Anne Gray

Common Sense 18 (December 1995)


A. Introduction

The 1980s and 1990s have seen a significant worsening of conditions for the UK working class, particularly for the unskilled. The collapse of the post-war boom has brought not only mass unemployment, but reduced `quality' of those jobs which remain, in terms of greater insecurity of work, a shift towards part time and short term jobs and increased use of labour-only sub-contracting. These trends have been echoed, with some differences, in the rest of Europe. They have been associated with changes in labour law in several countries to sweep away barriers to sackings and to temporary contracts. The spread of casualised and part-time work, frequently described as `atypical' work, and the reduction of regulations about workers' rights are characterised in conventional labour economics as `flexibilisation' of labour markets (Layard, 1990). The concept of `flexibilisation' is often extended to include removal of features of unemployment benefit systems which are thought to deter people from taking available jobs (OECD, 1993). Presented thus in a positive light, `flexibilisation' is upheld in OECD and European Commission documents as essential to the growth and survival of western economies (OECD, 1990; EC, 1993).

This paper attempts to document the other side of the coin - the ways in which flexibilisation has negative effects for workers; firstly because it involves more work for less pay, with fewer rights at work; and secondly because it tends to set up a vicious circle whereby new forms of work weaken workers' capacity to organise, which in turn facilitate further `flexibilisation' and intensification of exploitation. To emphasise these aspects of the process of `flexibilisation' of labour markets, that perhaps unwieldy and euphemistic term will be replaced in this paper by `flexploitation'.

Whilst it is not the purpose of this paper to provide a theoretical analysis of the `flexible' labour market, it may be useful to situate this largely empirical exploration of the issue within broader debates around the labour process and class analysis, and thence to define some possible forms of struggle against `flexploitation'. Casualised forms of labour have always existed to a greater or lesser degree, particularly prior to the post-war boom, and Pollert (1988) argued that the evidence for significant growth in the use of temporary, part-time and self- employed sub-contract labour was weak. Seven years on, the trend to increasing casualisation seems to have become much clearer, as shown in part B of this paper. Pollert, together with Tony Smith (1994), refer to the confusion in left reformist discourse of the `New Times' variety between flexibility in the labour process (i.e. in the form in which the labour commodity is available to capital) and flexibility in production (i.e. the responsiveness of the firms to changes in consumer demand). The only connecting thread between these two concepts is that the `flexible firm' attempts to minimise labour overheads and therefore often seeks to buy labour in the form of sub-contracts, homeworking or temporary hiring. Gough (1986) has pointed out that the `flexible firm' in the case of the `Third Italy' has been associated with extreme exploitation of women and immigrant workers.

Pollert refers to another type of false optimism about the significance of the `new' labour forms, that of the `libertarian futurologists' who `have heralded work in the small business, self-employed, informal and domestic economy as...offering autonomy, `flexible' hours, and in general `flexible working lives' (Pollert, ibid 1988). Examples of this school are the work of Charles Handy (1984) and James Robertson (1985). It is true that part-time working can sometimes be negotiated on terms which benefit workers, preserving fringe benefits and securing `family- friendly' arrangements which are particularly valuable to women (New Ways to Work, 1993). But all too often, `atypical' work is used by employers to reduce their labour costs at workers' expense, taking advantage of the particularly low bargaining power of certain groups such as women carers, unemployed people and rural workers. The `libertarian futurologists', in their emphasis on the potential for greater leisure, tend to overlook the fact that part-time workers, if not struggling lone parents, are frequently the secondary earners in households which, taking both women's and men's work together, are supplying more labour to the marketplace than at any time since the 1970s. The rise in women's paid work has not been offset by a corresponding fall in men's working hours. This trend is occurring both in the UK (Mulgan and Wilkinson 1995) and in the USA (Schor, 1991; Rifkin, 1995). From the USA, there is a clear picture of couples who work increasingly long hours, often by holding several part-time jobs, to sustain their standard of living in the face of falling real wages. One third of full-time men in Britain now work over 48 hours per week, compared to a quarter ten years ago, and there is much unpaid overtime; the recession and cutbacks in the public sector make it easier for employers to impose increased workloads on vulnerable workers (TUC, 1995). In most other EC countries, working hours have been falling much faster than in the UK over the ten years to 1992 (Employment in Europe, 1994, chapter 5) The maldistribution of work between employed and unemployed suits the bosses' agenda; it sustains the `reserve army' of the unemployed whilst keeping many workers too tired and busy to think about struggling for better conditions.

