The brutalisation of work under neo-liberalism 1

asing exclusion from the labour market, an all-time high in sick
leave and disability retirement, increasing stress at the work
place, less influence over one’s work situation: the signals that
something dramatic is about to happen to our labour market and our
whole relationship to work are many. And yet, although ten
thousands are excluded from employment every year, there is little
focus on the real reasons and driving forces behind this
development. Most politicians and employers are staring blindly at
the symptoms. Even the trade unions are not willing to go under the

In the media the focus is inevitably on individuals from a
little group of professions that are affected by the modern
phenomenon of chronic fatigue syndrome. The extensive and serious
problems of exclusions from the labour market and disability of a
rapidly increasing number of workers in a labour market under
intensive pressure are, at best, presented to us in statistics,
where the concerns are connected more to the social security budget
and national economy than to the human destinies that hide behind
the figures (see the Norwegian Green Book NOU 2000:27, which
investigated measures to reduce sick leave and disability

Many are affected by chronic fatigue syndrome in today’s labour
market. Representatives from different professions meet their limit
in various ways. Even if the media tends to focus particularly on
burnt out individuals among those with higher education, the
literature shows that the problem is far more extensive. Nurses and
assistant nurses, teachers and social workers, women working two
jobs, lower income people with two jobs or people who work overtime
that far exceeds the legal limits in order to manage their
finances – all of them contribute to the relatively new and
growing statistics of fatigue syndrome in the labour market.

For many of these professions, including cleaning personnel,
drivers, oil workers, domestic workers and more, the pressure of
work is increasing. The same goes for employees in businesses that
are in continuous restructuring with considerable layoffs in order
to increase profitability. The work intensity increases through
fewer staff members and tighter deadlines, the demands of the
ability to handle new technology and new organisational forms
increase and the control over the individual employee strengthens.
Many have to give up. And many sufferers from chronic fatigue
syndrome may be barely aware of it because this is a term that is
used rarely in these professions. They are used to not being able
to keep going in these types of jobs. They become worn out, ill and
disabled – and right now this is happening on a large

In this article I will concentrate on this dramatic development
in the labour market, where in an increasing number of professions
disability is becoming the most usual reason for retirement. Rather
than individualising the problem, moralising and stigmatising those
affected, I choose to look under the surface for causes and driving
forces behind what is becoming one of our biggest social

Therefore, it becomes necessary to sketch out the fundamental
economic and political frameworks that through the last couple of
decades have contributed so strongly in changing power relations in
society, and therefore also determined labour market development.
The increasing pressure and the growing number of excluded workers
is not a specific Norwegian phenomenon but developmental traits
that characterise the neo-liberal labour market in large parts of
the world. Neo-liberalism is health hazardous. On this basis I
criticise the traditional measures which are launched to counteract
the increasing exclusions from the labour market, but seem to have
no significant effect. The failure is due to the fact that
politicians are only scraping on the surface and attack symptoms
rather than the causes and driving forces. Neither psychologists
with their strategies for individual coping or politicians and
their superficial measures contribute to removing the causes for
the brutalisation of work under neo-liberalism. If we are to reveal
the fundamental driving forces, then we need a more comprehensive
social struggle with a more profound, system-critical


The entire economic and political situation has changed
dramatically through the past 10-20 years. Before this period we
experienced one of the most steady and long term development
periods of our history, with stable economic growth, prosperity for
all, strong development of the welfare state, improvement of the
work environment and a strongly state regulated economy and labour
market. The pressure on the labour market was moderated through
interventions and market regulation. In addition to this, an
increasing share of the economy was organised outside the market as
public sector activities managed by government and thereby without
the pressure on working conditions that inevitably results from
market competition. In a society with high employment this also
contributes to lessening the pressure on employees in the private
sector. The public sector’s share of the economy increased evenly
and steadily and, without resistance, we accepted a relatively
high – and increasing – tax level because we were willing
to participate and finance welfare and improved conditions in the
labour market. All arrows were pointing upwards.

Then, at some point, it stopped. Unemployment began to increase
again. It was asserted that the tax level had become too high, that
public enterprises were wasting resources, that political
interventions were ineffective relative to the market’s rational
self-regulation. Keywords like government management, regulation,
public ownership, equal distribution of resources had to yield to
terms such as competition, liberalisation, decentralisation, market
adaptation and deregulation. The latter have now become the
prevailing dogma.

This dramatic change of course is connected with important
development traits in the international economy, which some call
globalisation or the internationalisation of capital, and that is
today one of the strongest factors influencing our society.
National economies are becoming ever more strongly integrated into
the world market and this creates new frameworks for labour as well
as politics. Globalisation has however also become a catch phrase,
the definition which needs closer examination, as does an analysis
of consequences it has on the labour market. (The following
presentation of the global economy is to a large extent based on
Skarstein 1998).

First and foremost, globalisation is characterised by a great
increase in the movement of goods, services and capital across
borders. Increasingly advanced electronic communications, low
transport costs and so-called borderless free trade have been
crucial for the development of this situation but do not explain
the driving forces behind it. Two significant changes in the
international capitalist economy have been decisive for the
situation we are facing today – the collapse of the international
monetary system  in the beginning of the 1970s and the
abolishment of capital controls in increasing numbers of countries
(i.e. the breakdown of the Bretton Woods policies). These phenomena
have paved the way for the extensive speculation and casino economy
that plays such a dominate role in today’s world economy.

