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“Work After Capitalism”


Life After Capitalism Conference, World Social Forum III, 
Porto Alegre, Brazil (January 23-28, 2003)

I. Introduction

From what I understand, this panel is meant to address the question of work after capitalism, to outline a vision (or visions) of what work might look like in a desirable non-capitalist economy, as well as discuss strategies for getting from here to there that are achievable. My plan is to give as brief an overview of the topic as possible, to highlight the main areas as I see them, stimulate some brainwaves, and then get right into open discussion as quickly as possible. 

I assume people already know the nature of the problems we face, and that something needs to be done to change society and the world, to alter the basic structures of power and inequality that have become so dominant, and so obscene. I’m not going to stand up here and insult people’s intelligence by telling them "capitalism is bad." The Left, or at least the Anglo-American Left (of which I am a part), has been pre-occupied with this for decades, and has done a reasonably good job of it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Left has become so good at observing and documenting and critiquing social ills, that it has become more like a witness, and less like the activist engaged in day-to-day struggles that it ought to be. It’s forgotten about vision, it’s forgotten about alternatives, and it’s forgotten that a movement cannot inspire and motivate and grow without positive – and achievable – examples to point to. Most of all, it seems to me, we can’t tell people anything, unless our own movements, our own alternatives, our own institutions embody the values we profess to hold.

So, with this in mind, I’d like to talk mostly about alternative visions of work, and end with a discussion of transition. Inevitably, my vision of a desirable post-capitalist economy, and vision of alternative forms of work, owes much to a legacy of radical theory, informed by libertarian Marxist, feminist, anarchist, Green, and other currents. Particularly helpful and inspiring, in terms of thinking about class and work, has been the "participatory economic" (or parecon) model developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. But this vision, and what I want to talk about today, is not strictly theoretical. Much of my perspective is informed by my actual experience working in a non-hierarchical, collective, worker-run bookstore and restaurant in Winnipeg, Canada, between 1996 and 2001. So I would like to think that the vision of work after capitalism that I want to discuss has lessons and applications for the real world today. Even though my perspective is informed primarily by work and activism from inside the "belly of the beast" (or more accurately for describing Canada, inside the "belly of the lap-dog of the beast"), I would like to believe that it has broader relevance. I would like to believe that it has relevance for those of us working in a range of institutions today, both mainstream and alternative, whether we live in the so-called "advanced" capitalist countries, or the so-called "developing" world. Its relevance, if any, is NOT as a blueprint for replication, but as a case study for discussion and learning and refinement.

A good deal of what is called "visionary" thinking about the nature of work after capitalism operates at a high level of generality. When asked about how work might differ, or how a just economy might operate, many progressive people will say something about direct democracy, and insist that democracy (to be meaningful) must extend beyond the political realm into the economic realm. They insist that there will be collective control over resources and social spending, rather than what we have under capitalism: a state-corporate alliance that runs the economy, top down, makes all fundamental production and allocation decisions, and systematically transfers public wealth into private hands. Some leftists will suggest that socially-necessary work which is also rote or dangerous will be largely eliminated by technological advances and automation, leaving humanity with a lot more free time, and work that is, by definition, more creative and fulfilling. (Others imagine that the disappearance of technology will lead to the same thing.) And in terms of the work itself, with respect to both decision-making and divisions of labour, many progressive people will advocate some kind of workplace democracy and self-management, and suggest that a just economy will re-define the meaning of "work" and "job" in ways that enhance diversity and equality. 

A good example of this is Marx’s famous assertion in The German Ideology that traditional divisions of labour will disappear, and individuals under "communism" will have the opportunity "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticize after dinner." Apart from being a vegetarian’s nightmare, Marx’s vision of work after capitalism, and his hope that work will be varied and more egalitarian (a mix of creative and rote tasks) is nice, but vague. Unfortunately, few Left theorists have felt the need to elaborate, and most have followed Marx’s lead (even the anarchists, by and large) in terms of concentrating on institutional analysis and critique of capitalism, rather than developing their vision of a non-capitalist economy. 