`Atypical work' is a development to which the Marxist analysis of class structure needs to respond. A recent review of class analysis and labour process theory (Carter, 1995) finds a list of actors on the social stage of this literature which one might regard as rather incomplete; the `worker' (manual or intellectual), the supervisor, manager and capitalist are there, but the class position of self-employed contract workers is not addressed. Given the increase in self-employed working, mainly `own-account' working, which took place in over half the OECD countries during the 1980s and was particularly marked in the UK (OECD, 1991), this is a theoretical gap which needs to be filled, although to attempt to do so would be beyond the scope of this paper. The growth of the self-employed category implies that it is not a `residual' group of petty commodity producers; rather, capital uses this group to reduce fixed labour costs and the capitalist state promotes the `entrepreneurialisation' of the unemployed through schemes such as the Enterprise Allowance (OECD, 1992). To a varying extent, self-employed workers are outside of the hierarchical structure of the firm; they are neither managers nor managed. Work discipline, for many own- account workers, is mediated purely through the contract relationship rather than through workplace supervision. They are frequently outside the scope of union organisation, and their use can be a subtle form of de-recognition, as for example in the building trades in the late `70s and early `80s. Unions such as the AEEU, GMB and, in the media sector, BECTU have had to develop new strategies to accommodate and draw in self-employed workers. Owning some capital (such as tools, a sewing machine, or a computer) but usually not enough to enter into a direct relationship with the final consumer, and bearing the costs of their own training without generally being involved in the training of new, younger workers, self-employed workers constitute a fraction of the labour force to which there does not correspond an effective fraction of the `reserve army'. The unemployed often have neither tools nor training, so cannot easily enter self-employed work. Not only is this a problem for the unemployed, but it is a problem for capital to the extent that only the presence of unemployed who can effectively take the place of existing workers can help to keep the wages of those workers down. The role of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme (and its successors, the Business Start Up schemes run by Training and Enterprise Councils), as well as similar schemes in other European countries, needs to be examined in the light of this contradiction.

Neo-classical labour market theory has presented the `insider/outsider' dichotomy as a way of describing the actual or potential conflict of interest between those who have jobs, and want to preserve existing wages and conditions, and the unemployed who may be willing to accept less than the current wage just to get a job. The growth of precarious and part-time work creates a category of workers who do not clearly belong on either side of this dichotomy. Workers on short-term contracts are frequently forced back into unemployment (Daniel, 1990); some part-time workers are frustrated full-timers. Many factors inhibit either group from being fully `inside' the collective bargaining system. The notion of the `reserve army' which places the unemployed almost outside the scope of class analysis, is hardly adequate to describe the collective subjectivity of unemployed people or of the `precarious' groups in the labour force, still less to recognise that people shift frequently between the first of these categories and the second, sometimes doing so for many years without having access to a long-term job (Daniel, op.cit). The concept of the `underclass' beloved of right-wing attacks on welfare `dependents' (Murray, 1990) makes out that some people are almost permanently unemployed; in fact the evidence for this is weak (Buck, 1992). Most of the unemployed eventually get back into work, although some older workers are forced into premature retirement (Beatty and Fothergill, 1994: Devine 1989). The concept of `marginality' (Chapman and Cook, 1988) may be a more helpful beginning in describing the class position of frequently-unemployed people, with its emphasis on being the `object' of state policy, on bureaucratic surveillance and its disempowering effect, on a bureaucratically mediated connection to the world of work through training schemes, and on unequal political and social rights. But it is a pessimistic view, and cannot account for the prominent role played by unemployed people in recent struggles against the Criminal Justice Act or motorway building in the UK, or for the strength of the response to the cutting of the youth minimum wage in France in 1994.

What is perhaps most important is to find forms of organisation which bridge the divide between `insiders' and `marginalised', an issue which is taken up later in Part D.

The next part of this paper seeks to justify the term `flexploitation'; Part C examines why it has happened, and draws out the differences between the UK and other countries in the form and extent of the process, highlighting how the effects of `flexploitation' are significantly worse in the UK than in many other European states, due to specific Tory policies. This leads to a discussion in Part D of the possibilities of resistance. The final section of the paper is an invitation to participate in further work.

During the past year, a CSE working group on `The Future of Work' has been discussing some of these issues, unhappily so far with a membership mainly confined to London. This paper is not a report of the group's work, which in any case ranged wider than `flexibilisation', and any errors or shortcomings here remain entirely the responsibility of the author. But it is an attempt to provide a reference point for some of the group's concerns and a basis for further discussion.

B. `Flexibility' or `flexploitation' ?

Casualisation and the increase in part-time work not only lead to lower wages, fringe benefits and promotion prospects. They also increase the ratio of unpaid to paid labour, as well as the intensity of work.

Part-time work can be more intensive (in terms of effort per paid hour) than full-time work - there are less meal-breaks, and the ratio of travel time to paid time may be larger, especially for those who need two part-time jobs to make ends meet. Part-timers have poorer training/promotion prospects, poorer leave and pension provisions (Hewitt, 1993, page 117-8). They can also be asked to work overtime without receiving an overtime premium. Part-time and temporary workers lose out on pensions, holiday entitlements which go with seniority, training and chances of promotion (TUC, 1994). Many occupations (building trades, teaching and vocational training, media work) are being transformed by self-employed sub-contracting. This form of work imposes on the worker new forms of unpaid labour, such as marketing yourself, time spent discussing contracts, time spent writing invoices and tax accounts. It also means that all slack time is unpaid. The self-employed are not paid for training, and risk losing income if they spend time supervising trainees, with the result that the cost of training is thrown back onto workers themselves and onto unemployed youth.

These `flexible' forms of work have an indirect effect of lower wages in the long run, because casualisation and part-time working makes trade union organisation more difficult. Self- employed sub-contracting has long been used by building employers to undermine union organisation; it is now spreading to other sectors. Part-time workers are easier to control, and until the Law Lords' recent defence of part-time workers' job security rights (see below), Tory legislation had made them easier to sack than full-timers. It is more difficult for part-timers to attend meetings, or to be organisationally active. They are less likely to be given time off work for union duties (Guardian report on the TUC's campaign for equal rights for part-timers, 7.12.94). Temporary workers are also more difficult to unionise because more vulnerable to sacking. In manufacturing industry, many part- time and temporary workers are hired on non-union contracts (Potter, 1987). There are also examples of employers recognising a union on condition that a proportion of the workforce should be on temporary contracts excluded from collective bargaining procedures (Labour Research, Nov. 1985, page 277) - a kind of internalisation of the `reserve army' within the firm.