Globalisation is not a new economic phenomenon; it has been a
characteristic tendency in the entire history of capitalism.
Constant expansion and conquest of new markets is a fundamental
characteristic of capitalism. A capitalism that does not expand is
in serious crisis. Yet through public regulations one can influence
which form this expansion takes.

The last big globalisation wave was at the end of the 19th
century – and lasted about until the outbreak of the First
World War. During the post war period there was however a
widespread recession, not the least as a result of the economic
crisis from the end of the 1920s. After a long stable period after
the Second World War the world economy was again in the beginning
of the 1970s overtaken by crises. Important events like the Vietnam
War, the dollar crisis and the collapse of the monetary system,
higher prices for primary products, oil crises and so forth shocked
the world economy. At the same time the political pendulum swayed
to the right with forced economic liberalisation and deregulation
as the result. Neo-liberalism’s crusade had begun.

Main countries like the USA, West Germany, Canada and
Switzerland abolished capital controls. With that the damn was
broken and the liberalisation of financial capital was a fact.
Financial institutions and multinational companies (MNCs) had
managed to quit themselves of all stately intervention. In Norway
the Syse Government abolished the remaining exchange and capital
controls in July 1990 with no protests from the opposition.

Neo-liberalism as an economic and political discourse was at its
height from the beginning of the 1980s with the USA (under Ronald
Reagan) and the United Kingdom (under Margaret Thatcher) as driving
forces. It brought with it an extensive deregulation of the
markets, the abolition of capital controls, the privatisation of
public enterprises and a general loosening up of economic controls.
Political market interventions, which through the entire post war
era had been used to influence the distribution of economic growth
and the channelling of society’s resources in the desired
direction, were quickly referred to history’s garbage dump by
market fundamentalists. Free flow of goods, services and
capital – without state interventions – was the new

In the academic world, economists were unusually quick in
following loyally the new political shift and changed from
Keynesianism to neo-liberalism and supply-side economics. The same
policy was facilitated through international organisations like the
OECD, GATT, IMF and the World Bank. Through the GATT (now: the WTO)
trade is now close to being fully liberalised – the trade of
services began to be liberalised in the last round (the so-called
GATS agreement).

In Europe this new liberal project has been strengthened through
the establishment of the Single Market and the Maastricht Treaty’s
accomplishment of the EU’s monetary union. The EU has become the
political representation of the globalisation process in Europe.
The driving forces of this project are the struggle for markets and
hegemony, which is being fought out between the three poles in the
international capitalist economy – the USA, Japan, and the EU.
Through the EEA agreement (European Economic Area) Norway has also
become a part of this project. The EU’s extensive legal framework
along with the so-called democratic deficit has created new
problems both for democratic government and the labour movement’s
influence. This strengthens and fortifies the power shift that the
current global economy is based upon. The labour movement and the
influence of employees’ on the workplace is thus gradually
weakened – as is the protection of employee interests.


In the past 15-20 years free capital movements and floating
exchange rates have been two of the greatest contributors to the
dramatic alteration of power relations in the economy and society.
They have paved the way for financial capital’s intensive growth
and dominance. Buying and selling of currency, stocks, bonds, and
other securities across borders have increased dramatically after
1980. Since 1980 the turnover of currency and international
securities have increased more than ten times, and present daily
international currency transactions almost amount to 1 800 billion
US dollars, corresponding to about 16 000 billion Norwegian kroner
(about 12 Norwegian GNPs).

A majority of these transactions are connected to pure currency
speculation and big international traders have several times
created shocks in the entire world economy (the European currency
crisis in 1992, the Mexican crisis in 1995, the South East Asian
crisis in 1998, the complete melt down of the Argentine economy in
2001). Speculation creates dramatic fluctuations in exchange rates,
which have little or no connection to the real economy in the
affected countries. This insecurity has in itself become a new
product – the so-called derivatives where one takes a step
further away from the real economy and almost gambles on future
exchange rate developments like others gamble on horses, the only
difference being that the financial players can create shocks in
the entire world economy – in your and my everyday lives and
not the least in the labour market.

Money in an international context is no longer first and
foremost a means of payment for goods and services that are
exported and imported across borders. Such trade constitutes only
2-3% of the transactions. For every dollar that is paid for real
goods and services in the world, 50 dollars are used in what some
calls the casino economy or speculation economy. The financial
system has in other words detached itself completely from the
production side of the economy. This economy of madness is a result
of the politicians’ systematic deregulation in the past couple of

Another central feature in the global economy is the expansion
and increasing dominance of MNCs. In 1995 it was estimated that the
200 largest MNCs accounted for over 25% of the world’s gross
product. These companies have only achieved such influence in the
world economy in the course of the past 10-15 years, through
dramatic increases in foreign direct investments. It is especially
after 1985 that these investments reached disproportional
heights,  from a level of about 50 billion dollars per year to
over 250 billion.

Through the privatisation policy and the use of the tendering
system the MNCs are taking over an increasing part of the public
sector. A group of MNCs – especially in France and the United
Kingdom – is today growing fat on profitable public contracts.
They operate in all corners of the world and all over the spectre
of public services (a closer description of this phenomenon can be
find amongst other things in Wahl, A. Velferd til salgs in
Utviklingsfondet 2001, pp.46-48).