The problem with these existing "visions" (or more accurately, glimpses) of a desirable economy and work is NOT that the values and sentiments expressed are bad, but that Left vision tends to stop there. It’s less a vision of the future than a series of hopeful assertions – assertions which touch on the KINDS of things we’d like to see, and give clues as to the kinds of values we hold, but don’t offer much in the way of practical details or actual institutions. We’re still left with more questions than answers, and unable to answer ordinary people who might justifiably be skeptical. Is it feasible? Does it "deliver the goods" without sacrificing the values we want to uphold? How much will people work? At what kinds of jobs? What will be the basis for remuneration? What will be my standard of living? How will social spending be conducted? Will there be trade? What about research and development? What about artistic pursuits? What about ecological concerns? How will conflicts be resolved in the workplace? What will my work day, or work week, look like? What will be decided in meetings, and conversely, how much room will there be for my own initiatives, creativity, and autonomy on the job? Are there any historical examples of what you’re talking about? And so on. Each question leads to two others, and while the vagueness, generality and ambiguity of Left "vision" can make for good polemic, it becomes less satisfactory when one begins to scratch the surface. 

Some activists suggest that this is all we can hope for, or that this is all we should attempt to outline. They think that to elaborate a more detailed model is arrogant or authoritarian or simply utopian. According to this objection, either we can’t speculate about future details because only actual practice will reveal them. Or we ought not to devise alternative models because we don’t want to impose our pre-conceptions and ideas on the future. We don’t want to be "vanguardist" about imposing a particular vision or model on a larger movement. 

While concerns about rigidity and vanguardism are important, I don’t think they follow from model-building and visionary thinking per se. First of all, I think people need vision, and concrete real world examples of that vision in practice, to inspire hope. It’s not enough to be motivated by a critique of the status quo, by outrage, by the purely negative. We also need a sense that desirable alternatives are possible, we also need the hope of something better, we need to be driven as much by positive values and examples. 

But just as important, I think that different visions of a non-capitalist future directly affect the strategies we adopt today (and vice versa). In other words, the programmes and strategies we adopt TODAY, the structures of the movements and institutions we build TODAY, affect the direction we want to take, and inevitably shape our vision of a desirable future economy. If we’re good little materialists, we should be able to acknowledge this. The harder part is seeing the reverse: how our different visions of a desirable future economy might affect or shape our movements or institutions, and strategies, in the present. The harder part is seeing how differences over long-term economic vision might also reflect substantive differences over values, over what is wrong with capitalism, over what is fair, and over how people should work together. 

Having said all this, it might seem strange that I’m not going to outline any alternative economic model in depth. But Adele [Oliveri] has already fleshed out the basics of the participatory economic model, focusing particularly on balanced job complexes, and the values and arguments behind them. This model is detailed in numerous books and articles available in their entirety online at the "Parecon Project" website (www.parecon.org). In my opinion, the important thing about the parecon model, and what makes it different from anything else out there, is that it not only asks what we want an economy to achieve — what values we want it to satisfy — using clear and accessible language for laypersons like myself. But it also systematically outlines institutions to fulfill the production, consumption, and allocation requirements of any economy. The model rejects both markets and central planning in favour of "participatory planning," a third way that is not only based on workers’ self-management and collective ownership of the means of production, but also satisfies my own anarchist concerns about power, hierarchy, and freedom. More importantly for today’s discussion, the literature on the model also goes into detail about work, division of labour, and decision-making at the workplace level, using a range of enterprises (from book publishing to more complex institutions like airports) as examples. Anyone interested in economic democracy, or a liberatory socialist or anarchist vision, should at least be aware of this stuff.

What I would like to do today is discuss the application of these ideas in terms of day-to-day practice, drawing on my personal experience with workplace democracy at Mondragón Bookstore & Coffee House in Winnipeg. (The business is named after the Basque Mondragón cooperative network, but as will become apparent, the two have almost no similarity in terms of actual internal structure.) I’ll start by giving a quick overview of Mondragon’s workplace, the type of enterprise, as well as the internal structure, divisions of labour, and decision-making. Then, depending on time, I’d like to discuss some of the differences between the theory and practice of parecon, the complexities that arise whenever real people try to work together, the pros and cons of this specific workplace, the successes and failures, the way the institution has evolved over time, and the constraints of operating as an island in the midst of capitalism. I’d like to end by talking about the political relevance of such institutions, their place in the larger anti-capitalist struggle worldwide, the lessons that can be learned (from this, and other "experiments" such as the Basque system, Kerala, and so on), and discuss the transition to a full participatory economy. 

