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Active labour markets and the “right” not to work

John Edwards
p. 47-61


In recent years in Great Britain, “New Deal” policies have incorporated a range of micro-level tactics in the field of employment which in their intention at least, appear to change the delicate balance between responsibilities, rights, voluntarism and compulsion in the relationship between citizen and state.
One such tactic is to make receipt of financial benefits when unemployed, dependent on provision of proof of an active search for work. The purpose of this strategy is to enforce the discipline of the labour market and to impose a sense of responsibility to work as part of the requirements of citizenship.
Such tactics  raise questions about the relationship between work, citizenship, and rights. Does citizenship status for example, now require that people work and develop responsibilities (to other citizens) and  if so  are we re-writing the idea of the rights of citizenship?

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  • 1  “New Deal” is often used as a more generic term for some of New Labour’s social policies but in th (...)

1 Governments in Britain - and to a lesser extent in France - have been involved in macro management of labour markets since the Second World War and in particular in the immediate post war period. Attempts were made, sometimes too successfully, to redistribute the labour force between regions and cities. The idea of micro management by government is much more recent, less certain in its aims, and less likely to achieve whatever its aims may be. The provenance of each type of management is very different - another consideration that will affect their relative success. Post war macro management was about de-urbanisation and regional policy. Current micro management, embedded as it appears to be, in the rhetoric of the “new deal”1 in Great Britain seems more concerned with Treasury savings on Job Seekers Allowance (unemployment benefit), enforcing the discipline of the labour market and imposing a sense of responsibility to work as part of the requirements of citizenship.

  • 2  Another component of active labour markets is intervention to promote a functional fit between lab (...)
  • 3  Each person on the new deal programme has their own “helper” from the Department of Work and Pensi (...)

2 Macro management worked through such instruments as regional development policies, planning controls - and where individual members of the labour force were concerned - by generous incentives to relocate (see for example Cullingworth and Nadin 1994, Newman and Thornby 1996). Micro management uses stick and carrot, the provision of job and interview skills and help in gaining employment for the unemployed but a reduction or withdrawal of benefits if they refuse to take the package. What is not clear however, because the aims are shrouded in rhetoric, is how extensive the impact of micro management is intended to be. There is a world of difference for example between easing a thousand or so unemployed back into jobs on the one hand and combining a large scale return to work (and a concomitant reduction in Treasury expenditure) with a significant attitude shift towards a greater sense of “responsibility” and “willingness to work” on the other2. If the latter, the enterprise appears to be one of attempting to reach micro level goals using micro level techniques. And, unlike the macro management of regional development policies which confined their manipulation of the labour force to simple (but effective) incentives and subsidies, active labour market strategies of the kind being undertaken by the Department of Work and Pensions in the UK must rely on a fairly intensive behaviour management3.

3 The focus of this chapter is on active labour market policies and in particular, the questions they raise about the relation between work, citizenship and rights, in contradistinction to the more simply motivated (and voluntaristic) post war plans for labour and industrial movement. We do not intend in this chapter to offer a comparison of the two examples of labour force intervention but simply to note that such intervention is not new and that a larger scale activity from more than half a century ago but one with simple aims, proved much more effective. Carrots (and lots of them) were possibly more enticing than attempts at attitude change.

4 With this general focus in mind therefore, we proceed firstly to make some general comments on the nature of work on the context of the functions of the state and its place in the citizen contract. Some of these observations will appear to be contradictory, serving, if nothing else, to show the confusing nature of the territory. The substance of the paper will then concern itself with the purposes both conventional and subventional, of active labour markets and how these are intended to (and in practice, do) impact on the values of responsibilities, rights, and liberties as these define the relationship between the citizen and the state.

Remunerated work and the State

  • 4  This populist view is not without some merits but it is easy prey to some counter arguments as we (...)