In the increasing international competition that follows this
development private companies are put under massive competitive
pressure. They therefore try to get rid of expenses they deem
unnecessary and at the same time attempt to reduce all remaining
expenses. Internally within the companies this means increased
efficiency and rationalisation – together with restraining
wage increments. Externally this means increasing the pressure on
the public sector in a struggle to reduce taxes and fees. Therefore
the municipal economy, the social security system, wages and
working conditions both in the public and private sectors are under
attack these days, and are projected as threats to the country’s
competitive edge. Threats of capital flight are used if the
capitalist powers do not get what they want.

One strategy of these MNCs is to put in a leading bid at a loss
in order to press out the competitors with the philosophy that it
will pay in the long run when the resulting monopoly situation
makes it possible to take out monopoly profits. In many areas,
there is a hush-hush division of the markets between such MNCs. The
result of the tendering system in the long run is, in other words,
not increased competition but increased monopolisation. Public
monopolies are replaced by private ones – and with far more
power and influence the world over. The pressure on employees is
not reduced even if the monopoly tendency weakens market
competition, because the MNC giants operate with profit demands far
beyond those one had seen earlier.

Besides other serious social sides of this development,
tendering and competition also have huge consequences on the
workplace environment. Tendering and competition undermine the
possibility of developing stable working conditions. «The worst is
the insecurity», is a well-known reaction from employees that have
been exposed to this «modern» hysteria. They feel a tremendous
pressure to go out and compete for their own jobs every third,
fourth or fifth year.

Where tasks are divided and distributed among different
sub-contractors, various work cultures often arise in one and the
same working place. This easily leads to frictions and disturbance.
The working environment becomes less stable. Wages and working
conditions can also be different for people that carry out the same
tasks and to many this is a strongly demotivating factor. Holistic
thinking disappears. In many cases it actually becomes more
difficult to establish flexibility between different work groups in
the same work place. The whole development is built upon a
consume-and-waste mentality in relation to employees.

The Australian professor Michael Quinlan has gone through 29
different reports about the effect of outsourcing and competition
in both private and public sectors. His conclusion is clear
(Klassekampen 30.06.2001):

-Completely independent of the different research methods
that are used, the results go overwhelmingly in the same direction.
Outsourcing affects the health, says Michael Quinlan. (…) 23 of
the 29 studies of outsourcing show that injury, stress and other
health problems increase. None of those show health improvements at
any point. (…)
-We can without doubt conclude with overwhelming evidence that the
new work regime worsens people’s health. The result is anything
from deaths to dangerous situations and increased psychological
stress, he says.

This new economic world order represents a development where
power relations in society are changing dramatically. Some have
called it the revolt of the elite or the revolution of the rich.
The consequences are significant. The relative social stability
that was achieved in most highly industrialised countries in the
post war period is now being shaken to its core. Labour and trade
unions are being put on the defensive the world over.

Supporters of the neo-liberal expansion try to project the
prevailing economic globalisation as something which has come to
stay. Information technology, the technological revolution, is
presented as the most important driving force. Globalisation is
therefore unstoppable, irreversible – something one has to
adapt to. This narrow technological determinism has also gained a
footing in the labour movement’s leading circles. It denies that
social processes have social causes and that these first and
foremost have to be found in social and economic relations.
Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Technological development
reflects in the last instance social and power relations in
society. If the politicians chose instead to look behind the
technology to the power relations in the economy, they would
quickly discover that most of the social changes which hide behind
the rather vague term globalisation are the results of conscious
strategies on the part of MNCs, financial institutions, and


The USA is in many ways the motor behind this economic
development. Here the social and economic differences have
increased most, here most MNCs have their bases and here the
attacks on trade unions, working conditions and welfare systems
have been the strongest. The weakening of the trade union movement,
and the deregulation and globalisation of the economy have changed
the USA from a high wage country until the end of the 1980s to a
low wage country in the 1990s. Through the deregulation of the
labour market, an army of so-called working poor is created that
does not earn enough to maintain a normal life. 15 million workers
(18% of the labour force) fell under the poverty line in the USA in
1990 even though they were working at least 40-hour weeks fifty
weeks a year.  

Many of these workers have two or more part-time jobs and they
are on an eternal hunt for new assignments so that they can obtain
sufficient resources to meet their economic obligations and finance
their and their families’ livelihood. In addition to the hard
physical toil of many of these jobs, the situation thereby also
contributes to a persistent psychological pressure on the workers.
They lose much of the control over their own lives and are
alienated in relation to themselves and other workers. They are
truly becoming burnt out.

In Europe mass unemployment, not seen since the 1930s, is the
result of this development, together with massive restructuring and
relocation of industrial output. Globalisation has in other words
created an army of working poor in the USA and an army of
unemployed poor in Western Europe. Another trait is that permanent
jobs are increasingly replaced by temporary ones; full-time
replaced by part-time. The USA’s biggest employer is therefore no
longer called General Motors, AT&T or IBM. The temping agency
Manpower today tops the statistics on the number of employees
(Martin & Schumann 1997, p.168). This development not only
affects workers and lower paid staff. International company
consultants have predicted that every other position in the middle
management group will disappear in the coming decade and a majority
of the so-called middle class will disappear (same source,

While we previously have been warned against the so-called
one-third society, where a third of the population is excluded from
society, we are now also presented with a one-fifth society, not in
the sense that a fifth of society is excluded, but rather that 20%
of the labour force will in the near future be sufficient to
produce all the goods and services we need.