II. Overview of Mondragón

Mondragon is a joint political bookstore and full vegetarian (vegan) restaurant. It’s also a community space, both in terms of being a "hang out" for activists, as well as in terms of being a space for public events, speakers, panels, social evenings, and so on. Since opening in 1996, Mondragon (and the larger "Autonomous Zone" building of which it is a part) has become a focal point for activism in Winnipeg, and has contributed to a larger community and culture of resistance in the city. Its existence and example has also inspired activists in other cities, across Canada and the United States, who have written wanting advice and information about starting up their own projects. 

This is "what" Mondragon is, not "how" it operates. The politics of the business are reflected in numerous ways: in the choice of books it carries, the type of food, the criteria for selecting suppliers and products (for example, fair trade principles, organics, veganism, ecological concerns, and the labour conditions used to produce the inputs or goods that are needed), as well as the relationship with the larger community and activism, and of course, the internal structure of the business. Sometimes the different values and choices conflict with one another, or with the "bottom line" of the business, and it is the collective as a whole that decides (often after excruciating meetings or debates…) how to resolve such problems, without sacrificing fundamental principles or overall economic viability.

In terms of internal structure, job responsibilities at Mondragon are varied and often intellectually interesting, but also sometimes physically and emotionally demanding. Each collective member is part waiter, cook, dishwasher, business manager, bookbuyer, bookseller, personnel administrator, cashier, events coordinator, and janitor. The restaurant component of the business is more labour-intensive than the bookstore, and so fully three-quarters (or more) of each worker-member’s labour time is devoted to this side of the business – where the tasks are more physical, and pace is often more hectic. 

While each worker has some specialized business area responsibilities (such as committee work, which generally requires greater training and continuity), all critical tasks are supposed to rotate over time. In this way, collective members share responsibility for tasks that are creative and empowering on the one hand, and rote or menial on the other – whether this is organizational "management," inventory and ordering, accounts payable, book-keeping, food preparation, planning events and speakers, or running errands and performing miscellaneous chores and cleaning. Being a worker-run collective also requires time and energy spent on solving problems, or completing tasks that don’t fall under pre-existing job descriptions. There is no finite task list for each person. The "job" does not end, necessarily, with one’s scheduled shift. As equal partners or co-managers, workers often volunteer to do, or are expected to do, "whatever it takes" to keep the doors open, to keep the business running smoothly, to deal with emergencies or crises, and to enhance both the financial viability and work environment of the business. 

Most of the day-to-day tasks performed at Mondragon are assigned to a particular shift, while the particular person filling each shift varies over time. Certain tasks are associated with bookstore shifts, others with cafe shifts, certain tasks are required by morning (opening) shifts, and others only by closing shifts. And there are also special shifts for food orders and menu development, as well as for book-keeping and accounts payable. On any given day, job tasks (and even length of time spent working) are not equal. But over the course of a three or four week period, each worker receives a roughly balanced set of shifts and committee work, designed to provide rough equity in terms of overall desirability and empowerment for each person. This is the theory at least — and what it means to have "balanced job complexes." 

In terms of decision-making, one of the goals of Mondragon is to create a work environment in which each worker-member can carry out their tasks without managerial supervision, and each is taught the necessary skills to make any day-to-day business decisions that might be required. Part of the reason behind this is to avoid a workplace characterized by unequal knowledge and divisions of labour, in which a single individual is considered indispensible, or might argue for special privileges on the basis of some monopoly on information or skills. In positive terms, this has to do with creating a workplace that empowers its members, fosters solidarity, and puts democracy and equality into practice.

The collective as a whole establishes and implements all business and personnel policies, specifies hiring goals and firing criteria, approves all job and committee parameters, interviews all new applicants, and conducts all worker-member evaluations. While a good deal of individual maturity and responsibility is expected (or at least hoped for!) from co-workers in terms of resolving grievances, the collective as a whole is also ultimately responsible for mediating and resolving major disputes and inter-personal conflicts. Ultimately, the basic goal of the workplace with respect to decision-making is to give each worker a good deal of latitude for self-management of their own work circumstances, but within the constraint of meeting collectively agreed upon priorities, tasks, and policies that affect the group as a whole. The idea is to develop a system that balances individual and collective needs in a way that it both fair and efficient.