5 Active labour market policies (in Britain at least) are fairly minor in scale particularly in the overall context of social and economic policies. They are not the kind of thing that makes or breaks governments. And yet, not far beneath the surface of bland uninterest, active labour market policies show a difficult and sharp terrain. We do not have to think long and hard about the nature and consequences of active labour markets before we find ourselves questioning the purpose of work in modern liberal democracies: whether we have a duty to 'work' (if we can), what sort of responsibility we have to fellow citizens, and what liberties we have not to work if we do not wish to do so, (“after all, many rich people don't - at least - not what ‘you and I would call work’ and aren't we told that fundamental freedoms belong to everyone”)4.

6 What then is the purpose of work - or more precisely, the purpose of work in society or modern western societies? All states must produce in order to survive - even entirely self-sufficient ones.  All states will require that some tasks be performed if only to service the welfare and wellbeing of its citizens and to ensure the reproduction of labour and the relations of production (Offe 1984).

7 Clearly the amount of labour involved in these activities will vary enormously as will their division between public and private sectors of the economy. But since there is an irreducible minimum that must be done then it follows that some citizens will be required to labour. Short of an economy based on slave labour or non-citizen migrants, not all citizens will be free not to work (even if they wanted not to and could afford not to). And yet, there is no moral (as opposed to economic) compulsion to work in most liberal democracies, other than for those in receipt of benefits and who have been out of work for a stipulated amount of time (i.e. those at whom the new deal policy is directed). Even less is there any compulsion, other than in the armed forces, to undertake any particular type of work - even of the kind required to maintain essential services. We still leave this sort of direction to labour market forces, with some occasional tweaking.

8 But, if there is no compulsion, there is an expectation that those within a certain age band, who are not women (and less frequently, men) raising children, who are able, or who are drawing benefits, will engage in remunerative work or will seek to do so.

9 In summary then, we may note the following seemingly contradictory points about work, the state, and the citizen:

  • All states require some functions to be performed as a matter of survival;

  • Some citizens must work therefore to undertake these functions;

  • There is, however, in liberal states and with certain limited exceptions, no compulsion to work, even to ensure that vital functions are maintained;

  • There is no compulsion on any citizens to perform any particular types of work (even to fulfil vital functions);

  • Whilst there is no compulsion to work, liberal states maintain an expectation that with the exception of some groups, all citizens will undertake gainful employment.

10Active labour markets occupy a place in this uncertain territory; state intervention where the state's domain is unclear.

Rights, duties and work

11 If we consider active labour markets in their broader functions to be concerned with maintaining a level of qualification and training among citizens that will (other things being equal) keep them in remunerative work, we shall need further to consider in the light of the previous section, why the state might want to do this and more generally, whether we have liberties not to work in contradistinction to a duty to work. What part, in other words does remunerative labour play in the relationship between the citizen and the state?

12 In addition to the human rights that we believe to be the possession of all people, irrespective of their location, status, or condition (see Davidson 1993, Donnelly 1989, Davies 1988, Freeden 1991) most people hold other, but overlapping rights in varying degrees in virtue of their membership of a state.  In large measure, it is possession of these rights that constitutes their citizenship. (Mabbott 1967, Twine 1994, Hill 1994).

13 At its simplest, citizenship consists in a set of rights and duties unevenly reciprocated between state and citizen. We most commonly think of these rights and duties as forming a contract whereby, in return for tax and insurance contributions, citizens have a right to receive welfare and security from the state, whose duty it is to ensure their provision. Less often do we think of the reverse contract in which the citizen has the duty to pay and the state, the right to receive. Nonetheless, for most purposes, including the present, it is the (supposed) citizen right to welfare provided as a duty by the state, that will best serve our argument.

  • 5  From the individual's perspective of course, there are much more self-interested reasons to work t (...)

14 Remunerated labour sits uneasily in this contract. It is through tax on income and through insurance contributions generated through paid employment that citizens fulfil a large part of their side of the contract. Their contributions (in theory) make up a part of what the Treasury requires to fulfil the state's duty to provide welfare and security (among many other things). It is in this context that the absence of compulsion to engage in remunerative work might seem inconsistent with the citizens’ contract5. We shall return to this subsequently, but firstly, we need to say a little more about the contract.