This phenomenon was seriously discussed in an unofficial
international meeting between CEOs, politicians and other social
leaders in California in 1995. The problem the majority was
concerned about was how to feed and entertain the remaining 80% of
the population so that they will not be pushed to extreme poverty
and suffering, and be forced to resort to violence or revolution
(Martin & Schuman, 1997).

Thus, contrary to what many in society’s elite assert today, the
class struggle is not about to disappear. Rather, it has sharpened
through increasingly fierce competition across borders and it is
currently stimulated efficiently from above. Neo-liberalism’s
victorious march over the world since the 1970s has led to a
massive change in the balance of power between labour and

The internationalisation of production and the changed
conditions of competition have made it easier to move production
from one country to another. Thereby the potential counterweight
that the domestic trade unions represent is weakened. In addition
the increasing amount of and extremely mobile financial capital is
being used to blackmail national governments, a factor that has
made it more difficult for the labour movement to exploit their
political power.

In the past decades the most serious assault on the workers’
position in society, on the welfare state and on democracy, is the
abolition of capital controls. It is this that has given the MNCs
the opportunity to make use of the so-called exit strategy: to move
or threaten to move production and investments to other countries.
It is used nowadays on the workers as well as the state. The
struggle to improve the national competitive power takes the form
of concrete demands for more flexible working hours (for example
Kraft Foods pressurised workers at the Freia factory in Oslo to
accept night shifts, saying that if they did not agree, Kraft would
rather invest in other European countries), downsizing and so
forth, or more favourable production conditions such as lower taxes
and fees, cheaper energy, more supple emission regulations etc.

While the trade union and labour movements could earlier fight
through a new labour environment law – against employers’
wishes and interests – and then use this law as a tool to
improve work conditions, some employers can therefore now easily
avoid this law by moving production and investments to another
country with a weaker trade union movement and weaker labour laws
and agreements. In Germany, in the last five years of the 1990s
alone, close to a million work places were moved to countries with
cheaper labour and lower taxes (Balanyá et al 2000,

These factors contribute to the weakening of the trade union
movement. The development of mass unemployment in large parts of
the industrialised world has thereby contributed to the weakening
of the workers’ power. Since working conditions and welfare in a
society are strongly dependent on the power relations in society,
this power shift has a drastic effect on the pressure of work.

This is not a new phenomenon to the world. But in the era of
information consultants’ we no longer find straightforward
descriptions of this phenomenon, such as the one printed in the
business magazine Farmand during the last period of globalisation
– at the end of the 19th century (referred by Bjørnson,
1990 p.99):

(…) It must not be forgotten that in our time with
competition in all areas the demand inexorably becomes this: good
wages but also equally high quality work. If the last condition,
high quality work, is not nowadays in general being fulfilled by
Norwegian workers, we do not believe, that Norwegian industry in
the long run will be able to sustain competition with the world
economy, which has other labour conditions, unless our factory
owners following the other countries’ example: A good man gets a
job, a useless man may leave.


These new power relations in society are the background for why
we are experiencing an all-time high in sick leave and exclusions
from the labour market in Norway. About 10% of the entire Norwegian
population between 16 and 66 years are currently on disability
insurance. If we include those who are in rehabilitation, early
retirement and other similar arrangements, it is closer to 15%. 25%
of those between 55 and 60 years are declared disabled. According
to official statistics work injuries are strongly increasing. A
large increase in injuries at work was reported for example by
Aftenposten (2.12.1997) basing it on numbers from the Norwegian
Financial Services Association. Stress has become a widespread
people’s illness, a fact that is supported by, amongst others, the
Green Book NOU 2000: 27 and the Statistics Norway’s study on work
conditions (Ukens statistikk No.47, 1997).

In this study it is concluded that almost half of us are
experiencing increasing stress due to huge work pressure. Three out
of four experience that the work tempo is controlled by routines
and deadlines. The number of workers that experience high labour
intensity is increasing rapidly. Whilst 44% of those employed
described their work situation in this way in 1996, the number was
37% in 1993 and 32% in 1989. The pressure has in other words
increased whilst the work content has degraded.  This results
in restricted freedom for a great many people. The way work is
organised is based on power relations that have significant
importance to the self-image of the individual.

This brutalisation of work is an inevitable consequence of
precisely those strong and underlying forces in society that I
described above. Competition is sharpened in all areas and the
demands for profits increase dramatically. In the public sector
increased demands for competition creates insecurity and harder
work tempos. The massive demands for cutting costs inevitably lead
to an intolerable pressure on many employees. Ever faster
restructuring and downsizing of the labour stock increases the
demands on the individual employee. In short, neo-liberalism is
health hazardous. The employer’s side occasionally admits this,
here represented by CEO Bernt Aas of Fellesslakteriet (a Norwegian
slaughterhouse company), who in an interview says (Aftenposten

-We live under very tough conditions. The grocery store
chains are making big demands on the industry and our margins for
profitability becomes smaller and smaller. Naturally this makes the
demands on efficient production progressively tougher, he says and
goes on:
-The workers feel this efficiency pressure very strongly.

The increasing pressure in large parts of the labour market is
therefore not something that just happens; it originates from
specific power relations and political decisions. There are
powerful interests that promote changes in the economy, society and
labour market that weaken worker protection. It is not difficult to
identify those forces in our society that have in recent years been
applying pressure to weaken sickness benefits, the Labour
Environment Act, the Employment Act, the working hour regulations,
to reduce the number of holidays and free days and to weaken the
content of tariff agreements. Employer organisations have stood in
the front row – with the political right wing on tow. It
becomes progressively clearer that market liberalisation is not at
all compatible with the goal of a society and labour market where
people can grow, realise and develop their creative capabilities in
safe and predictable conditions.