Members of the collective are expected – as part of their "job complex" — to attend all regular general meetings in order to discuss and assign new or unusual job tasks, formulate and debate Mondragon policies, listen to committee or personal reports, discuss finances, evaluate the equity or efficacy of existing job complexes, propose changes to the internal structure or division of labour, as well as raise and resolve possible grievances. The time, length, and frequency of such meetings is determined by the collective, the needs of the business, possible crises, individual inclination, as well as the need for an informed and empowered staff to handle all contingencies. (You’ll note that these don’t necessarily coincide.) When Mondragon first opened its doors, and no one had a clue how to operate a business (much less an egalitarian one), we held meetings every single day after the business closed, debating everything from the most mundane (like the "proper" way to wash lettuce!), to the philosophical. Today, the collective meets once every second week for general meetings, although during moments of hiring, firing, or otherwise crisis situations, everyone is expected to participate in extra or emergency meetings. Finally, "participation" at such meetings doesn’t mean simple attendance. It means being attentive, as well as willing to articulate and argue for one’s opinions, when these are relevant to the day’s agenda, or the well-being of the workers and the business as a whole. 

III. Parecon Theory vs. Practice

That gives you a rough idea of the nature of the business, as well as its internal structure, and some of the principles and goals behind it. But how does this translate into day-to-day practice? How does the theory mesh with the reality? What happens when real people, with different historical, class, gender, or cultural experiences (or privileges or biases or baggage) attempt to work together as equals? What have been the successes and failures of the business? How has it evolved over time, in an attempt to address some of the problems?

First, it should be pointed out that there is a big difference between the participatory economic (parecon) model and a single workplace — and so the dynamics at work in our one little business, operating within and underneath capitalism, are completely different than what they would be in a full "parecon" economy. For one, Mondragon has no relationship to many of the other proposed institutions outlined in the full model — from consumer and neighborhood councils, to participatory allocation institutions – because they simply don’t exist yet. At least, not in Winnipeg. The Mondragon experience is limited to one domain – namely, production – and even within this domain, it incorporates only two major components advanced by the model: 1) remuneration on the basis of effort, and 2) balanced job complexes (or "BJC’s" for short). Furthermore, in the model, BJC’s are not meant to be limited to one enterprise or workplace. Their effectiveness in terms of fostering greater equity, empowerment, and diversity throughout the economy is predicated on their being extended across enterprises, not just within them. For all these reasons, there are serious limits as to what the Mondragon example can even say about parecon theory. In other words, our successes and failures may or may not imply anything about the strengths or weaknesses of the model.

Having said this, I’d like to discuss the relationship (if any) between parecon theory and practice by focusing on a few key areas: 1) balanced job complexes; 2) skills, training, and empowerment; 3) remuneration on the basis of effort; 4) decision-making, non-hierarchy, and self-management; and 5) conflict resolution. There is a good deal of overlap in each area, and problems in one often relate to problems in another, or have similar explanations. However, in each case, I’ll note some of the achievements and limitations as I see them, and suggest some possible explanations and solutions for the latter.

Balanced Job Complexes: 

Balanced job complexes within a single enterprise or workplace means that each worker has a roughly comparable set of jobs and job types, in terms of their overall desirability and empowerment effects. 

This might not seem like a controversial goal, it might even sound attractive to everyone here, but it needs to be stressed because Left and progressive organizations, businesses, political parties and movements almost universally fail to challenge traditional divisions of labour – falling back far too easily, comfortably, uncritically on sexist, classist and hierarchical divisions. (Why that is, is a matter to be discussed elsewhere.)

Where the Left has historically recognized the inequities and problems associated with the separation of intellectual and manual labour, and between those who make the policies and decisions and those who carry them out, the solutions proposed to "overcome" the disparities have been few and not far-reaching. When they’ve actually thought about it, there are about three ways leftists have traditionally proposed to deal with unequal divisions of labour:

1) Pay people more for doing shitty work.
2) Don’t worry about those kinds of inequalities, because at least under socialism (or so it’s alleged) workers will have the right to vote for, and recall their managers. (This is what is often, unimaginatively, held up as the definition, and thus limit, of "economic democracy.")
3) Attempt to rectify the imbalance by rotating jobs now and then, or by having those in privileged positions "dirty their hands" once in a while. (Thus, you have Maoist party cadres being sent to countryside to work with peasants, or you have Che Guevara cutting sugar cane. In each case, they return to their managerial or coordinator role, their greater privilege and status, their greater decision-making power, once the "exchange" is done – presumably with a newfound respect for the "ordinary" worker.)