We now come to some historical data...

i) Part-timisation

Since the late 1970s, there has been a gradual substitution of part-time for full-time jobs in the UK, as also in several other industrial countries. (Employment Gazette, Dec. 1994, page 483). Between 1978 and 1993, 2.7 million full-time jobs disappeared in Britain and were replaced by only 1.5 million part-time jobs (Employment Gazette, Historical Supplement no. 4, Oct. 1994, table 1.1).

Thus most of the increase in employment in the UK in recent years has been of part-time work, but this does not mean that people have more leisure, rather the reverse; part-time jobs are largely taken by women, and the increasing labour force participation of women means that working hours per household are rising. In other words, the amount of total labour and of surplus labour at the level of the household is increasing.

Since part-time jobs rarely provide sufficient income for someone who is the principal or only wage-earner in a household, they are of little help to the unemployed who will often be better off on benefit. More than half of the recent growth in part-time jobs has been for jobs of less than 16 hours per week, which do not bring entitlement to Family Credit (TUC, op.cit., 1994). Many of these `low hours' jobs pay less than the threshold wage for National Insurance contributions, thus denying the worker future benefits. Moreover, part-time jobs in service industries often involve unsocial or highly variable working hours. Thus, `flexibility' of working time patterns as sought by employers is only rarely consistent with genuine work-sharing to help the unemployed, or with carer-friendly patterns of work. Notwithstanding this, exceptions can be successfully negotiated in some instances, and the struggle to improve part-timers' conditions is not entirely a zero-sum game (New Ways to Work, 1993). Unfortunately, however, there is a considerably lower rate of trade union membership amongst part-time than amongst full- time workers (TUC, op. cit).

Most of the increase in part-time jobs in the UK has been in the service industries (Employment Gazette, historical supplement, page 5, Fig. 3 and Table 14). Part-timisation has been associated with the shift from manufacturing to services; in the UK, part- time jobs always were more common in services (28.6% in 1978, 32% in 1989) than in manufacturing (7.9% in 1978, 7% in 1989). However, this does not mean that part-timisation can be dismissed as a sector shift phenomenon. Within the service sector itself, there is clear evidence of a substitution of part-time for full- time contracts since 1989, amongst men as well as women. In manufacturing as well, the share of part-time jobs and of women's employment has risen slightly since 1989.

Between 1989 and 1993, the increase in UK part-time jobs (456,000) was offset by a decline of 391,000 in full-time jobs. Part-time men rose by 169,000 and full-time men fell by 286,000. Part-time women rose by 287,000 and full-time women fell by 105,000. Overall, women working in the service sector rose by 182,000 and men fell by 117,000.

Two separate trends seem to be going on here - a strategy of substituting part-time workers for full-time ones, and one of substituting women for men. Both are ways for capital to reduce labour costs per hour and per unit of work done, and to achieve greater `disposability' of the labour force. In 1993, 81% of part-timers were women, trapped in low-paid jobs because of the difficulty that part-timers often experience in getting training and promotion. Female part-timers in 1993 had average hourly pay of only 4.96 pounds, compared to 6.68 pounds for female full-timers (Labour Research July 1994, page 9, quoting the New Earnings Survey of 1993).

Only 2.6% of the increase in part-time jobs between Sept. 1984 and June 1994 was in national government, where equality of conditions for women is securely established. Over 13.5% was in food retailing, where the shift is associated with an increased market share for supermarkets at the expense of small family-run shops with mostly male proprietors. Here, therefore, low-paid women are taking the place of self-employed men. A further 7.7% of the increase in part-timers was in business services, showing the shift to cheaper and more `disposable' women in private sector office work.

The impact of unemployment on individuals' and trade unions' bargaining power may be the main reason for greater acceptance of part-time work as a substitute for full-time contracts. Union attitudes are changing, becoming softer towards part-time hiring, and many unemployed are prepared to take part-time jobs rather than nothing (Emma Tucker, Financial Times, 15.3.94, page 25). David Goodhart (ibid) points out that part-time work grew faster in the 1970s than it has done since, and attributes that growth to the demand for part-time work by `married' women. But recent TUC research suggests that one part-time worker in seven is doing such work for lack of a full-time job, and that `reluctant' part- time working has increased by 60% in the last ten years, going by the statements of respondents to the Labour Force Survey (TUC, 1995a). The truth is that employers in the manufacturing sector took advantage of that demand to relocate plant in rural areas and new towns, away from historic centres of trade union power. Part-timisation was a cost reduction strategy then as it is now.

The recent Law Lords ruling on a legal challenge brought by the Equal Opportunities Commission on the grounds that lack of rights for part-timers discriminated against women (Financial Times, 21.2.94, page 1), may lead employers to change their practices. It may, in fact, lead employers to specify a fixed term contract in situations where they would not previously have needed to do this, and use such a contract as a means in itself to continue to deny equal pension and holiday entitlements with full-time permanent workers. The EC may soon develop proposals for protection of fixed-term contract workers (Guardian, 7.12.94) which no doubt the UK government will resist.