Many people have therefore experienced in the past years that
the work pressure has become tougher, that the labour laws and
agreements are often undermined and put aside in the daily work and
that the insecurity and uncertainty have increased. It is important
to have good labour laws and agreements but it is not enough.
Without a climate in society that accepts or supports these
agreements, without conditions and regulations that dampen the
competitive pressure in the labour market, without power relations
that make it possible for interventions against the market forces
and without strong trade unions that can ensure that the labour
laws and agreements are followed, the result is rather worsened
work conditions. An inspector at the Norwegian Labour Inspection
Authority illustrates the situation as follows (report in the free
newspaper Avis 1, Oslo 20.10.2000):

The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority fears that today’s
pressure on workers affects health and that older employees will
not manage the load and therefore disappear from the labour
-We will soon be the only hindrance when it comes to making society

For an increasing number of professions the most common way of
exiting the labour market is now by being declared disable –
not by reaching normal retirement age. This has for some time been
the case for cleaning personnel. And yet still more drops are
squeezed out of the lemon through massive competition, which
systematically leads to people getting bigger areas to clean in a
shorter time. Drivers both in goods and personal transport are also
affected by this competition – as are a growing number of
employees in the health, social and education sectors. The
newspaper Nationen (27.10.2000) reported in 1999 that disability
pensioners constituted 57% of all teachers that retired, while a
further 36% left under a Contracted Pension Scheme for up to 5
years before the retirement age of 67 years. So only 7% of retired
teachers become pensioners at the normal age. The latest group
affected – the most recent group because it is relatively new
in Norway – are the oil workers in the North Sea, which now to
a greater degree stop working at the start of their 50s. 70% of
those who work in the North Sea do not reach the retirement age,
according to the previous President of the Federation of the Oil
Workers’ Trade Unions, Terje Nustad (Klassekampen, 17.2.1998). The
Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority’s inspector states in the
same article that «the time pressure is the worst health threat in
the oil business».

Many have pointed out that the rapidly growing number of early
retired workers is not co-ordinated with an equal growth in ill
health. This relationship was well illustrated in a title of a
reader’s contribution that I came over in Bergensavisen (3.7.1999)
which was called Competition gives greater number, but healthier
disabled persons. The increase in number of early retirements are
caused, in other words, not just by the increased pressure on the
individual, but also by the fact that employers’ threshold for
accepting reduced work capacity is lower. The increased competition
in the private sector and the pressure in fulfilling pure economic
results in the public sector becomes a strong incentive to get rid
of labour that cannot give 110% at all times.

In the manufacturing industry a comprehensive downsizing took
place during the extensive rationalisation waves of the 1980s. In
the 1990s however a similar process also started in the public
sector. A tendency towards budget cutting, progressively more
blinkered economic steering and the division of most activities
into small result units with tough economic goals have led to a raw
exclusion of any employees that cannot perform to the maximum. In
social economic terms it is of course meaningless that people with
a small reduction in work capacity are pushed over to disability
pensions rather than utilising their work capacity to the creation
of value in society.

The way the public sector reorganises its business contributes
strongly to this process. When area after area is divided into
small economic entities, and the managers of these entities are to
meet exaggerated goals, in order to satisfy upper management, then
an inexorable pressure arises to remove workers that cannot give
maximum effort.

The following is probably an extreme, but nevertheless
illustrating, example of this cultural tendency in independent
public companies. It concerns employees (mostly women) that work in
the Norwegian State Railways’ customer service phone and are denied
full time employment. The manager explains why (Klassekampen,

-The job is so tough that it is an advantage that those
employed only work 85%, says the manager of Norwegian State
Railways’ customer service phone. (…)
-Could the job been organised differently so that they could get a
full workday without wearing themselves out?
-The production is the time they are on the phones so I do not see
how it can be done.

While the public sector was seen earlier as a safe and good
working place, and represented a part of the labour market that
contributed to reducing the pressure on workers – first and
foremost for those who work there but also indirectly for those
employed in the private sector, the situation has in many ways
become the opposite in recent years. Restructional methods and
organisational models in large parts of the public sector have
contributed to a dramatic worsening of working conditions as the
following report shows (Aftenposten, 17.04.2001):
The number of new disability pensioners amongst the staff in the
public administration, school sector and independent public
enterprises such as the Norwegian Postal Services and the Norwegian
State Railways has increased with 35.9% since 1996. In the same
period the number of new disability pensioners increased with 16.8%
in the rest of the population. (…)
-Increased efficiency pressure and brutalisation of work lead to
more disability pensioners. In addition we see that the division
into smaller work units gives less flexibility in relocalising
workers with various burden ailments, says Vice President of the
Norwegian Civil Service Union, Tor Arne Solbakken.

Researcher Ivar Brevik in the Norwegian Institute for Urban and
Regional Research has summed the situation up thus: «In the last
15-20 years social security arrangements have functioned as a
refuse collection system in the labour market. They have become a
depot for people who are neither sick nor disabled. The cure seeks
causes in the individual while the explanations lie in the labour
market.» (Magazine of the Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees,
Arena, No.10, 1999.)