At any rate, not one of these "solutions" is satisfactory from a working class, and indeed libertarian socialist or anarchist perspective. Balanced job complexes are consistent with those perspectives, but they require a shift in the way we have been taught to think about, and define, jobs.

In any workplace, some tasks will be more intellectually stimulating, creative, rewarding, and empowering than others, and some will likely be more dull, repetitive, rote, dangerous, menial, and less desirable. One thing I want to note is that these two sets are not mutually exclusive: some empowering tasks are also boring as hell; some physical and menial tasks are, in turn, therapeutic or creative or rewarding in their own way. So, what is considered desirable or less desirable work is much more complicated than a simple "rote versus empowering" or "mental versus manual" dichotomy. 

At any rate, leaving aside for the moment what constitutes desirable or undesirable work, if the undesirable tasks are necessary for the operation of the business, then basic fairness dictates that the burden should be divided equally. More creative and rewarding and desirable tasks can be (but need not be) divided on the basis of preference, so long as each person’s overall job package is roughly comparable in terms of empowerment effects, and so long as there’s a general agreement amongst the workers themselves about the equity and fairness of the different job packages. Parecon theory insists that work must be organized according to BJC’s, not only because it’s simply unfair to do otherwise. But also because the absence of BJC’s would have serious implications for workplace democracy and participatory decision-making. It simply doesn’t matter if everyone in a given workplace has a formal and equal right to vote! If some people have jobs that are empowering, and others that are exclusively deadening or menial, the former will necessarily dominate all conceptualization of policy options, all proposals for structural change, all discussion at meetings, and all decisions which affect the business and workers as a whole. The latter will listen, and perhaps debate proposals made by others, and even vote if such is required – but the very nature of their work package will limit their knowledge and skills, and thus, their ability to participate effectively as equal partners in the workplace.

It’s clear that there are numerous ways to actually implement balanced job complexes, and that there is a good deal of room for individual workplaces and collectives to experiment – without sacrificing core values. Variation based on type of industry, size of workplace, number of people involved, and genuine differences in personal preferences and strategies, is not only inevitable, but also desirable.

At Mondragon, job complexes have changed over the last six years, and continue to change, to satisfy the needs of the collective at the time, as well as to make them more balanced if and when inequities have been perceived. The "job complexes" are thus works in progress. The simple fact that workers can propose changes to, and alter, their own work circumstances in ways that they feel will improve the work itself, or increase fairness and efficiency, or otherwise make the jobs more enjoyable and the business more viable, is testament to the existence of a meaningful level of workplace democracy. In my opinion, this alone is an important achievement – given that many workplaces which call themselves "cooperatives" are very resistant to actual workers’ control, adopting lesser forms of participation which may "allow" for feedback, or some kind of representation, and restricted voting rights, but fall far short of self-management.

But in practice, it has been incredibly difficult to achieve that elusive, pure and equitable "balanced job complex" — particularly in areas that require greater levels of skill and training. For one thing, learning the range of skills required by both sides of the business (from cooking and baking, to computer software, to bookstore orders, to data entry procedures and accounts payable), necessarily means longer, perhaps even ongoing, training. In and of itself, this would not be a problem, if it weren’t for worker turn-over, and the loss of skills and knowledge and "historical memory" that this entails. For another, it is has been much more difficult to motivate people to push themselves to learn new skills, or to take on unfamiliar tasks, than one might expect. Even when there are no institutional obstacles blocking access to certain types of work (whether these are the so-called "managerial" or "administrative" tasks, or otherwise creative and empowering types of work), and even when the work itself is not overly complex (as in our case), it can be extremely difficult to get people to take the initiative to train themselves, or take advantage of existing training mechanisms. 