For the worker, part-time work means more stress per hour paid (because less breaks and longer travelling time). Of some concern, therefore, is the finding that between 1984 and 1994 the number of people holding two jobs (at least one part-time) increased from 445,000 to 789,000. Over the same period, part- time self-employment has grown by 155,000, often held in conjunction with a part-time employee job. It seems likely that many of those holding two part-time jobs would prefer one full time job if they could get it. Yet because double job holders may be classified as full-time workers in the Labour Force Survey, they are probably not included in the 765,440 part-timers (191,000 male, 574,400 female) who say in the survey that they work part-time because they could not find a full- time job. Added to these may be women who could find a full-time job but could not take it because of the expense of child care. The recent Employment Gazette article on part-time workers (December 1994) says that 80% of women part-timers do not want a full time job, but that implies that 20% of them do, numbering 956,000. If one deducts from this number the ones who say they could not find a full-time job (574,400), over 381,000 women might be able to work full-time (with their present or another employer) if their child care problem could be resolved.

Part-time work for the real convenience of carers would involve negotiating a right to job sharing with the same hourly pay, security and pro rata fringe benefits as full time workers. But part-timisation on employers' terms is far from that.

Part-timisation has led to a significant phenomenon of under- employment throughout Europe. Over 5% of the labour force in the EC are part-timers who would prefer a full-time job (ERGO report, 1992, page 30) - in other words about one third of part-time workers consider themselves to be under-employed. If considered to be actually part of the unemployed, this group would swell their ranks by over 50%. In fact amongst the unwilling part-time workers are a significant element, difficult to quantify from the LFS, who are on part-time job creation schemes for the unemployed.

The UK has an exceptionally high proportion of part-time jobs - over 20% in 1991, compared to 16% in the EC as a whole excluding Spain and Portugal (Employment Gazette Dec. 1994 page 483). The increase in part-time work during 1983-91 has been more rapid elsewhere than in the UK, perhaps because part-timisation had already gone so far in Britain.

ii) Temporary work and reduction in job security

Will Hutton has estimated that seven out of ten newly created jobs in Britain are now part time or fixed term, and that workers whose contractual position enables them to benefit from unfair dismissal protection are now only 35% of the workforce, compared to 55% in 1979 (Hutton,1995). There has been a sudden upsurge in fixed-term contracts since 1992 (Beatson, April 1995, page 9). From 1.1 million workers in 1984, the `temporary' category grew to 1.2 million in 1992 and to almost 1.4 million in 1994. A recent TUC document finds that 85% of new employee jobs in the year to autumn 1994 were temporary (TUC, 1995b). Increased casualisation in the public sector was a major cause of this trend.

Temporary workers (self-defined) increased in the UK from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s (Employment Gazette, January 1986), but have remained no more than 6 or 7% of all employees, the proportion varying with the trade cycle. However, the unemployed may be presented with a different picture. In 1977, only 6% of vacancies filled by job centres were for temps, but by 1984 the proportion had risen to 32% (Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services, quoted in Labour Research Department, 1987).

An ESRC sponsored study shows a severe decline in job security particularly affecting women with children and a `generally unrecognised rise in discontinuous employment' (Guardian 6.9.94).

One view of temporary contracts is that although there is some cyclical tendency for them to increase in an upturn and fall during a downturn, and a slight increase overall due to a sector shift of employment towards services, where temporary contracts have always been more common, there is no strategic change in employers' behaviour about length of hirings (Bernard Casey, 1988; and Employment Gazette, April 1988). This view also points to the minority of temporary workers who are highly paid professionals, emphasising that the growing use of fixed term contracts is for computer programmers, `consultants' and trainers of various kinds. Case studies, tell a different story, suggesting a groundswell of casualisation which represents a long-term change in hiring strategies. In teaching there was a shift towards fixed term contracts in the mid-80s, often given to unemployed teachers who take a wage cut to get back into the profession (Labour Research, November 1985, page 278). Numerous public sector jobs, particularly those being prepared for privatisation or `agency' status, went over to fixed-term recruitment during the same period, destroying previously established notions of ` a job for life' in the civil service and utility organisations (ibid, and Terry Potter, 1987).

The growth of a dual labour market, with a `core' of permanent workers and a `periphery' of workers on short-term hirings or contracted on a self-employed basis, is a recognised international trend during the last decade or more, and one which has contributed to increasing insecurity and lack of bargaining power.

International data on temporary work (including both agency work and fixed term contracts) suggest that it is less important in the UK than elsewhere. In the EC 12, 9% of the labour force were employed on temporary contracts in 1989 (EC, 1992), compared to just over 7% in the UK (OECD, Employment Outlook, 1991, chart 2.8). In the EC 12, temporary work is higher in the distributive trades (13.5%) and in other services (12%) than in industry (9%). But its increase, in those countries where that is marked, is much larger than can be accounted for by sector shift. Increased use of temporary or fixed term contracts during the 1980s has been present in most EC states, but a major shift in only a few -

France, the Netherlands, Portugal and above all Spain. But it takes different forms depending on the country, showing that legislation can sometimes make it relatively `worker-friendly', but also that a shift towards insecure work can be an unfortunate side effect of job subsidies to help the unemployed. In France, increased temporary work is associated with a spread of `temp' agencies, which are subject to strict state control and compensate the worker if a new assignment is not available at the end of a job (OECD, Employment Outlook, July 1993). In the Netherlands, temporary hiring is used mainly as an initial screening device by employers, and about two thirds of temporary workers later get permanent jobs. In Portugal and Spain, the spread of temporary contracts follows changes in the law on job security (Spain 1984, Portugal 1991) intended to reduce fixed labour costs by making it easier for employers to fire. In the Spanish case, temporary contracts were also encouraged by wage subsidies to hire the unemployed which lasted for six months (Jimeno and Toharia, 1994; ERGO report, 1992). Now over 30% of the Spanish labour force are employed on fixed term contracts (OECD, 1993), frequently going from unemployment to temporary work and back again. Advocates of temporary `job guarantees' for the unemployed should take note.