Many are trying to explain the huge sick leave and the extensive
disability in our labour market with the high percentage of active
workers in Norway. The theory is that because of the high level of
employment people who initially have a higher level of ill health
are drawn into the labour market. This is of course a point but
must be confronted with the three following arguments:

Firstly, if it is true that the labour market should adapt to
serve human needs and capacities, it must also adapt to those who
might have reduced work capacity. Secondly, it was only during the
1990s that Norway experienced the strong increase in the share of
active workers and mass unemployment was reduced. The exclusion
from the labour market has continued to increase strongly in recent
years after the work participation rate stabilised. We are
therefore facing a strongly increasing social problem. Thirdly, the
problem is not specifically Norwegian. Whatever the level of
employment we see the same tendencies everywhere where
neo-liberalism has contributed to increased pressure in the labour
market. A European study supports this (The Norwegian Confederation
of Trade Unions’ web newsletter, LOnytt, 5.2.2001):

The labour environment in Europe has worsened, and this is
due to tougher competition and changed working conditions. -Alarm
clocks should ring, says the Director of the European Foundation
for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Raymon-Pierre

The background for the concern is a new study on health
problems connected to the work place in the EU 15. The institute
(European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working
Conditions) has interviewed 21 500 people. The study is the third
in a series of reports on the working environment in the EU. The
previous two are from 1990 and 1995. (…)

The European study emphatically confirms a report from the
ILO (International Labour Organisation) published last autumn that
showed that stress is an increasing problem in the labour market
and leads to fatigue and depression. The study included amongst
others the USA and Poland.

One of the tasteless sides of this development is the massive
moralisation a lot of those who are affected by this exclusion from
the labour market are exposed to. The media, rightwing populists,
employers and leading politicians frequently suggest that failing
work morale lies behind the massive increase in sick leave and
disability pensions. It is thus not enough for people to be exposed
to increasing insecurity and physical and psychological pressure in
the labour market, they have to in addition receive condescending
attitudes and moralistic finger pointing from society’s elite and
the media society’s successful middle class. One of today’s most
extensive social problems is in this way individualised and made
into a rightwing populist divide-and-conquer policy, which makes
groups stand against each other and weakens the solidarity between
people that have everything to gain by standing together.


Politicians are to a large degree responsible for this situation
but do not accept it. They would rather promote, consciously or
subconsciously, what I call the big illusion in the labour market.
They constantly refer to the symptoms of sick leave and disability
pension. They refuse to acknowledge the fundamental driving forces
behind this development and that it is here that the effort is
needed if they really wish to do something with the problem.

Increasing numbers of politicians however express concern for
the problem. The Christian People’s Party Leader, Kjell Bondevik,
invited the previous government, through newspaper chronicles and
interviews, to a big national cooperation to solve the problem and
with positive responses (see chronicle in VG 20.5.2000 and articles
in Dagsavisen 4 & 5.4.2000). Other politicians and authorities
have followed up with solemn statements. Almost without exception
the concern has however been restricted to the social welfare
budget. It is suggested that the solutions to the problem lie in
sharpening the conditions for receiving a disability pension as
well as reducing the benefits, like they did at the beginning of
the 1990s. Almost none of the actors have expressed any clear
concern about the real problem – namely the brutalisation of
work. The only exceptions I have found is the previous Deputy
Leader of the Norwegian Centre Party, Åse Grønlien
Østmo (chronicle in Nationen 24.8.2000), and the Socialist
Left Party’s Parliamentary Representative, Karin Andersen
(interview in Dagsavisen 5.4.2000) who distance themselves from
Bondevik’s one sided focus on the increasing expenses of sick leave
and disablement insurance.

For many years, I have personally been involved in activities to
counteract the increased competition in public services. Cleaning
is one of the areas that is most exposed to competition. At the
same time it is one of the most physically demanding work in our
society today. Few can handle a whole life in this business; being
declared disable is the most usual way to end a career. To expose
these workers to the increasing pressure that follows the tendering
system will necessarily result in an additional burden on the
social welfare budgets. When politicians are confronted by this,
the standard reply is often: the work environment should not
degenerate since one assumes that the Labour Environment Act is

This reveals at best boundless political naivety. Politicians do
not acknowledge that different forces have different strengths in
society, and that some overpower others. When the economic forces
are let loose, when the market forces get to rule more freely, when
competition is implemented in one area after another in the labour
market, when public enterprises are put under progressively narrow
economic goals, there is little help to be had from a formal legal
framework to secure working environments and social relations. When
work intensive industries are put out to tender it goes without
saying that the struggle will be about which party can best push
down wages and other expenses connected to workers. The result is a
tougher working environment despite good intentions of labour laws
and agreements.

The following simile gives a good picture of the role
politicians are playing: when they on the one hand let market
forces loose and implement progressively narrow economic steering,
and on the other attempt to dampen the negative symptoms of this
policy by establishing a formal legal framework, then it is like
opening up the floodgates and then forbidding the water to run. It
is a futile exercise. Laws and regulations are quickly stalemated
by the iron laws of free market economics that are implemented in
area after area in society.

