15 Jul

Dying to work: The relationship between work and human development

The deaths of Mohamed Bouazizi and Michael O’Sullivan show that work is more than just an activity, intimately tied to our perceptions of well-being and empowerment.

I recently met an elderly man in East London who had a permanent knee injury that had prevented him from working for the past 15 years. As a result, he relied on social welfare benefits to cover his living costs. A year ago, he received a letter from his local authority that his claim to welfare benefits was under review and he would be subjected to a ‘fit-for-work’ assessment to determine whether he was indeed ‘fit’ enough to work. This ‘fit-to-work’ government assessment has already been directly linked to the suicide of a benefit claimant, Michael O’Sullivan. Despite having a long-term history of mental health problems that rendered him unable to work, O’Sullivan was informed that he would be placed on job seekers allowance benefits while a job would be found for him. This decision led him to take his own life.

On 17 December 2010,  Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in the middle of traffic. An hour before, local police had confiscated his cart of produce under a disputed charge (believed to be a bribe) that he did not have a vendor’s permit. His last words before setting himself on fire were, ‘How do you expect me to make a living?’ Bouazizi’s story might have gone unnoticed had his act not been a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the ensuing uprisings across the Arab world.

My conversation with this elderly man, Bouazizi’s story and the increasing scrutiny of the UK’s fit-for-work assessments that caused O’Sullivan’s suicide has led me to explore the nature of work itself and what it means for human development. Journalist and author, Jeremy Seabrook, wrote an article analysing the etymology of the word ‘work’ in several European languages. His analysis revealed that in all the languages he studied, the word ‘Work was {perceived as} compulsion and punishment, an existential affliction which promised neither wellbeing nor even an assured sustenance.’

Bouazizi and Sullivan, two men from two different continents, were not living to work or working to live but dying to work in two very different ways. Bouazizi’s attempt to pursue work that improved his life conditions led to his death while Sullivan’s attempt to reject work that worsened his life conditions him was the trigger for his suicide. Despite Seabrook’s conclusion, Sullivan’s and Bouazizi’s deaths demonstrate that work is more than just an activity; it is intimately tied to our perceptions of well-being and the process of empowerment.

Work in the right context is an enabler of human development defined in the 2015 Human Development Report as ‘enlarging choices, emphasizing a long, healthy and creative life and highlighting the need for expanding capabilities and creating opportunities.’ In the wrong context, work is a disabler of human development detracting from one’s capabilities and opportunities available to improve their well-being.

Identifying the right context is complex and highly nuanced in today’s world where seismic trends such as globalisation and the relationship between labour and capital is continuously in flux. However, two key points are critical to understanding the relationship between work and human development. Firstly, the definition of work goes beyond being a productive activity to include other activities such as unpaid work and care work. Secondly, access to quality work rather than just access to work should be the key focus of our efforts. As explained in the 2015 Human Development report,

‘The link between work and human development is not automatic. It depends on the quality of work, the conditions of work, the societal value of work and so on. Whether people have a job is important, as are other issues. For example: Is work safe? Are people fulfilled and satisfied by their work? Are there prospects for advancement? Does employment support a flexible work–life balance? Are there equal opportunities for women and men? The quality of work also includes whether a job provides dignity and a sense of pride and whether it facilitates participation and interaction.’

Over the next few blog posts, I will explore the negative and positive relationship between work and human development digging deeper on the various manifestations of work, and how it connects and divides us across borders, genders and within the international development sector.

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