Labor Expert Spends Week at MHC

Posted: October 24, 2006

Guy Standing, a world-renowned expert on labor and economics, spent an engaging and illuminating week, October 16 through 20, as the College's third annual Carol Hoffman Collins '63 Global Scholar-in-Residence. Standing served as director of the Socio-Economic Security Program of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN specialized agency that seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights. He has also served on the Commission on European Employment and as a consultant to the U.S. President's Commission on Unemployment Statistics, and to many governments and international bodies, including the World Bank, the European Commission, and the UN High Commission on Human Rights. He is now a professor of economic security at the University of Bath, England, and at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Drawing on his extensive experience in international labor and human rights, Standing spoke to several classes throughout the week. He addressed a variety of topics, including labor as a human rights issue, international governance, and the writings of Hungarian intellectual and economics theorist Karl Polanyi. He also met with local union representatives for a discussion titled "Does Labor Stand a Chance against Corporate Globalization?" In addition, he met with faculty members of the Five Colleges for a dinner and discussion about the challenges of global governance.

One of the classes Standing visited was World Politics, an introductory course taught by politics professor Kavita Khory. The subject of his talk was the influence of the United States on the governance of developing countries through its control of four major international organizations: the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization. For example, Standing explained that the World Bank and IMF often make loans and grants of aid contingent upon adoption of certain policies or reforms, so that the would-be recipient must comply or forego the financial assistance. Standing highlighted phrases such as "international architecture." "Beware of any use of metaphor and buzzwords that don't appear clear to you. They usually are concealing something." Standing spent the second part of class fielding questions on many issues, including the effects of outsourcing jobs and the role of nongovernmental organizations. NGOs have been helpful in exposing the worst practices. "Awareness is the first step in change," he said.

Khory said that her students were impressed by Standing's presentation, his sense of humor, and his forthrightness in answering questions. "Guy is very good at tailoring his remarks to particular audiences. His lecture in the introductory World Politics class, for example, tackled a fairly complicated topic in an accessible way," Khory said. Kara Parks FP'09 said, "It was eye-opening the amount of power the U.S. government has in the world. We think we're so democratic, but we're not."

The centerpiece of Standing's week was his public lecture Wednesday, October 18, titled Work and Labor: The Global Transformation. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd in the standing-room-only Gamble Auditorium, he discussed the harmful effects of globalization on the world's workforce. He explained how worldwide competition has generated regressive fiscal policy, curtailment of social entitlement programs, and the undermining of labor organizations. This combination of factors has benefited a powerful elite at the expense of the workforce. Powerful elites set standards of production across the globe without regard to local culture, conditions, and creativity.

Standing brought the impact of globalization close to home when he talked about how it has commodified and commercialized the spheres of family life, education, and occupation. Observing that notions of efficiency derived from the workplace are increasingly spilling into these areas, he lamented that parental roles are being supplanted by "rent-a-mom" and "rent-a-dad"; authentic family experiences are replaced by services such as "rent-a birthday-party." He pointed out that our education system relies increasingly on standardized tests at the expense of critical thinking. "Its end product is a good, successful job seeker," he said. Standing closed by urging the audience to work for social change, particularly in the areas of increasing quality time, ecological preservation, and recapturing some of the huge profit increases in the corporate sector. "Identify what makes you angry and what you'd like to see change. Participate as citizens."

Eva Paus, economics professor and Carol Hoffman Collins '63 director of the Center for Global Initiatives, which sponsored and organized the Global Scholar-in-Residence program, described the week as "terrific." "Standing has been truly 'embedded' in the intellectual community of the College this week and enriched our understanding of the meaning of globalization for workers, communities, and society. His breadth of knowledge and experience, his ability to engage his audience, whichever it is, and his thoughtfulness in his talks and discussions have truly advanced our community's understanding of how globalization is increasing the insecurity of labor everywhere and of how we have to rethink and revalue what constitutes work."

Related Links:

Listen to the audio clip (35.5MB.MP3, Time: 51:42)

Work and Labor: The Global Transformation

Global Education on Campus