Jeremy Rifkin (The Ecologist, vol. 24, no. 5, Sept/Oct. 1994, page 186) identifies a widespread strategy of American capital to institute `just-in-time employment' as part of `just-tin-time production':

`Many corporations are creating a two-tier system of employment; a core staff of permanent, full-time employees and a peripheral pool of part-time and contingent workers who earn an average 20 to 40 per cent less than full time workers doing comparable work while receiving little or no benefits such as health insurance....In a process of `just-in-time employment', a contingent workforce can be used and discarded at a moment's notice and at a fraction of the cost of a permanent workforce. As one temporary worker at an automotive plant said, "They think of us as throw-away people". The very existence of part-time and temporary workers is used to drive down wages for the remaining full-time workforce'.

The difficulties of being `throw-away' employees impact especially on youth and women, and are a major cause of becoming unemployed. In the EC as a whole, there is a strong overlap between temporary and part-time work, and the proportion of temporary workers amongst women is greater than amongst men (Delacourt and Zighera, 1992). Amongst youth under 25, who suffer almost as much as women from not having full-time permanent jobs, over 43% of part-timers were temporary in 1987, compared to 14.2% of full-timers. Amongst women, 10% of part-timers were temporary but only 3% of full-timers (EC Labour Force Survey). However, in Britain about one eighth of women part-timers are considered to be temporary (Humphries and Rubery, 1992).Temporary workers are quite likely to be unemployed for part of the year, and hence the EC labour force survey (a snapshot view) may underestimate their number. About 18% of the EC's unemployed have lost their jobs because of the expiry of a temporary contract (Employment in Europe 1991, page 56).

It is more difficult to quantify temporary work in the UK than in countries such as Italy or Spain where legislation and statistics distinguish between `temporary' and `open-ended' contracts. There is little need for British employers to define short-term contracts when there is no compensation and hardly any redress against unfair dismissal for anyone who has been less than two years in the job. Because actions for unfair dismissal are only available to employees who have been in the same job at least two years, and redundancy compensation has the same threshold period, many employers may see no reason to define a contract as fixed-term.

Under the Tories, protection against dismissal has been severely reduced. Before 1979, workers could claim tribunal protection against unfair dismissal after six months' work for one employer. A minimum amount of compensation was guaranteed in successful cases. Now, at least two years' service (five years for part- timers) is required to gain access to a tribunal, as well as payment of a deposit. The automatic right to return to a job after maternity leave has also been removed. (Labour Research, June 1987, page 16; May 1989, page 17). The UK now has fewer rights against unfair dismissal than most other EU states (Low Pay Unit New Review, Feb/March 1994). It is also the only EU country with no statutory right to paid holidays or legal restriction on hours worked - thus making it more important for workers to be in a job long enough to secure their rights by inclusion in collective agreements.

iii) Self-employed sub-contracting

Self-employment grew faster than total employment in 12 out of 20 OECD countries during 1979-90 (OECD 1992). In the UK, this trend was much faster than anywhere else, the self-employed having almost doubled in numbers during the period of Tory rule to almost 12% of the working population. This is still small by comparison with southern Europe, where artisan small business survive in large numbers. But it is significant that up to 25% of new entrants into self-employment have been through the Enterprise Allowance Scheme for the unemployed. The proportion of self-employed without employees rose from 60% to 70% during the same period; most of the new `enterprises' are lone individuals. The OECD study also showed that the self-employed have on average lower incomes than employees, and work longer hours. The main components of the rise in self-employment have been the building industry and the service sector, including catering and cleaning work contracted out by the public sector, but there was also a rapid increase in self-employment in manufacturing. It is estimated that for every 100 self-employed workers assisted by the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, 50 employee jobs are lost. Thus Tory policy has assisted a shift towards insecure and underpaid sub-contracting work.

iv) De-regulation of minimum wages; the loss of Wages Councils

The abolition of most Wages Councils, leaving the Agricultural one as the only surviving example of legal minimum wage safeguards in the UK, leaves this country as the only EC state without any regulatory control of minimum wage rates (Deakin and Wilkinson, in Eithne McLaughlin, ed., 1992). Since abolition in 1992, there has been a substantial drop in wage rates (Low Pay Network, Manchester, quoted by Tim Laing in Ecologist, July 94). For example, in food retailing the average hourly rate in full- time work has dropped to 2.70 per hour, compared to the rate of 3.10 pounds laid down by the former Retail Food and Allied Trades Wages Council. More than 40% of jobs in the Manchester area are now paying below the old wages council levels.

