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(en) Britain, Organise* #64 - casualisation and flexibility

Date Wed, 06 Jul 2005 20:37:14 +0300

Casualisation not only leads to lower wages and
benefits, but also increases the ratio of unpaid
to paid labour, and the intensity of work.
It is a process where a dual labour market
develops, stratified and mutually isolated: a
core of permanent workers with a periphery
of workers on fixed-term contracts, or
contracted as self-employed individuals.
This article attempts to introduce the topic,
giving a broad overview of casualisation,
and pointing to some of the broader
implications of the forced "flexibilisation" of
the labour market.
Any discussion of this must start with how
workers subjectively experience the process.
The workers who are at the sharp end are
almost entirely atomised, forced to use
agencies as mediators between themselves
and the employer. The assignments are
variable in length, but generally grant less
that a days notice before the work finishes,
the worker either returning to
unemployment, or being sent to another
workplace. This is an effective barrier to the
development of solidarity with other
workers, and frustrates workplace
The agency receives a portion of each hours
work, leaving the worker doubly exploited,
with two sets of parasites extracting value.
Temps don't qualify for the most basic of
benefits: maternity pay, sick pay, pensions
and holiday entitlements are all denied. As
a result of EU temp-work legislation,
agencies were forced to extend rudimentary
benefits to their workers, like holiday pay.
However, this was largely a PR exercise.
What happened in reality was an
incorporation of holiday pay into the hourly
rate that a worker received, a paper
exercise in shuffling numbers around.
Capital seems to have brought about `just-in-
time' employment to go with its `just-in-time'
pr oduction.
Low -skilled and manual jobs have become
almost totally the preserve of the agency,
and here "flexible" results in dangerous
work often being undertaken with little or no
training. The death in 1998 of 24-year old
Simon Jones in a shipyard only hours after
star ting work (with several minutes
"training") was the first well publicised
example to bring this to peoples' attention.
The trend continued of course, with current
rates of more than 200 workers killed at
work each year (with over 2 million being
killed worldwide). The recent case of the
Chinese cockle-pickers illustrated how use
of illegal migrant labour, leaves such
workers in a hyper-exploited position
existing outside any regulatory framework at
all. Little is known of the true extent of this
but sectors known to be heavily reliant are
garment manufacture, restaurants (and
associated food industries like the meat-
packing plants in Norfolk), construction and

Contract killing

easier to pit workers against each other,
extracting more labour at times and places
more convenient to the process of
production. Casualisation and "labour
flexibility" have the overall effect of making
it more difficult for workers to improve or
extend their conditions.
Casualisation as process: there to here
The phenomenon being described must be
understood as a product of the class
struggle. It is very difficult to disentangle
the complex interdependencies of cause-
and-ef fect, as every economic development
is a result of the manoeuvrings of both
sides. It seems that the process of
casualisation is largely a result of three
1. the shift from a manufacturing to a
service based economy
2. decomposition of the working class as a
political actor
3. increase in investment capital flows
The shift away from manufacturing (with it's
traditional high levels of unionisation and
strong collective bargaining) and towards
services (small workplaces, higher ratios of
management to workers, low levels of
unionisation) has been a feature of the post-
Thatcher era, with an attendant shift of
power from labour to capital.
This facilitated the destruction of organised
labour, alongside anti-union laws and
manufactured set-piece confrontations. A
non-unionised worker in the UK gets an
average of only 23 days holiday a year,
compared to 29 for a unionised worker, and
levels of unionisation have consistently
fallen. The now full integration of business
unions into the capitalist structure has
reduced industrial militancy, and
consequently the leadership has failed to
put up a significant fight to defend their
members' interests. This has been a
product not only of the historic defeats of
organised labour, but also the
collaborationist nature of business unions as
mediator between capital and labour.
Accumulated finance capital was used to
fund both the investment and development
of manufacturing plants abroad and the
transfer of capacity to these areas. The
ability of this capital to be rapidly extracted
and redeployed elsewhere - enshrined in
neo-liberal financial policies - has brought
massive pressure to bear on any remaining
knots of organised labour. Workers'
demands are countered with the very real
threat of the outsourcing of their jobs. The
bosses have used this to cut back on wage
costs, attacking the wages and conditions of
unionised workers, and by reducing the
number of workers capable of being
unionised further decomposing working

