Labour is not a commodity, Education is not a commodity

published 10 March 2017 updated 10 March 2017

By Jim Baker, Education International


The distinction between people and products is fundamental to human progress. Most democratic political and social doctrines have expressed it in one way or another.

The first principle of the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted in 1944, is “labour is not a commodity”. The US Clayton Act already expressed the same notion in 1914 "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce."

This is not an abstract concept. In the case of the Clayton Act, it made a distinction between monopolies, which might be broken up, and trade unions, organisations of human beings, that should not be considered as monopolies or illegal combinations against property.

In a broader sense, “labour is not a commodity” became the basis of social progress. Rights and conditions established by governments or through collective bargaining could only be real if the labour of a human being was effectively taken out of competition.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx, in his writings on alienation argued that work should be an extension of the person and not transform workers into factors of production. He stated, “Capitalism is the first system of generalised commodity production, in which the commodity has become 'a universal category of society as a whole ‘.”

Pope Jean Paul II, in his encyclical, “ Laborem Exercens” (1981) argued that the danger existed of workers being robbed of their dignity “by being treated like cogs in the machine of the economy” regardless of the ownership of the means of production. This danger would exist in centrally planned as well as market economies and regardless of whether one’s employer was private or public.

The Pope also maintained that trade unions could be an instrument of dignity, “It is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more, but above all be more: in other words, that they will realise their humanity more fully in every respect.”

However, social systems began to fail “stress tests” with the integration of the global economy in recent decades. The idea that workers could make progress by being shielded from unfair competition lost traction in many countries.

As markets became increasingly international, regulation remained national or disappeared; as being impediments to “winning” in the global economy.

A succession of trade and investment agreements helped rehabilitate competition based on violations of workers’ rights and erosion of conditions. That undermined advances that had been made over generations in production and services. As investment agreements expanded their reach and new global, corporate actors emerged, they also threatened public services.


Quality education is also dependent on students, education workers, and parents not being considered commodities. However, in some ways, placing education in competition has proven to be even more damaging and sinister than competition in private services.

Relatively recent, private, often global actors see education not as a public good, but as a private market, compete with public education or directly influence it. But, in addition, private sector thinking has invaded many public systems.

Rigid and narrow performance standards and private management methods not only take a lot of fun out of learning and teaching, but they treat students, and in some cases, teachers, as commodities. Such approaches to education may be hustled by private vendors, but the decisions to reduce education to such sorry and limited measurable processes, are made by public officials.

The commodification of education has become what Marx referred to as “'a universal category of society as a whole “. Nineteen century fears have become 21st century realities.

Labour and Education

In the real world, the ideas that labour is not a commodity and that education is not a commodity come together. They are the same things.

Quality education that is not a commodity will be determined, more than anything else, by labour not being a commodity. This applies not only to privatised institutions, but to public schools, where teachers are too often faced with a choice between their professions and their jobs.

The difference between the mission of education and the business of education is illustrated by juxtaposing two approaches to education from two different worlds. The first is a citation from the global consensus on the status of teachers, adopted by the ILO and UNESO in the 1966, Recommendation on the Status of Teachers. It considers the profession of teaching to be the centre of quality education in a wide range or areas, including selection, training, and autonomy.  The second quotation comes from the web site of Bridge International Academies. It argues for a centralised, low-cost approach where “teachers” deliver pre-packaged content.

ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers:

“Teaching should be regarded as a profession: it is a form of public service which requires of teachers expert knowledge and specialized skills, acquired and maintained through rigorous and continuing study; it calls also for a sense of personal and corporate responsibility for the education and welfare of the pupils in their charge.”

Bridge International Academies:

“Our scripted curriculum includes step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.  This allows us to bring best-in-class instruction, international and local research, and curriculum specialists into every one of our classrooms.”

Bridge International Academies, with the support of some governments, hopes to obtain 40 per cent of the “education market” in developing countries by 2025. Government commitments to fair, quality education cannot be honoured through feeding the appetite of edu-businesses. The future is at stake and it should never be for sale.

In that context, the question of whether labour and education are commodities is not abstract. It is not a footnote in history. It is, rather, essential to building a decent society where education is inspired by human values and dignity, critical thinking, and development. It is that kind of education that can furnish the oxygen that children and society require to flourish.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.