Sourced from: Third World Traveler
A World Gone Mad
by Eduardo Galeano
The Progressive magazine, Dec 2000
Fear of losing your job and terror at the prospect of never finding one can’t be separated from a ridiculous statistic that could only seem normal in a world gone mad: over the past thirty years, formal working hours, which tend to be less than real hours worked, have gone up in the United States, Canada, and Japan and diminished only slightly in a few European countries. This trend constitutes a treacherous attack on common sense by the upside-down world: the astonishing increase in productivity wrought by the technological revolution not only fails to raise wages but doesn’t even diminish working hours in countries with state-of-the-art machines. In the United States, frequent polls indicate that work, far more than divorce or the fear of death, is the principal source of stress, and in Japan, karoshi, overwork, kills 10,000 people a year.
When the French government decided in May 1998 to reduce the workweek from thirty-nine to thirty-five hours, offering a basic lesson in common sense, the measure set off cries of protest from businessmen, politicians, and technocrats. In Switzerland, where unemployment is not a problem, I witnessed an event some time ago that left me dumbfounded. A referendum was held on reducing working hours with no reduction of pay, and the Swiss voted the proposal down. I recall that I could not comprehend the result at the time. I confess I still don’t. Work has been a universal obligation ever since God sentenced Adam to earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, but we don’t have to take God’s will so literally. I suspect that this urge to work has something to do with fear of unemployment-though in Switzerland unemployment is an abstract threat-and with fear of free time. To be is to be useful; to be you have to be salable. Time that isn’t money, free time lived for the pleasure of living and not dutifully in order to produce, provokes fear. There’s nothing new about that. Along with greed, fear has always been the most active engine of the system that used to be called capitalism.
Fear of unemployment allows a mockery to be made of labor rights. The eight-hour day no longer belongs to the realm of law but to literature, where it shines among other works of surrealist poetry. And such things as employer contributions to pensions, medical benefits, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, Christmas bonuses, and dependents’ allowances are relics that belong in an archaeological museum. Legally consecrated universal labor rights came about in other times, born of other fears: the fear of strikes and of the social revolution that seemed so close at hand. The powerful who trembled in fear yesterday are the powerful who strike fear today, and thus the fruits of two centuries of labor struggle get raffled off before you can say good-bye.