This amounts to a ratcheting up of the
discipline applied to labour, something that
applies equally to those in longer-term work.
There has been a long-term change in hiring
strategies, with the widespread introduction
of fixed contracts in place of the "job for
life", reducing job security and forcing
workers into having to periodically
renegotiate their positions. The teaching
profession experienced this in the mid-80s,
and it later spread throughout the public
sector, often as a prelude to privatisation.
Agencies are integral to the process of
privatisation and are being extensively used
in the NHS, especially in care-roles,
administration and support positions. Self-
employed subcontracting has long been
used as a way of undermining workers
organising abilities (for example in
construction), and this has now spread to
many other sectors. This uncertainty has
lead to the longest working hours and
highest levels of work-related stress in
Europe as workers compete with each other
to retain their jobs. The benefits of this to
the bosses are obvious: higher intensity of
work at lower costs, with the added gift of
regular unpaid overtime (according to the
TUC, to the tune of £23bn last year alone)
and a disincentive to "be difficult".
According to the National Bureau of
Statistics, the productivity per worker has
more than doubled in the last 30 years.
There has also been a massive rise in the
number of workers as women (by choice or
necessity) rejected their traditional roles and
entered the job market, and the heightened
disciplining of the unemployed marshalled
many into low-wage service sector jobs.
Deregulation of labour markets (e.g. through
weakening legislation that once protected
job security) makes it easier for employers
to eliminate jobs or replace workers with
others on less secure contracts. It becomes
A new role for the reserve army?
It is possible that the shift towards a
casualised workforce denotes a
restructuring of the terrain of the class
struggle. The "reserve army" that capitalism
has historically created seems to be under
new orders, and is being redeployed as
casual labour. The massed ranks of the
unemployed have ceased to be as useful to
capital now that the working class has been
politically weakened. Their historic
function was to keep wages down by
providing a constant entry pressure on
the job market. The effect of this
supply glut was mitigated by the power
of collective bargaining. As the
strength of the unions (and by proxy
the ability of workers to collectively
force higher wages on the capitalists)
has been reduced, there is less
collective pressure keeping wages up,
so a portion of the unemployed can be
siphoned back into work.
The dole arose through the inclusion of
working class needs in the social
democratic state. With the retreat of
social democracy, the state has
repeatedly sought to `reform' welfare.
The introduction of the jobseekers'
allowance in 1996 spearheaded an
increased disciplining of the
unemployed through social policy. The
New Deal and associated programs
have been very successful in forcibly
shifting unemployed workers into low
wage, low security "McJobs", often
socially subsidised (according to a June
2000 Tory attack on Labour, to the
tune of around £20K per job). Workers
are regularly conditioned to tone down
their expectations and be prepared to
accept lower paid or skilled work than
they had hoped for. The benefits
system is used as a stick to make it
increasingly difficult to refuse low paid
work or anti-social hours, and a carrot
is profferedin the guise of the tax system.
Through benefits such as the Working
Family Tax Credits, people are structurally
encouraged onto the job market, often into
part-time work, with workers subsidising low
wage employers through their income tax.
This greater regulation of the unemployed is
the flip side to the deregulation of the labour

