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CfP: "The cost of labour in historical perspective", Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, 2-3 November 2023

27-06-2023 14:01

The second globalisation has raised the issue of the cost of labour as a key variable in the competitiveness of economies. Confronted with the extension of value chains and the emergence of new global players in Asia, European governments have chosen to deregulate labour markets, contain wage growth, and lower the cost of labour. More recently, the resurgence of inflation has brought back to the fore the 1970s debates on the Phillips curve and the effects of the labour market on price increases. The emergence of the centrality of labour costs points to the need to examine them as a long-term historical object to understand economic and social policy choices throughout the twentieth century. Wages cannot be reduced to a variable for adjusting supply and demand on the labour market: They are also an instrument for selecting and training the workforce, and a subject of negotiation – and, possibly, contention – between employees and employers, often regulated and supervised by the State. Furthermore, during the twentieth century, wage setting became a matter of social policy. The development of social protection and the construction of social rights required the introduction of social contributions on both employers and employees, as well as steeply progressive taxes on earned income. The cost of labour, understood as both wages and indirect costs (taxes, social contributions, non-monetary benefits), is a fundamental element of public policy in the second half of the twentieth century. Not only does it affect the production process and the distribution of income but it also has an impact on export competitiveness, on the attraction of foreign investment, and on the creation and consolidation of domestic markets.

Conceived as a first step in the preparation of a journal issue or a collective work, this workshop proposes a historical reflection on labour cost by combining economic history, the history of the welfare state, and the history of labour. The aim is to contribute to the understanding of issues related to the cost of labour through the study of their scholarly, political, and media treatment, approached in their historical depth, taking into account the political, social, and territorial diversities of European countries. This workshop takes as its object the different modes of action on the cost of labour and the different actors involved in its regulation in a multidimensional approach, closely linked to wider social and political stakes. By discussing different European case studies - proposals devoted to France and Italy will be particularly appreciated, as well as those that develop a comparative and/or transnational perspective - it aims to grasp the political controversies around the cost of labour in the context of the debates on the “crisis of the welfare state”, a notion that became commonplace in the 1970s to explain the imbalance between the increase in expenditure and the need for budgetary savings, but also the need to reorient social protection systems as a whole in response to the rise inimportance of new risks.

Participants could consider one or more of the following issues:

1. Expert knowledge on the notion of cost of labour: how did it emerge and what social as well as theoretical needs did it address? How and why do certain narratives become established over time and reach a broad consensus? What is the role of economists, accountants, lawyers, sociologists and demographers? What are the conditions, historically situated, of production, dissemination and use of statistics on the cost of labour? What are the modes of articulation of scholarly reflection with the political and administrative sphere and the economic and social world? The overall debate related to the cost of labour was highly gendered as emerged in the long-lasting mobilization on equal pay: how did different actors conceptualize “family wage” and to what extent did the discussion on family wage change over time? What was the role of feminist thinking in deconstructing family wage and unveiling the gendered side of the policies addressing the cost of labour?

2. The social actors involved in setting labour costs. How has the role of the State and the social partners (trade unions, employers' organisations) evolved historically? How have state and nonactors managed to regulate and set the cost of labour?

3. The emergence of public policies on the cost of labour. What importance have they had in the debates on the so-called “crisis of the welfare state”? How do measures affecting labour costs fit in with reforms of social protection, taxation, and employment policies? How were they supposed to respond to socio-cultural changes, rising unemployment, the entry of women into the labour market, changing demographic structures, and the challenges posed by the long-term effects of de-industrialisation?

4. Links with taxation. In many continental European countries, revenues from social security contributions match or even exceed revenues from income and consumption taxes, thus constituting a third pillar of governments’ revenues. In addition, since the 1990s, double income taxes have been introduced in several European countries, which implement different taxation of labour income (personal and progressive) and capital income (real and proportional). What are the political, economic and social consequences of a high tax burden on labour income? How can the tax wedge debate be historicised? What has been the role of the cost of labour in the process of European construction and integration?

5. The consequences of policies addressing the cost of labour on the level of wages, the functioning and segmentation of the labour market, working times, immigration, unemployment, inflation, inequalities, productivity, industrial policy, technological investment and the financing of the welfare state.

How to apply
To submit a proposal, please send an abstract of the proposed paper (between 100 and 500 words) and a short CV by 21 July to costo.lavoro.vinci2023[at]

Proposals will be reviewed and selected by the scientific committee.

Conference funds are available to support your accommodation and travel expenses.

Please indicate when applying where you are coming from.

Working languages: English and French. Slides must be in English.

Organisation: Giacomo Canepa (Scuola Normale Superiore, Sciences Po Center for History, Université Franco-italienne)

Scientific committee: Eloisa Betti (Università di Padova), Paolo Bozzi (Humboldt University of Berlin), Giacomo Canepa (Sciences Po Center for History, Scuola Normale Superiore, Université Franco-italienne), Federico Del Giudice (Scuola Normale Superiore), Giacomo Gabbuti (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna), Bruno Settis (Università di Bologna, Université Franco-italienne).


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