15 For simplicity’s sake, the contract has been depicted as a singular one between each citizen and the state (see Mabbott 1967), each citizen making a contribution and receiving in return, support and security from the state when needed (Parker 1975). But only in a technical sense is the contract between the individual and the state. Certainly, were there to be measures taken against citizens (for tax evasion for example), it is the state that would be the appropriate instrument for implementing them, but financially, the state acts more like an intermediary with the contract effectively being between each citizen and all other citizens (Robson 1976). Thus, it is not my welfare and security I am buying with my tax and insurance contributions, but rather the satisfaction of the pooled needs of all other citizens. In practical terms therefore my duty to make contributions is one I owe to fellow citizens. If I default, others (and not the state) will suffer (if only minutely).

16 It is worth repeating that the basis of these rights and duties is the (unwritten) contract between citizen and state (or between citizen and citizens). The nature of the contract will differ of course from one state or country to another in ways that will make different the quantity of citizen contributions and the quantity and quality of welfare and security the state provides.

  • 6  Articles 22-26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular cover welfare and wellbe (...)

17 These rights (and duties) are of a different kind therefore to those we call human rights which are more fundamental and not based in any sense on contract. Nonetheless, there is considerable overlap between the content of human rights (most commonly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) (see Humphrey 1988, Robertson and Merrills 1989) and that of most citizen contract rights particularly in areas of welfare provision6. When we claim to have  rights therefore, we need to be clear on what basis the claim is made. We all can claim our human rights as laid down in various declarations and these will be common to all.  But in practice, the duty holders of human rights such as international and supra-state  organisations will act only as backstops in fulfilling these duties. Thus, the right to welfare such as education, housing, and health care will conventionally be expected to be satisfied by states as part of the citizenship contract. Only in cases of gross abuse of (human) rights by states do international agencies intervene, and then fairly selectively as between states and particular rights.

18 Thus, if the working age population of a country believes (for whatever reason) that it has the right to life-long education and training for work, or the right not to work, or (less likely), the duty to work, and these rights and duties are being abused, it is unlikely that supra-national agencies will step in to correct matters. We are not dealing here in other words with what some (for example Shue 1980, Bedau 1979) call fundamental or basic human rights. But this engages with a different set of controversies concerning the equality and indivisibility of human rights which go beyond our current concerns. The salient point here is that so far as rights and duties in respect of active labour markets and duties to work are concerned, it is unlikely that we can turn to declarations of human rights for guidance or correction. These are matters for state-citizens contracts which are more fragile and open to regular political interference.

Liberties and labour

19The reverse side to the coin of which rights and duties are the other is the question of liberty or freedom not to work (or not to be engaged in new deal-style life-long learning or training) if we so desire. This lies at the core of the moral debate about active labour market assumptions in particular, and remunerated labour in liberal democracies in general.

  • 7  As noted under the New Deal policy in the UK those who have been out of work for more than eightee (...)

20 We have noted that there is little evidence that western liberal states use or expect any form of compulsion by way of participation in the labour market (with some notable exceptions)7 nor, by extension, in active labour markets. And this absence of compulsion appears inconsistent with a contract that sets up certain rights and duties. There is nevertheless the expectation that those within certain age brackets and able to do so, will undertake remunerated work.

  • 8  There are many other constituents to citizenship not germane to the present topic such as those co (...)

21 What this seems to amount to, with the exception noted, is that whilst our citizenship status consists at least in part8 of having duties to other citizens (to contribute through income taxes and insurance to the state’s coffers), and rights to receive welfare and security founded (at least theoretically) on our fulfilment of our duties, there appears only to be an expectation of discharging our duties and not a requirement to do so. In other words our citizenship duties in respect of work are not duties at all. If the discharge of a duty is a matter of inclination or disinclination, it cannot properly be a duty in any sense that would generate rights. So, if we choose not to work when we are able to do so, do we remain immune to having our rights curtailed (if, that is, the seeming link between duties (now optional) and rights is broken)? The only case where this immunity to loss of rights is broken is the one already mentioned, where continuously unemployed people have their benefits made conditional on work training. They still retain their rights to other goods however such as health care and education.