But even before minimum wage controls (never very effective anyway) were removed, the low paid had seen a serious relative deterioration of their position under the Tories. The disposable income of the poorest 10% of British households actually fell in real terms by 14% between 1979 and 1990-91, whilst average real income rose by 36%. Increased dispersion of pre-tax earnings went together with an increase in the effective tax rate on those with less than average pay (Deakin and Wilkinson, op. cit.). The loss of wages councils is but a minor element in an increasingly difficult environment for improving the conditions of lower-paid workers. Added pressure comes from privatisation of many local authority manual jobs, erosion of trade union rights, and the fact that from 1989, the unemployed are no longer allowed to refuse a job on grounds of low pay.

v) Attacks on trade union rights in the UK

Trade union power has been severely curtailed by a battery of new laws since 1979 removing the closed shop, prohibiting `secondary action' (and with it most opportunities for political use of the strike weapon), requiring trade unions to give employers notice of strikes (Labour Research May 1989, page 17 and April 1992, pages 22-3) and interfering so far with unions' internal rules and practices that ILO experts have accused the UK government of breaking ILO agreements in force since 1949 (Labour Research, June 1992, page 5).

vi) Attacks on benefit rights

The scope and level of unemployment benefit has fallen severely. In real terms the level of benefit for family men fell from 26.2% of the average wage in 1979 to 20.1% in 1992 (Hutton, op.cit., page 92). The `replacement ratio' was, and remains, the lowest in Europe. Withdrawal of benefit from the under 18's followed, together with lower income support for the under 25s, and the replacement of some grants by loans from the Social Fund. As the unemployed, in desperation at the lack of jobs for older workers in poor health, began increasingly to seek doctors' help to classify themselves as sick (see for example Beatty and Fothergill, op.cit.), the government decided to replace invalidity benefit with incapacity benefit which will be harder to get. The introduction of the jobseekers' allowance in 1996 will withdraw contributions-based unemployment insurance from hundreds of thousands of unemployed and subject them to a means test. It is now hard to believe that in 1979, virtually all unemployed people over the age of 16 had unconditional rights to benefit for as long as they needed.

Since 1989, there has been a marked tightening of the discipline imposed on the unemployed by the benefit regulations, making it more difficult for jobseekers to refuse low paid work, insecure jobs or anti-social hours. The intention and effect of the new policies towards the unemployed is to get them to `work' harder, as the `reserve army', at holding down wages and conditions of those whom they might replace.

Restart interviews, introduced in 1986, were the first of a series of measures designed to accelerate the exit of the long- term unemployed from the dole queue by inducing them to widen and intensify their search for work. Nearly a third of interviewees, according to the Department of Employment's own research, encounter a suggestion that they should be prepared to accept a lower paid or less skilled job than they had hoped for (Working Brief, April 1993, page 11).

Under the 1989 Social Security Act, unemployed benefit claimants must show willing to accept any job offer whatsoever after the first three months of unemployment (during which time they can restrict themselves to work they consider suitable in the light of their previous experience and pay level). Previous legislation, by contrast, permitted claimants to refuse work which was lower paid than they had previously earned in similar work, or which paid below the going rate.

In the summer of 1994, pressure on claimants was increased by a new practice of offering them `hard to fill' vacancies as a test of whether they are really making themselves `available for work'. Such vacancies include many which are `hard to fill' because of low pay or unsocial hours.

The Employment Department's latest `Skill Needs in Britain' survey finds that recruitment difficulties are sometimes caused by `employers making jobs unattractive (poor pay, poor conditions) or...because the nature of the work is unpopular' (Employment Gazette December 1994, pages 485-6). Clearly the tightening of benefit conditions has an important part to play in removing these obstacles to labour market `adjustment'. `Flexibilisation' or `deregulation' of the labour market goes together with greater `regulation' of the unemployed.

The unemployment benefit level in the UK is unusually low by European standards, with a ratio of benefit to average earnings of only 23% compared to an EC average of 61% (Working Brief October 1994, page 1). This in itself constitutes relatively high pressure to accept low pay, but furthermore, the UK is alone amongst EC countries in insisting that claimants must accept any job whatsoever on penalty of losing benefit.

These `sticks' for the unemployed have been coupled with new `carrots' to take part-time work; increased Family Credit to cover child care expenses, the `back to work bonus' scheme and the pilot `Jobmatch' scheme subsidising unemployed people to take part-time jobs (Working Brief, September 1995, page 7).

C. The reasons for `flexploitation' and its international context

The trend towards casualisation takes many forms; spread of part- time work, of temporary work, super-exploitation of insecure migrant workers and sub-contracting to smaller firms with inferior pay and conditions. The first two characterise Europe, the first three the USA, the third and fourth Japan. The trend has its roots in three major trends of international capitalism:

a) technological change, leading to the shedding of jobs from manufacturing and the shift from manufacturing employment to services in western countries

b) intensification of competition between `first world' capitals and between them and the `third world'

c) deregulation of financial markets, leading to rapid and sudden movements of capital between firms, between sectors and between countries in search of greater returns; to higher interest rates and therefore pressure to reduce fixed costs of all kinds, including labour

The market pressures behind casualisation are perhaps greater in the UK than for most European economies. The UK suffers from higher interest rates and more short-term lending to companies than most other EC countries, with consequently greater pressures to offload the cost of maintenance of labour power onto the workforce itself in terms of less secure employment, lack of training, and lack of redundancy compensation. These pressures would constrain the attempt of any new government to curb `flexploitation' and permit workers to improve their conditions.