One explanation for this is that Mondragon lacks a clear, effective, consistent training system (discussed in more detail later on). But in my experience, unless a "job complex" is very specific, and unless it becomes impossible to avoid certain types of tasks (and impossible to avoid the training required to do them), people tend to gravitate towards the kinds of work and tasks that they either enjoy, or already know how to do. It’s often easier to do the familiar, even if sometimes it’s repetitive or boring. And it’s not that learning new kinds of work, training and self-training, requires greater concentration per se. Part of the problem lies with the absence of a training system. Part of it is due to the fact that we’re not used to work situations in which individuals are supposed to "police themselves," and in which individuals are allowed, encouraged, and expected to train themselves on "company time." And part of it rests with the individual person, whose political sensibilities don’t necessarily override their own laziness.

So, while most tasks required by the business are shared evenly, and while every worker does have a job complex that includes elements of cooking, cashier work, dishwashing, cleaning, book orders, not to mention participation at meetings, there are continuous problems with balancing some of the so-called "managerial" roles. Particularly difficult to balance has been work related to the following:

1) conceptualization of structural alternatives to address problems or omissions (rather than simply noting problems and raising grievances);
2) holding co-workers accountable (which we have discovered is a really rote task that no one wants to do);
3) representation of the business or its politics (from writing pamphlets or other collective literature, to conducting interviews and workshops, as well as public speaking related to the business, or activism more broadly); and
4) general trouble-shooting or problem-solving required by the business on a day-to-day basis.

Informal hierarchies and informal inequities in the division of labour are more difficult to address, and sometimes more difficult to even see, than formal ones. Some of these have to do with inevitable differences between experienced and new workers, and worker turn-over usually means losing someone with key skills and "historical memory," and starting from scratch with someone new. Some of these inequities have to do with people becoming too comfortable in their roles, or with a "natural" gravitation towards one’s preferences. And some have to do with feeling (rightly or wrongly) that inequities in balancing are too difficult to change, or that even articulating them will lead to personal conflicts. In practice, some people prefer to remain silent about grievances or perceived inequities, for fear of jeopardizing relationships or friendships with co-workers, or because they feel that the potential conflict with a co-worker will create a more negative work environment than the continuation of the inequity or grievance itself. 

The point is that structures designed to equalize skills and knowledge do not automatically do so, and even people who agree that this should be a goal may find, in practice, that their own preferences or comfort collides with their politics. There is no single answer for overcoming disparities in job complexes, and for rectifying formal or informal hierarchies as they arise. As always, a combination of structural fine-tuning and holding individual co-workers accountable needs to be considered. Rather than blaming all the inequities or problems within their workplace on either some "hegemonic" structure beyond their control, or on individuals who are assumed to be usurping power or neglecting responsibilities, workers’ collectives need to be open to self-criticism and proposals which take into account both kinds of responsibility. There is a reciprocal relationship between workplace structure and individual behaviour, and even if it is personally gratifying to blame one or the other for our problems, it’s not necessarily productive in terms of addressing real people and correcting real inequities. 

Even when there are no institutional obstacles blocking access to certain types of work – and even when there is a genuine openness to discussing problems, to listening to alternatives, and to implementing structural or policy changes to address inequities – the goal of achieving fully balanced job complexes is much easier said than done. Ultimately, a "pure" balanced job complex is perhaps best viewed as an endless horizon, towards which we are always moving, always refining our practices, but never quite reaching.

Skills, training, and empowerment

Closely related to the achievement of balanced job complexes is the question of skills, training, and empowerment. People simply cannot have balanced job complexes if they don’t have the training and skills required to perform any or all of the empowering or creative tasks in their workplace. Of course, there is a big difference between training conducted by individuals for and within a single workplace, and training conducted by an entire workforce across an entire economy. In a large, established participatory economy, individuals will likely be able to train and work in areas according to broad preferences, so long as their overall job package is roughly comparable (in terms of desirability and empowerment) to the social average. As such, people will more likely train for long-term work in primary areas they enjoy, which may in some sense be considered a career or vocation, balanced by work in other secondary or tertiary areas which they may dislike but which rounds out their overall job complex. As such, "turn-over" in a participatory economy will likely be less prevalent, and motivated by different factors, than turn-over in a capitalist economy. 

Within capitalism individuals are forced by economic necessity to find whatever work is available, and often choose to apply for work on the basis of minimizing undesirable work circumstances, especially if they feel they cannot find employmen

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