The trash economy: employment in the post-Covid era

On a landfill site outside the village of Kafr Lusin in northwest Syria, teenagers sort through the mountain of toxic household waste, looking for reusable plastic that can be traded for a few coins. At the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, school children visiting the Machine Learning Studio work with tech trainers to learn how robots are programmed.

These might be seen as images of the best and worst prospects for the next generation of workers, corresponding with first world/third world economic polarities. Following the economic disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic, young people everywhere are viewing their future employment options with increased uncertainty and anxiety.

According to a UNICEF report issued in June this year, the pandemic has led to a situation in which more and more children are confronted with the worst-case scenario of hard labour under conditions of hard-core poverty. Reporting on the surge in child labour caused by the pandemic, a recent New York Times article tells the story of Rahul, aged 11, a “high IQ” student forced to take up trash-trawling on the closure of his school in Tamakuru, Southern India. The implication is that, given the chance to continue his education, Rahul might have made his way into the world of STEM graduates.

It’s time to challenge not just the economic polarities of the situation in which children like Rahul have become trapped, but the cognitive assumptions that underlie those polarities. The STEM-comes-first view of human work presumes that the information economy will be the prime target for the next generation as they prepare themselves for future employment; at the other end of the scale is the trash economy engulfing young lives in Indonesia, India and Africa.

Are these really the images of the best and worst work in the post-covid world? Or is this just a defunct narrative that feeds off presumptions of a first world/third world divide in human destiny?

2020 Vision

In a world where everything is changing – the climate, political boundaries, the influence of technologies – the hardest thing to change is human intelligence. We are hard-wired into cultures of understanding and knowledge that have become invested with unwarranted convictions. It has taken multiple climate disasters and a pandemic to force us to think anew about the foundations of our economy and the ways in which we can imagine the future of human work, yet even now there are calls on all sides for return to business as usual.

What if we were to reverse the conventional evaluations attached to those two pictures of children at work? Those in the machine learning studio are captive to a way of understanding human economy in which advancing robotic technologies serve to perpetuate unsustainable forms of commodification, and consumption, under the illusion that we-the-humans are always the ones in control. The by-product of this economy is trash. Mountains of it on land, and vast islands of it floating in the oceans.

The children on the mountains of waste are front line workers in the planetary economy. As they sort and forage through the discarded matter of consumer culture, they identify what can be salvaged and put it to use. The contents of their baskets represent transfers, however small, from the negative economy of trash to a survival economy based on recycling.

This is not an argument for accepting the abject working conditions of children like Ruhal, or for driving their more prosperous contemporaries to join them. Perhaps the process of dealing with trash is now the most sophisticated as well as the most urgent form of employment: it involves a spectrum of work from high-tech (engineering, chemical recomposition, architecture and construction from recycled materials) to basic sorting and gathering in local environments.

The polarized domains of work portrayed in those two photographs must be brought together. The essential concerns are on whose terms this is managed, with what priorities, and on what conditions. It means dismantling some hierarchical assumptions about the relative values of different kinds of human work so that those now working on the heaps are no longer on the bottom strata of the economy. Recycling will be everyone’s work.

“2020 vision” is an optometrist’s standard measure of human visual acuity, and a range of corrective options are available where deficiencies in eyesight are identified. If only failure of cognitive vision could be adjusted so effectively. When it comes to the challenge of seeing clearly in our lives and circumstances, we are left with the messy business of human communication. Some of us “see” better than others, and when it comes to seeing the state of the planet, it is often children who see best.

In a speech given to the British Parliament in April 2019, Greta Thunberg, spoke of the future she was encouraged to imagine when she was eight years old. “I could become whatever I wanted to,” she said. “Now we don’t even have a future any more. Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.” While the images at the top of this article show that the future for increasing numbers of children is quite literally trash, Thunberg alerts the parliaments and institutions of the first world to the fact that the waste from the consumer economy is no longer cordoned off in third world environments. One way or another, her whole generation will spend their future going through their parents’ and grandparents’ trash. Their work will be the work of reversing the damage and deterioration done to the planet that has now, in one crisis after another, shown itself to be the primary and ultimate determinant of our economy.

Who Owns the Work?