This is also the conclusion of a report from the European
Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions
(LOnytt, 5.2.2001):

The conclusion in the report is that none of the measures in
the 1990s have led to better health.
-Despite of a series of laws and regulations in several areas,
amongst others minimum standards in relation to security and rest
time, the working environment is in deterioration. Companies work
hard with the increased competition in the world market. Even if
work hours are reduced, the intensity and demands are greater. This
leads to tighter deadlines and stress, the European Institute

Thus the measures are not working because they are built upon
the illusion that one can reduce the problems by attacking the
symptoms. Employees at the Norwegian Postal Service for example
became more ill after campaigns to reduce sick leave (Aftenposten
11.9.2000). Yet the so-called welfare-to-work policy is central to
the politicians’ rhetoric. According to this rhetoric more people
should return to work, both disabled and others. Preferably we
shall work well into the retirement age because we will have a
labour shortage in the years to come.

It does not seem to influence politicians that the abyss between
good intentions and the real development in the labour market
continues to increase, so that the talk about the welfare-to-work
policy also becomes rhetoric increasingly cut off from reality when
it meets the tough economic forces of the labour market. Doctor and
Professor Anders Gogstad soberly summed it up this way: «It becomes
clearer that the welfare-to-work policy after the present
guidelines has not in any way led us anywhere. The decisions and
regulations in the White Book on Rehabilitation 1991-92 have been
aimless.» (Dagbladet, 19.6.2000)

For the 10-15% of the work force who eventually find themselves
on disability pension, rehabilitation or such measures, and for the
ten thousands others who work hard to keep going with degrading
work, little help is to be derived from the words of Norway’s
former Social Minister (e-mail letter from the Social Minister Guri
Ingebrigsten, 29.6.2000):

We must have a labour market that is inclusive, also of
those who for different reasons have problems with meeting the
demands of the labour market. We want a labour market that takes
consideration and makes use of the individual worker’s real
competence. We must arrange things so that all people are used in
meaningful activity. (…) It must be accepted that people produce
differently in different phases of life.

This rhetoric placed side by side with the brutalisation of
work, results in the welfare-to-work policy in many ways
functioning as degrading and disciplinary, as a weapon against
people on long-term sick leave and social clients. The same context
can also be found in the welfare policy philosophy that constitutes
an important element of Tony Blair’s Third Way, which is both
suppressing and moralistic (Lindberg 1999, pp.21-30). The USA’s
«Welfare to Work» Programme has functioned in the same way –
it has increased the differences in society and weakened the
workers’ rights (Handler 2000). This American welfare model
inspired the development of the Norwegian welfare-to-work policy,
as researcher Nanna Kildal at the University of Bergen pointed out
(Dagbladet 24.2.1999).

Our political authorities have been unable to meet the dramatic
development in the labour market. In fact, through privatisation
and dividing up of sectors, through competition and deregulation of
the markets, through the downsizing of public services and the
weakening of workers’ rights, they have contributed rather to
promoting those factors that cause the brutalisation of work.

In Norway, we probably have one of the world’s best labour
legislations. When the Worker Protection and Working Environment
Act was passed in 1977, it was seen as an advanced tool in
developing the good working life. Many have especially deemed
§12 of this act as the labour market’s constitution. In short
it states that the work shall be adapted to a person’s needs – and
not the other way around. The following is amongst the central
formulations that are used (Worker Protection and Working
Environment Act, 2001, p.11):

Technology, organisation of the work, execution of the work,
working hours and pay systems shall be arranged in such a way that
the employees are not exposed to adverse physical or mental strain
and that their possibilities of exercising caution and observing
safety considerations are not impaired. (…) Conditions shall be
arranged so that employees are afforded reasonable opportunity for
professional and personal development through their work.
The individual employee’s opportunity for self-determination and
professional responsibility shall be taken into consideration when
planning and arranging the work. Efforts shall be made to avoid
monotonous, repetitive work and work that is governed by machine or
conveyor belt in such a manner that the employees themselves are
prevented from varying the speed of the work. Otherwise efforts
shall be made to arrange the work so as to provide possibilities
for variation and for contact with others, for connection between
individual job assignments, and for employees to keep informed
about production requirements and results. The work must be
arranged so as not to offend the dignity of the employee.

I do not think it is an exaggerated claim that the Norwegian
labour market no longer complies with this paragraph. In addition,
many fear that the revision that the Worker Protection and Working
Environment Act is now facing will lead to a further weakening.
This came out clearly at the Norwegian Confederation of Trade
Unions’ Congress in the Spring of 2000 where many argued against
the law revision because it can, under today’s power relations,
easily be changed to the employers’ premises – with increasing
market mobility and undermining of existing regulations. On the
other hand, many realise that the law only protects many of the new
professions in the communication and service societies to a small
degree, when it applies to those working at home and other special
so-called borderless jobs. In this area the law needs
A formal legal framework is however far from sufficient. In the
real world a working environment has developed in which a normally
endowed person in an increasing number of professions is not
capable of holding out for a whole work life but must now sacrifice
their health at the competition altar long before normal retirement
age. When nurses become worn out because of staff shortages, at the
same time as their strong sense of duty in relation to help the
sick and injured causes them to work double shifts to compensate
for the shortage – then it is not legal shortcomings that are
to blame, but the lack of enforcement and wrong priority of
resources. Work is being brutalised. In other words, today’s growth
and prosperity are not leading large parts of the population to a
better life. On the contrary the pressure on the individual is
increasing and physical and psychological health is breaking

