The Contested Grounds of Economic Order
Regulation and Inequality at Work: Isolation and Inequality Beyond the Regulation of Labour is Vanisha Sukdeo's first book. It presents an unnerving account of workers' rights today. The suggested culprits for this are state retrenchment and the "virtual sweatshops" (1) at the center of today's economic order. (2)
The book provides a primer on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement and its evolution to the present. This period has witnessed the rise and fall of state-protected workers' rights, and the revival of classic liberalism. (3) Sukdeo traces how CSR has responded to the fall of worker protections by building an empire of non-state prohibitions on irresponsible business practices (for example, codes of conduct). (4) These prohibitions are backed by the watchful eye of civil society combined with the threat of retaliation from key stakeholders such as investors, creditors, and consumers. (5) Beyond the efficacy tied to doing the right thing, (6) these non-state regulations are effective because business takes seriously the power of such stakeholders to impose penalties upon the irresponsible by divesting from their organizations, refusing them credit, and reducing their market share. (7)
The book kicks off quickly from the starting blocks with a one-page preface, which introduces its general direction. (8) Chapter 1 describes the evolution of CSR mechanisms. (9) It explores historical struggles of workers and state responses to them, (10) ending with some thoughts on the plight of workers today. (11)
Chapter 2 focuses upon the emergence of the "gig economy", and the exposure vulnerable populations have to it. (12) Sukdeo observes that new platforms for capital have emerged (for example, Uber), which entice workers with the promise of becoming independent, emancipating them from the drudgery of factory life. (13) However, Sukdeo reveals that not all is as it seems. The escape from the factory comes with a catch: workers must welcome a new virtual task master into their private lives. (14)
John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx offered insight into the threat of work's intrusion into private life. Mill detailed the need for private sanctuary from the master. When he lamented the subjection of women, he declared even slaves are not subject to the master "at all hours and all minutes"; their "fixed task" allows for a barrier, beyond which "the master rarely intrudes". (15) Marx warned that, if unchecked, technology would empower the agents of capital to erase the "bounds of the working day". (16) Sukdeo echoes these concerns, fearing that the gig economy will further erode the distinction between work and home, which is so critical to health and human flourishing. (17)
In Chapter 2, Sukdeo also explains how innovations have caused a seismic shift in the nature of worker-management relations, replacing physical proximities with virtual ones. (18) The result of replacing workplaces with virtual spaces has been new opportunities for management to escape the countervailing effects of organized labour. (19) Sukdeo asserts that these workers should be considered a "new proletariat", (20) who are unorganized and unprotected, working in virtually-networked isolation from traditional forms of...