As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
How would you characterise the state of ‘work’ today and its recent developments? Is work in crisis – if so, how?
The state of work today needs to be considered as part of a global division of labour, with complex chains of production, logistics, and consumption. On the global level, there are several important trends, most notably the shift in manufacturing from the global north to the global south. This has been followed by an increase in what is broadly termed service work in the global north. These developments have involved a revolution in logistics, seen with the containerisation of commodity transport, entailing new concentrations of workers along logistics corridors and in major transport hubs.
It is important to note the continuing importance and reconfiguration of material production and logistics on a global scale, particularly when trying to understand work in the UK. Only some of these trends are directly observable: the massive decline in manufacturing and deindustrialisation across the UK, with the effects particularly sharp in the north of England and Wales, for example. The loss of factory work, shipbuilding, steel, coal mining, and so on has left communities that were previously based around these industries without stable work, instead replaced with new service jobs. In the case of coal mining this is quite literal, with many call centres established directly on top of the closed pits, taking over the shells of warehouses.
The rise of new kinds of service work in the UK has not been met with a new wave of trade union organising, despite important yet relatively isolated attempts. Call centres have become emblematic of these shifts, with an estimated one million people working the phones in the UK. The lack of workplace organisation or trade unionism has allowed management to develop dictatorial practices of surveillance and control. The use of technology allows management to time workers to the second while pushing strict targets. The result is low paid work that is difficult, stressful, and emotionally draining. Unsurprisingly, call centres can have a monthly turnover rate of up to fifty percent.
The practices of measurement, tracking, and targets are increasingly being applied to work beyond call centres. From healthcare, to teaching, and deliveries, most work is now subjected to pressures that strip the activities involved back to quantifiable metrics – even if these miss the vital qualitative dimensions of the work. Broadly speaking, these tendencies can be captured under the somewhat clumsy notion of neoliberalism. Since the 1970s in the UK, there has been a threefold attempt to transform work: deregulation, privatisation, and the roll back of the state from providing services. This has combined with austerity programmes and sustained attacks on worker’s pay and conditions. The significance of this has been a decimation of public sector work, the main sector that retains comparative trade union strength.
Outside of the public sector, the growth of jobs following the 2008 financial crisis has been characterised as low paid and precarious work. This work has not been shaped by trade unions or more traditional forms of workers’ organisation, leaving management practices to develop. The clearest example of this is with the rise of the so-called “gig economy”, seen with both Uber and the new “Uber for X” type companies. These companies have replaced existing services – for example, taxis or food delivery – with online platforms and have effectively outsourced their workforce.
The use of bogus self-employment status is allowing companies to divest themselves from employment rights, whilst presenting themselves as an attractive investment opportunity.
The crisis of work is multifaceted, but it remains central to how many of us experience the world and meet our basic needs.
Dr. Jamie Woodcock is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and his current research focuses on digital labour, sociology of work, resistance, and videogames. His most recent book Working the Phones (Pluto, 2017) is an ethnographic study of working conditions in call centres in the UK. He has previously worked as a postdoc on a research project about videogames, as well as another investigating the crowdsourcing of citizen science. Jamie completed his PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and has held positions at Goldsmiths, the University of Leeds, the University of Manchester, Queen Mary, NYU London, and Cass Business School.