Job loss is surely the most widespread and urgent consequence of the pandemic. Even as neoliberal governments squirm to recast their favourite “messages” about the global trade, corporate investment, growth and surplus, they are desperate to claw back their old familiar agenda. The rhetoric around unemployment and the return to work is filled with either direct or indirect assumptions that those who are have lost work in the pandemic must now make themselves employable by acquiring the skills on order in the labour market.

For the young, and those looking at longer term prospects, this means STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine: it’s the new alchemical formula, the answer to everything and the imperative for everyone who wants to deserve a place in the economy of the future. What employers want is what we must want to be.

As the job market tightens, the demands of employers can become increasingly stringent, while the rewards offered are pared back in multiple ways. The gig economy is an obvious manifestation of this. All the old predatory laws of the neoliberal market will be intensified in a post-pandemic environment. Larger corporations will be ever more determined to maximize their profits and minimize their liabilities; that means shrinking payroll bills and stripping back workers’ entitlements.

Only those workers who can contribute to significant profit growth will have any value, and any claim to good employment conditions. Such, at any rate, is the prevailing assumption. Along with it goes an assumption that “lower end” work such as that offered in retail stores, warehouses and catering is a cost, likely to be cut back as much as possible. Even the nurses and teachers, postal workers, cleaners, drivers, and supermarket staff who have emerged as front-line workers during times of crisis are still seen in economic terms as a “cost.” They may save our lives, but they are not growing our profits.

Meanwhile, the trash continues to mount up. The conditions that led to catastrophic fires in Australia last summer remain unchanged. Our immunity to COVID and any future pandemics is unresolved. As recent disasters have proved, we are desperately short of essential workers in community support, regional business, agriculture, mental health and environmental management. Recycling itself is a massively underdeveloped and complex dimension of the future economy.

Who owns the work? This question should be on the agenda in every political debate. To see employment as the gift of “an employer” is to adopt a very constrained view of future possibilities and of our heritage from traditions of local and community employment. The shift to an ecological economy is urgent, and it means working not just against the monopolization of wealth by large corporations, but against their monopolization of employment. New vision is required in approaching the design and conception of work as the 21st century advances.

As a move in this direction, a recent paper issued by the Crawford School of Public Policy outlines a policy for a Liveable Income Guarantee, through which all citizens would be entitled to a payment sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living, over time. This is envisaged as a means of enabling a diversification of work, independent of the demands of employers and responsive primarily to social and ecological need.

The Magic Money Tree

“There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake to that suddenly provides for everything that people want.” In a television forum held in June 2017, this was then British Prime Minister Theresa May’s answer to a nurse who asked about the nine year pay freeze on nursing staff in the National Health system. That was before the pandemic hit and the lives of so many, including current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were in the hands of chronically underpaid nurses working long shifts with inadequate protective equipment.

May’s statement was delivered with a patronising smile, but it was worse than patronising. It was infantilising. In implying that the woman she was addressing must know that money does not grow on trees, she only exposed her own failure to grasp economic realities. Accustomed to the phantasmic economic thinking of the City of London and the right wing think tanks that framed her policies, she had come to regard off-shore processing of vast sums of capital in far-away islands as normal, and the demand for a living wage for nurses as some kind of magical thinking.

Nevertheless, the image of the money tree is worth revisiting. There is a sense in which money does grow on trees, because the ultimate source of all our wealth is the planet and its natural resources. By incessantly stripping away those resources without tending or renewing them, we have built up an eye watering deficit in the planetary economy.

For centuries, European economies incorporated the principle of “the commons”. This was a form of subsistence afforded to communities on the understanding that all creatures born of the earth have a right to subsistence from it. Usually, the commons took the form of an allocation of natural resources – shared pastoral rights for grazing, rights to hunt for wild creatures, gather fuel and building materials, fish in the rivers. In an urban environment, a basic income scheme is the closest equivalent to the commons.

Basic income is not an encouragement to opt out of the work force. Just as the commons required work in order to realise the benefits of natural resources, basic income should be seen as an opportunity to enable a radical economic transition in which the work of social welfare, ecological maintenance and cultural exchange is a pervasive commitment. Recycling and conservation as central economical principles would be part of everyone’s work, and the dominant focus for research developments in science and technology.

Pandemics and natural disasters create new imperatives for a working economy, highlighting the principle that our primary responsibility is towards each other, and the environment that supplies our most basic needs. Ultimately, the planet is our employer.


Images Credits: Trash Mountain, Ars Electronica