Prospects for resistance

The last 30 years have seen a rapid increase
in the amounts of speculative capital
flowing around the global capital markets,
which has placed another weapon in the
armoury of the capitalist class. The
globalisation of capital places pressure on
all capitalist states to deregulate labour
markets and facilitate cuts in labour costs.
Attempts to radically alter the structure of
UK capital markets as part of a reformist
agenda would risk provoking a rapid outflow
of capital, something the domestic state is
never going to allow.
The prospects for effective resistance to
casualisation therefore do not lie in abstract
campaigns intended to put pressure on the
state to legislate against the bosses'
interests. There are three main strategies
that may hold some promise.
Worker-Run Temping Agencies
Temping Agencies
One possible model for mitigating the
ef fects of casualisation is for workers to set
up their own agencies, outside the control of
the capitalist class. It has been suggested
that these could be directly run by unions.
In a mature economy with intense internal
competition, companies mainly concerned
with reducing costs could respond well to an
agency able to provide workers at or below
the cost of workers from other agencies. A
co-operatively managed agency would have
much lower overheads than a private-sector
equivalent being able to provide higher
direct wages and benefits to its workers and
possibly providing a site of political re-
There are historical precedents for this. The
beginnings of the labour movement in Italy
saw the formation of labour cooperatives
amongst agricultural workers, which
resurfaced in the movement of the Italian
"organised unemployed" in the 80s.
Similarly, the early French syndicalists set
up (or more accurately took over) the
"Bourse de Travails"- labour exchanges that
provided a forum for political agitation.
Aside from the distaste engendered in
contemplating managing our own
exploitation, there are issues associated
with entering into competition with capitalist
enterprises. One of the factors that caused
the co-operative movement to fail was that
it was subject to all the same pressures as
traditional business. Over time hierarchy
and bureaucracy developed and the
radicalism ebbed. For a union to take on
such a role may exacerbate the
contradiction already implicit within what
Negri calls "its traditional function as half-
party and half-merchandise". However, the
class struggle must take precedence over
squeamishness: the question is whether
these forms would help or hinder the self-
organising of casualised workers.

The Development Of New Subjectivities

Some initiatives have accepted the
new terrain of atomisation and are
seeking to develop a collective
identity based on the shared
experience of casualised work. The
idea seems to be to attempt to
develop a class-consciousness based
not on proximity to other workers but
on the insecure conditions
experienced by temporary workers.
Apar t from the use of wanky rhetoric
like "existential precarity", my
personal opinion is that this project is
of limited usefulness beyond raising
the profile of casualised workers.

Restoring the ties that bind

As described in the previous section,
there has been a long-term shift in
hiring practices by the business class.
As the form of the labour commodity
changes, the organisational forms
that struggle take must also change.
Casualisation presents a threat to the
whole working class, not just those
affected by it directly. The slow
encroachment of fixed-term contracts,
forced overtime and the reduction of
job security are threats to everyone. If
a casualised worker finds a better job,
they leave behind a position that
another worker must fill. The most
promising route for struggle is the
development of much stronger links
between temporary and permanent staff
within each workplace. There are many
positive examples of this, for instance the
Workmates group on the London
Underground and the Telegraph workers
who brought temps in on all future wage
demands and negotiations. This route
would develop solidarity between workers,
reduce the isolation experienced by the
casualised, and increase the chances of
both segments of the workforce winning
better conditions.
A long term goal should be developing class
forces to the point where there are strong
alliances between employed and
unemployed workers, leading to the
organisation of workers before they even
enter the productive process. This would
also be a method of organising workers
within a community framework,
encouraging class solidarity on another
front. This was successfully accomplished in
Sweden and Norway during and just after
WW1, where workers in construction,
logging and mining won better conditions
through threatening pre-employment
alliances between employed and
unemployed workers, leading to
the organisation of workers
before they even enter the
productive process. This would
also be a method of organising
workers within a community
framework, encouraging class
solidarity on another front. This
was successfully accomplished
in Sweden and Norway during
and just after WW1, where
workers in construction, logging
and mining won better
conditions through threatening
pre-employment strikes.
* Organise is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
It is published twice times a year to promote discussion
and the development of anarchist communist theory.

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