However, the difference in pay and working conditions between the UK and other EU states is partly due to the specific stance of the Tory state towards trade unions and workers' rights. The UK is now the only EU country with virtually no minimum wage regulation. The right to strike has been severely circumscribed compared to say France or Italy, where secondary and political actions remain common, and as noted earlier even falls below ILO standards. The rights of the unemployed are especially poor; there is no right to refuse a job on grounds of unfairly low pay; and the lowest benefits in Europe for those who have previously worked. The UK government resisted the EU directive on equal job security and fringe benefits for part time workers, rights which were finally won by a decision of the Law Lords in late 1994 on equal opportunity grounds rather than with reference to the directive.

The Tories' attacks on the working class have led to a marked increase of inequality. Jane Millar (in Sinfield, 1993) finds that the proportion of UK households receiving less than half average income grew from 9% in 1979 to 24% in 1990/91. She attributes this not only to the increase in long-term unemployment, but to increasing `flexibility' and low pay, brought about by the government's attack on wages councils and trade unions, to cuts in the size and scope of benefits, and to the shift from direct to indirect taxation.

Thus inequality of incomes has increased in Britain, in a period when inequality was falling in several other EC states. This contrast suggests that the worsening fate of the poor is due at least in part to government policy, over and above the effects of market forces such as the rise in unemployment and the shift from manufacturing jobs to low paid service sector work, trends from which the UK has suffered no worse than Europe as a whole.

Studies by the European Commission indicate that in a number of EU states, inequality has been falling since the mid or late 1970s (Eurostat 1989). Gini coefficients for France, Germany, Italy and Spain all show a decrease. But in the UK, inequality has been rising since 1979 (EC, 1989a). Whilst the poorest households were getting poorer, the richest 10% have had an increase in real income of more than 50% under Tory rule (Institute of Public Policy Research 1993, quoting research published by HMSO).

Defining `the poor' as those who have less than half the average disposable household income of the country in which they live, the EC finds that 18.2% of the UK population are in poverty - a proportion exceeded very slightly by Spain, Greece and Ireland, and rather more so by Portugal (EC: Living Together; Basic Social Questions in Europe, 1992; quoted in Low Pay Unit New Review Aug/Sept 1993, page 6).

Taking the definition of `poverty' as households being able to spend only 40% or less of national average household expenditure, the incidence of poverty has increased in the UK during Tory rule much more than in any other EC state. Between 1980 and 1985, `poor' households in Britain rose from 6.3% to 10.6% of the total. Italy and Portugal also showed a very slight increase in poverty during the same period, whilst in the other countries it was falling or at worst a constant proportion. (Eurostat 1990).

We are accustomed to thinking of the UK as the `odd one out' amongst European capitalist states because of its opposition to the `social chapter' of the Maastricht treaty. However, the existence of the `social chapter' should not detract attention from the coordinated international character of attempts by the capitalist state to induce a restructuring of the labour process, corresponding to the globalised character of capital itself.

Widespread on the agendas of Western governments is a drive to obtain greater `flexibility' of hiring and firing practices, in other words to secure greater acceptance and legal legitimation of fixed term contracts, avoidance of redundancy compensation, and of part-timisation. OECD reports on labour market policy both reflect this agenda and seek to defend it theoretically. For example, writing of the concerns of labour ministers in the 1970s:-

`High and quasi-fixed labour costs, rigid wage-setting procedures, generous social protection, and rules and practices which shielded some workers in secure jobs at the expense of others in unstable jobs, were some of the factors that were perceived as reducing the capacity of national economies to adjust to new international market signals and to profit from new economic opportunities'. (OECD,1990, pages 16-17).

The OECD responded in the 1980s by a series of `experts'' reports and conferences, in which:

`The emphasis in labour market policies on flexibility and adjustment objectives did not meet with general approval. In fact, some observers regarded the focus as biased by employers' interests....Many of the deregulations suggested in the labour market area...implied a serious attach on achieved social standards. The Manpower and Social Affairs Committee has over the years adopted a pragmatic stance and has attempted to steer a middle course between the competing claims for change and for maintaining certain achievements, thus trying to reconcile economic efficiency with social equity. More recently, this has brought labour supply policies such as training, job-search and placement measures back to the centre of the Committee's deliberations.' (ibid.)

This is an interesting passage, firstly because its admission that `flexibility' is basically `labour-unfriendly' should lead us to question whether `labour-friendly' forms of flexibility are really what they seem to be. Thus it implies that the apparently more `labour-friendly' agenda of the EC as an international institution, through the `social chapter' and through the Green Paper on Social Policy of 1993, may be deceptive. Alongside the concern for continued `social protection' and equal rights for part-time workers the EC manifests a concern for greater acceptance of temporary work at the same time as associating `flexibility' with the possibility of net job creation. But there seems to be a curious doublethink here. To suggest that making it easier to fire the 80-90% of the labour force who are in work will create new job opportunities for the 10-20% who are not, is rather like telling a TV rental company that it would do better if it allowed its customers to cancel their contracts after six months rather than twelve. Most TV rental companies know better. They would gain some customers who wanted short-term contracts, but as the existing customers came to the end of their twelve month contracts, their demand would become more unstable and less secure as a source of income. If we imagine a trade union in the place of the rental company, the short-term gain in job opportunities made possible if the unemployed can more easily be hired and fired than before will be offset by an overall increase in insecurity, as `flexible' contracts gradually spread to the rest of the labour force when they lose or change jobs.