22 There is another group who may exercise their liberty not to work but who will not either, claim any unemployment benefits. These are the wealthy who can afford not to work and in consequence of this, pay no income tax or insurance. Like the former group however, they do not in consequence lose their right to other welfare benefits (even if they make no use of public sector provision).

23 Now both groups will make some contribution to the state by means of indirect taxes and a variety of other imposts that will affect the latter more than the former but it is a matter of some dubiety that these can constitute any part of our duties to the state. No one has yet claimed so far as I am aware, that our contributory duties are only fulfilled after a certain level of indirect tax contributions has been reached.

24 We appear to have therefore, a situation in which citizens enjoy certain rights (and the social goods they bring) whilst remaining at liberty not to discharge the duties that form the other side of the contract. There are not many who do not work when they “ought” to, but enough to make us question the basis of the employment/welfare contract.

25 What then, are the arguments for and against the freedom of citizens not to work in the context of (at least a notional) contract, a part of which is the establishment of rights to security on the basis of duties to contribute through work? Whatever else it might do by way of breaching the contract, does my exercise of freedom not to work harm others? And is this of any relevance?

26 John Rawls gives lexical priority to the exercise of liberty in his theory and formulates the first principle to say “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Rawls 1972: 60). We have a right to that amount of liberty in other words, the exercise of which will not compromise others' liberty. We can think of plenty of examples of the rightful restriction of liberties in order to preserve others, but since Rawls uses liberty here in a “global” sense, it is difficult to see how the checks and balances might be calculated and whether this should be globally or in respect of like liberties, or particular liberties (and how particular). Should, for example, my exercise of my freedom not to work be curtailed if (and only if) for some reason it restricted another's freedom not to work? Or if, somehow, my consequent lack of contribution by way of taxes and insurance reduced someone’s welfare (assuming that to be an element of liberty), should the exercise of my freedom be curtailed?

  • 9  Exceptions would include physical or mental violence to another.
  • 10  There would again be exceptions as with citizens whose contribution was unique.

27 The problem with these sorts of formulations of course, is that individual exercise of freedom very rarely impacts on other people or another person9. This would certainly be the case where an individual exercised his or her freedom not to undertake remunerated employment. The effects on anyone else’s freedoms (in general or particular) would be non-existent. No-one else’s liberty not to work would suffer and the impact on liberty-enhancing welfare provision would (presumably) be infinitesimal10. There would be no grounds here for curtailing the liberty not to work (at least if we accept something like the Rawlsian formulation).

  • 11  The experience of national strikes in Britain suggests that this is only a mild exaggeration.

28 The same would not be so were there to be a large-scale exercise of the freedom not to work. If for example, there was for some reason, a large-scale exercise among the labour force of their freedom not to work, the knock-on effects would be considerable, if not entirely predictable. Liberty-enhancing welfare provision may be cut back and citizens’ rights to security would be satisfied at a lower level. A looming balance of payments crisis would persuade the state that it could no longer enjoy the luxury of voluntary employment on the part of its citizens and the liberty not to work would be seriously curtailed11.

29 The point of these improbable scenarios is a serious one. In any deontic philosophy, the morally right thing to do cannot depend on a numerical calculus. If a right (or a Rawlsian liberty) not to work is defensible when or if only a few people exercise it, it cannot cease to be a right because the numbers involved change. Rights are not subject to calculus.

30 Unless - and this is the last scenario - we wish to argue that the effects of large-scale exercise of a freedom not to work are not just a matter of size but turn the Rawlsian balance so that the liberty is now no longer justifiable on the grounds that its exercise no longer protects a like liberty for all. We might then argue with Rawls that we have a liberty (not to work) only so long as our actions do not diminish others' similar liberty. Once our liberty does compromise the similar liberties of others, it ceases to be a liberty for all (since we do not know whose actions have tipped the balance).

Rights and duties (again)

31 The long term unemployed in certain age groups have their unemployment benefits (but not other benefits) made conditional on undertaking training and counselling (that is, on their participation in the active labour market). They do not have the right not to work (other than by joining the informal market and eschewing benefit).

