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In Praise of Individual Effort and Free Enterprise on Labor Day: Not Victims but Proud Workers

By: Gina Kawas - @GinaKawas - May 1, 2014, 8:26 am

EspañolMay 1 is International Worker’s Day, recognized in most countries as a commemoration of the struggle working people have endured throughout the world. In most Latin-American countries, people celebrate Labor Day (Día del Trabajador) as a festivity and holiday with the figure of the worker still actively remembered as an oppressed figure, and unionist protests pit the worker against the “savage capitalism” that exploits them.

This win-lose mindset needs to change, and our Latin-American cultures need to start seeing workers not as victims, but as the engines that keep the economy running. What should be celebrated as a tribute to individual effort and capacity has sadly become a demeaning banter, manipulated by populist politicians. Labor Day marches have too often turned into violent protests that end in tragedies.

campesinos-honduras
“We campesinos demand the land to work. Because hunger in the country doesn’t wait!” — Labor Day in Honduras (2012). Source: International Peasants Movement.

Instead of engaging with their work and rallying to demonstrate their inspiration, these so-called workers interpret work and the day where it is celebrated as an opportunity to demand countless benefits. They also negotiate coercive schemes with the government based on the historical rhetoric of oppressors and oppressed.

Unlike what is usually heard from the political and labor sectors, the best way to sustain economic growth is by actually allowing people to have more freedom to work. No obstacles should be posed against the freedom we need, as proposed by trade unions that demand official minimum wage increases every year, among many other demands.

Union leaders have dedicated themselves to drawing national and international attention by appealing to the use of violent language against companies and the private sector in a demagogic manner. They even neglect their own members in the rampant need to appear as victims that need to be protected from the “evil” employers who exploit them.

The biggest achievement of a worker doesn’t come with acquiring a couple of raises approved by different laws; union directors should be more ambitious, aiming and demanding for productive and competitive economies under conditions that enable respect for each and every person. Instead of bolstering entrepreneurship and investment, they settle for mere crumbs, reflected in annual salary increases — detrimental when imposed artificially on countries’ economies — that are intended to pass as “labor rights.”

Unions show little interest in truly benefiting workers, who in this region are mostly young people who need a monthly income and who should receive it according to their level of study and preparation. Demands should be oriented towards negotiating salaries based in productivity instead of the implementation of coercive rules. Under imposed salaries, workers that strive and achieve higher productivity than the one set in the parameters (and could thus earn more) lose out.

Private sector institutions, companies, and enterprises should rally on this day as well, pushing for laws that encourage greater flexibility in negotiating contracts with their employees. This would generate working conditions that bring greater benefits to the employee and their families but also to the employers, who would receive higher levels of productivity.

It is not via demands to the government and a one-voice agenda that workers will feel better about their jobs and treasure them, or for that matter, obtain better conditions for these jobs. Rather, an employee’s relationship with his employer should be voluntary, free, and customized specifically for mutual benefit.

Contrary to popular myth, better work opportunities — and thus being able to provide for oneself and one’s family — can only be attained through freedom of labor and freedom of enterprise. That can come through large, medium, or small companies, even microenterprises that combined employ thousands of families.

Freedom to do business upon the implementation of open economic policies attracts investment and creates jobs. It is truly sad that in Latin America, a region where there is a long cherished desire for growth and development, work and such openness are not seen as the means to that end. “Exploitation” speech distracts from such win-win initiatives and must be replaced by one where productive work is praised and seen as the only activity that will give you the satisfaction of turning your personal effort into rewards.

Not only would voluntary cooperation — through freely negotiated agreements between employees and employers — favor growth, it would help foster a better environment of trust among the members of society. The most efficient way to achieve fair and harmonious work is by having the freedom to work and sign contracts without coercion (for example, without a minimum wage).

Only this will create confidence and bring prosperity, allowing workers to use their human capacity, transforming their work into new wealth within a context of economic freedom. Let’s celebrate Labor Day by applauding free enterprise!

Gina Kawas Gina Kawas

Gina Kawas is a Young Voices Advocate from Honduras and a graduate student of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She has coauthored the book Freedom for the Entrepreneur, published by ANDI and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Follow @GinaKawas.