While workers during most of the post war period learned that
economic growth gave increased prosperity in society, we are now on
our way to a situation where we are experiencing growth without
prosperity. Naturally this contributes gradually to undermining the
legitimacy of the prevailing economic system. Those who daily tell
us that «We have never had it better in Norway» do not in other
words know what is going on in the labour market. At the same time
they reveal through their statements that they are distant from the
reality in which a majority of the country’s workers find
themselves. The distance between the political elite and normal
people has increased enormously, and rightwing populism can exploit
uninhibited the vast amounts of bottled up discontentment that is


This huge social problem has still not received its rightful
place in public debate for several reasons. Firstly, it is an
untrendy theme within the claimed urbane and post-modern elite that
has taken control over the media and thereby over the public debate
agenda. Secondly, the ruling and those ruled are recruited from
separate social groups. The decision makers have in other words
little knowledge of people’s everyday problems. Thirdly, those
affected tend to individualise the problem: «It is me who is not
good enough and cannot master the new demands in the labour

This depoliticisation and individualisation of the labour
market’s brutalisation has solid support among the political elite,
among employers and – not the least – among a string of
professionals that are equipped with their individual coping
strategies. Various creative and constructive suggestions to
solutions are flourishing, such as narrowing the conditions
required to receive disability pension, or reducing social
insurance rates and sickness benefits, or frequent re-education and
job changing, not to mention our previous Foreign Minister’s
generous advice to indulge in yoga, breathing exercises and
physical training during work hours (Nationen, 6.1.2001). All of
these are launched so that workers can better tackle the burden of
a tough labour market. Sometimes one gets the impression that a
massive collective attempt is taking place to promote «individual»
coping of extensive social problems.

In many areas it is of course important to train and strengthen
the individual’s capacity to withstand physical as well as
psychological burdens. But when the whole problem around the
consequences of such a serious economic and social development as
we are experiencing today is reduced to individual coping, it
reflects to a great degree the depoliticisation in the labour
movement as well as in society in general. Very few will willingly
get closer to the core of the problem, the brutalisation of work we
are experiencing in the aftermath of the deregulation of market

There is little doubt that this is connected with power
relations in our society. Neo-liberalism has given economic forces
a stronger upper hand in society as well as in the work place. This
contributes in increasing competition, restructuring and
performance pressures. Companies become interested in getting rid
of labour that cannot give their full capacity – the whole
time. An increasing percentage of workers feel directly controlled
at work, and thereby have less influence over their own work
situation. This creates increasing alienation. The psychosocial
pressure is increasingly becoming the causal factor of sick leave
and disability (NOU 2000: 27, p.55). The increasing incidence of
burn out is connected in other words to neo-liberalism’s
brutalisation of work. So it is not sufficient to focus on the
individual’s coping with the problem. The increasing fatigue is a
result of a system controlled by a higher order.

In the trade union and labour movements’ histories, labour
relations and environment are the results of social struggle. Every
step in the direction of increased welfare and better working
conditions for the average man and woman has come about in a
struggle against strong economic and political forces in society.
The improvements were achieved by opposing the capital forces,
intervening in the markets, reducing the destructive competition
and putting an increasing part of the economy under democratic,
social control. These were and are two sides of the same issue.

It is therefore time to go deeper than the politicians’
scratching of the surface. We must ask fundamental questions about
what is wrong with a society and a labour market in which more and
more people are worn out, excluded or declared disable, where the
psychosocial problems are increasing, where the brutalisation of
work pressurises more and more people to a life based on a
disability pension, social benefit, disempowerment and
stigmatisation – to an increasing degree and in tune with
increasing prosperity in society. What is it that stops us from
developing a labour market where people’s capacities, needs, wishes
and dreams are at the core? What is it that creates the great
distance that today exist between the life we want to live and the
life we are offered under neo-liberalism?

It is not sufficient to ask what is wrong with the working
environment, we must go further and challenge the underlying
driving forces that create the increasing pressure on workers. If
we were to do that, then we must confront the market forces, we
must mobilise and build alliances strong enough to press the
neo-liberal offensive back again. This is all about power; the
MNCs, banks and insurance institutions will not let themselves be

From the trade unions’ side the brutalisation of work must thus
be met by a strategic attack on two fronts. On the one hand it
becomes important to meet the concrete attempts in undermining and
weaken existing labour laws and agreements that protect the workers
in the labour market. The employers’ deregulation and
flexibilisation strategy must be rejected.

On the other hand, it becomes necessary for the trade union and
other popular movements – national and international – to
promote demands and organise the struggle for more extensive
regulations, interventions in the markets and the bending of the
economic forces that press forward the brutalisation of work –
whether it happens through market oriented national governments,
the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, the EU/EEA or other
institutions. The trade union movement must ally itself with the
growing global justice and solidarity movement against

The ongoing campaign in Norway for an inclusive labour market,
which is basically founded on the same narrow and
perspective-lacking policy behind the welfare-to-work policy, risks
ending up as another failed resolution attempt. The campaign gives
however an excellent opportunity to focus on the fundamental
driving forces that lie behind the brutalisation of work. Only
through the spotlighting of these can we avoid falling into the
employers’ «sickness benefits trap»: the threat of a massive attack
on the sickness benefits system if, or rather when, the goal of a
20% reduction in sick leave is not met. The first signals that they
are so far discontented with the campaign’s lack of results have
already arrived from the Confederation of Norwegian Business and
Industry and from rightwing politicians. The trade union movement
would be wise to start preparing a massive campaign to rescue our
sickness benefits.


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