32 The wealthy do not have to work and whether they do or not is hardly a matter for the state’s expectations. They have the right not to work unless in the unlikely event, they want to claim benefit.

33 Both groups are citizens of the same status and thereby holding the same rights, entitlements and duties that form the citizen contract.

  • 12  There is nothing unusual in this formulation.  The content of rights is often distinguished from t (...)

34In the previous section on liberty and labour, we have offered one argument (among others) to the effect that the amount of liberty we have a right to must be tied to the balance of when, and whether the actions of those who exercise this liberty in a particular way deprive others of a like (amount of) liberty. An important component of this formulation, not easily derived from Rawls’ discussion, is that the right we have not to work is a fixture - we have it and retain it. What changes is the amount of the liberty we have a right to exercise12. However, what this entails is that the right itself is held equally by all citizens; there can be no grounds for distinguishing between them.

35 The long-term unemployed have the same right as the rich. And this right can be honoured for all groups in society to the extent that its exercise restricts no other liberties. And when rights must be curtailed for this reason, it must apply to the rights of all citizens, not selected groups of them.

Deserving and Undeserving

36 Typically speaking in rights talk, those who fail in their duties to others, to other citizens, or the state may be counted as undeserving in so far as they have failed to maintain the contract, or, more generally, have failed to uphold the institution of human rights and duties (see Whiteley 1969). And those who fail in their duties, particularly contractual duties, may in consequence lose some of the benefits that attach to the rights they have compromised by a failure of duty. This is common in the law but is not unknown in the field of welfare as in smoking and health care, the use of “intentionality” in homelessness policy, in unemployment benefit, asylum policies and so on.

37 This opens up another uncertainty about rights, duties, and the consequences of not fulfilling the latter. It also emphasises an important difference in the way we view citizen contract rights on the one hand and human rights (as commonly understood) on the other. Human rights are conditionless: they do not depend on good behaviour or doing your duty.  Nor is this necessarily the case with contract rights in the view of some commentators (see Sage 1984, Spicker 1988, Dean 1996). For them, to make welfare provision at least partly dependent on “good” behaviour smacks of vindictiveness on the part of the state. For those who take the contractual element more literally however, a failure of duty ought to be reflected in the quantity or quality of the goods to which the right gives a title. In the case of active labour markets, this would entail making benefit conditional on undertaking positive measures to improve one's employability. You may not lose the right to benefit but the content of the right - the material worth to you - might not be what you thought you were entitled to.


38 These analyses of active labour markets and the rights, duties and liberties that attach to them and to remunerated labour as part of our citizen contract leave us with two as yet unresolved matters. We use this conclusion to attempt to resolve them though one will prove more easy than the other.

39 The first is the matter of the relative roles of contract rights on the one hand, and human rights on the other. As we note above, human rights are generally considered to be conditionless whereas there remains divided opinion about whether an element of desert should attach to the benefits of a right when this is part of a contract and derives its justification from the exercise of correlative duties.

40 How then, do contract rights stand in relation to human rights? And what does human rights theory have to tell us (if anything) about the function of work and active labour markets in society?

41 This is easily resolved if we consider the nature of the two kinds of rights and the fact, as some have argued, that this domain of human rights has spread too far into territory better occupied by contract rights (Cranston 1973, Edwards 2004).

  • 13  The idea of dividing human rights into those that are “basic” and those that are not is a contenti (...)

42 Contract rights though common across many countries are generally in their particular content specific to one country (or union of countries). They may, as we have noted, cover much of the ground occupied by human rights, but generally speaking, it is the latter that will be called upon in the case of gross abuse of “basic” rights13. Contract rights will in general be less under the wing of human rights in the field of welfare provision where matters of abuse can more easily be dealt with by the state. The human rights apparatus, in other words, will rarely become involved in cases of states' derogation from the welfare components of contract rights. They will nonetheless remain the ultimate arbiters in cases where a loss of welfare or liberty resulting from a state’s curtailment of rights subsequent to an alleged failure of duty, itself constitutes a violation of human rights. In such cases (and provided the instruments are in place) human rights may trump contract rights. It is worth noting that either a curtailment of a liberty not to work or making unemployment benefit conditional on participation in an active labour market could constitute such cases.

