It is not a matter of discrediting “the housewife” but of admitting that an entirely new category of person has entered into the process of production. Here again, we find two contrary and equally negative attitudes: one dreaming of a return to the past (“send woman back to the home and there will be no more unemployment”…) and the other believing that the whole phenomenon will proceed without difficulty without the woman taking anybody’s place. The Centre ought to discredit these two errors, by dismissing them both out of court and above all, searching for solutions both for the long term and for the transition period.
It is necessary, here, to strike a balance between the free choice of the citizens and the demands of a society in the process of change. In this context, comparisons are of utmost importance. In the U.S.S.R., the medical profession consists largely of woman: why not? But then, it is necessary that the male students of medicine know this in advance. On the other hand, the Western traveller is often shocked to see that, in “socialist” countries, the heaviest work, such as road building, is consigned to women, often elderly. Is this emancipation or progress? one can ask the question, even without going so far as resorting to a numerus clausus.
In another connection, let us have no illusions: when a woman works, it is rarely because she has chosen work as a means of human fulfilment. All too often, it is a mater, for her, of increasing a family income which, without her participation, would be too meagre. Spiritual need often takes second place to material necessity. Once again, then it will be necessary here to prepare measures of planned sociology, in which personal fulfilment would be the rule. We shall return to this later.

Finally, the question of youth employment arises. We know the old refrain: one is unemployed because employers refuse to take on untrained apprentices; while this training on the whole can only be acquired “on the job”. In this area, considerable steps forward have already been made, especially in producing a closer match between industrial needs and school curricula. Here again, we have come a long way from the 1930s, when this problem of educational harmonisation was scarcely perceived. In this respect, the Scandinavian countries in particular have much to teach us, but national introversion has rarely allowed a sufficeint diffusion of the results achieved, whether they be negative or positive. the Centre ought, therefore, also to play a role in debate and in opening the way to free exchange of knowledge.


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