43 The more difficult of our unfinished business is the contradiction that remains between the alleged duty to work (as part of the citizen contract) and the alleged liberty not to work.

44So far we have made the following claims at various points in this chapter:

  • We have a duty to contribute (work) under the contract that is partly constitutive of our citizenship;

  • Apart from some groups such as the long term unemployed there appears to be no compulsion on citizens to work;

  • There does nonetheless seem to be a degree of expectation to work;

  • An assertion that without compulsion, a duty is not a duty in any real sense;

  • We have a liberty not to work.

45The resolution between the liberty not to work and the duty to do so can probably be best effected by a reconsideration of the supposed absence of coercion to work and its seeming inconsistency with duties.

46We have noted that where the performance of duties is a matter of inclination or disinclination, they cannot be truly duties. There must, in other words, be some compulsion. This formulation appears, on further thought, to lack cogency. Unfortunately, the literature in duties is of little help here but it seems in retrospect to be implausible that the performance of duties should be a matter of compulsion.  Indeed, that they should be voluntaristic makes acceptance of and commitment to the contract more contributory to the idea of citizenship. And put this way, the idea of voluntaristic duties, is made compatible both with the state's wish to establish an expectation to work, and the individual's liberty not to do so.

47Failing in one’s duty to work therefore, should not automatically compromise your rights to benefit and to other welfare provision. And to make receipt of benefit conditional on enrolment in a new deal is inconsistent with the spirit and purpose of the citizens’ contract.

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1  “New Deal” is often used as a more generic term for some of New Labour’s social policies but in the field of employment it refers to measures to bring the long term unemployed back into work and maintain a better trained workforce.

2  Another component of active labour markets is intervention to promote a functional fit between labour market skills and the demands of changing technologies.  We shall only touch on this aspect here.

3  Each person on the new deal programme has their own “helper” from the Department of Work and Pensions and the intended outcomes require not only placing the subject in work but also inducing a change of attitude towards something that begins to look like “responsible citizenship”.

4  This populist view is not without some merits but it is easy prey to some counter arguments as we shall see.

5  From the individual's perspective of course, there are much more self-interested reasons to work than honouring some notional contract.  Not working means no income (and if many did not work, state help would be minimal), and none of the things we are told we need.  From this point of view (the citizen as earner and consumer), the citizen-state contract looks like an incidental.  People earn to spend, not as a duty.  Yet, as we shall see, if many of them chose to exercise their freedom not to work, the consequences would be societal, not individual.  Having marked up this individual perspective however, we shall put it on one side and continue to pursue our argument as one about rights, duties, state and citizen.

6  Articles 22-26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular cover welfare and wellbeing.

7  As noted under the New Deal policy in the UK those who have been out of work for more than eighteen months and drawing benefit for that time must undertake training and counselling as a condition of further receipt of benefit.

8  There are many other constituents to citizenship not germane to the present topic such as those concerning the democratic process, nationality laws and so on.

9  Exceptions would include physical or mental violence to another.

10  There would again be exceptions as with citizens whose contribution was unique.

11  The experience of national strikes in Britain suggests that this is only a mild exaggeration.

12  There is nothing unusual in this formulation.  The content of rights is often distinguished from the possession of the right (see Benn 1978, Fried 1978, Feinberg 1980 chs. 6, 7, Hohfeld 1964).

13  The idea of dividing human rights into those that are “basic” and those that are not is a contentious one.  The human rights tradition particularly as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights argues strongly for the indivisibility of all rights. Others have questioned the equal importance of all rights (see Edwards 2001, Edwards 2004).

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John Edwards, « Active labour markets and the “right” not to work  », Observatoire de la société britannique, 2 | 2006, 47-61.

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John Edwards, « Active labour markets and the “right” not to work  », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 2 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 15 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.128

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John Edwards

Professor à l'université de Londres, Royal Holloway, Social and Political Science

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