The OECD presents `active' measures for the unemployed as an adjunct to the `flexibility' agenda. `Flexibility' goes hand in hand with `adjustment' - that is, the nature of the labour `commodity' supplied must accommodate to the nature of labour demand. Training, job search and placement measures for the unemployed are described as `labour supply' policies because they help to change the form of the labour `commodity'. These policies in turn are presented as the `equity' aspect of adjustment, that is, as help to those excluded from work. But, as shown in the section on benefit rights, such policies can include a large element of browbeating the unemployed to accept low pay and insecure work.

The EC's Green Paper on Social Policy (1993) attempted to set an agenda for consensus within the EC by linking `flexibilisation' and encouragement for unions and employers to negotiate reductions in working time. In other words, the `flexibilisation' agenda is embraced, but tempered with a recognition of trade unions as an actual and legitimate social force, which contrasts strongly with the attitude of the Tory government here.

The UK government's resistance to the `social chapter' of the Maastricht treaty has highlighted the growing gap between rights at work in the UK and elsewhere in the EC, and the concepts of the EC Social Charter are a useful stick with which to beat the Tory's sweatshop labour policy. But it must be recognised that the project of the European Single Market is designed to assist `growth' on capital's terms. In particular, it makes it easy for capital to disinvest from countries with rising labour costs. The converse of this is that a strategy of `social dumping' (sweatshop wages, withdrawal of social protection) could be used by one national capital to undercut the others. Such a strategy would undermine the social and political legitimacy of the Single Market project:-

`Although...enterprises need flexibility and...high unemployment reduces the bargaining power of workers, competition within the Community on the basis of unacceptably low standards, rather than the productivity of enterprises, will undermine the economic objectives of the Union.' (Green paper on Social Policy, EC November 1993)

The reference to economic rather than social objectives in this passage serves as a reminder that the social provisions of the Single Market are intended merely to legitimise and moderate the operation of the internationalisation of capital; they are not in any other sense a `pro-worker' provision.

`Flexibilisation' is often portrayed as an inevitable outcome of technological change, to which trade unions must accommodate. But whilst it is associated with the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, `flexploitation' also occurs as a capitalist strategy independent of technological factors. UK regional policy in the sixties and seventies encouraged `mobile' investment into regions of high unemployment, including Scotland. This was often used by companies to move to sites where, away from the competing offers of urban service employers, they could hire part-time women at low wages, frequently un-unionised. A more recent example comes from retailing. There is no technological reason for retail chains like Burtons (Financial Times 15.3.94, page 25) and Gateways (Tim Laing, op cit.) to replace full-time workers by part-time ones, as they are now doing. The spread of part- time work in retailing arises from labour and marketing strategies on the part of employers in these sectors. It is said that shops require several part-time shifts to cater for a customer service requirement which is longer than a 40 hour week, but no parallel argument has been made in relation to road transport, train driving or the police. Moreover, there is no technological imperative which dictates shops' opening hours, let alone one the necessity of Sunday trading. The shift of retailing towards low-paid part-time supermarket workers, taking the place of full-time, more skilled, better paid workers in family-run retail shops could better be described as a feature of competition rather than of technological change. Similar comments could be made about restaurants. Turning to the spread of self- employed sub-contracting, its spread in the building industry in the 1980s, and its creeping introduction into other sectors, is not a technological phenomenon but a deliberate strategy by which employers offload fixed labour costs. There is also a broader view that technological change is itself a response to class struggle (Panzieri, 1957). If there is nothing technologically inevitable about flexibilisation of labour on employers' terms, it is something which can and should be resisted. The question is how.

D. Perpectives for resistance to `flexploitation'

`Flexibilisation' is not a new phenomenon, with the exception of a few inventions of the last decade such as `zero hours' or `on call' contracts which may be regarded as a form of economic house arrest for the workers concerned (Huws, 1989). The casualisation of the 1980s and 1990s can be seen as a return to the pre-1914 years, when intermittent short-term jobs were the lot of the mass of unskilled workers. Nor is the fragmentation of production, with sub-contracting to smaller units and to self-employed individuals, anything new. In Japan, sub-contracting to small firms operating an inferior secondary labour market has been established practice for decades (EC DG V, 1989 b). Increasing sub-contracting was a significant trend in the Weimar Republic, making it more difficult for trade unions to retain their influence, and helping to set the scene for the final conquest of the trade unions by the Nazis. (Bologna, 1994).

Returning to the specific features of UK capitalism which make `flexploitation' worse than elsewhere in the EU, the question of how `short-termism' and the dominance of finance capital could be attacked, and whether this is practicable as a `reformist' agenda is a complex one. Will Hutton has suggested that it could form part of the platform of the next Labour government (Hutton, 1995) but his critics have questioned this (Red Pepper, March 1995). The globalisation of capital places pressure on the capitalist state everywhere to deregulate labour markets and facilitate cuts in fixed labour costs. Attempts as part of a reformist agenda to radically alter the structure of UK capital markets would risk provoking an outflow of capital and a Labour administration's ultimate nightmare; a run on the pound.

In any case, the Labour leadership so far shows little political will to reverse the Tories' anti-trade union laws, and the recent wrangle with the TUC (July to September 1995) casts doubt on the strength of Blair's commitment to a national minimum wage.

Widespread unemployment goes together with continuing high level of overtime for those who have jobs. As noted earlier, Britain stands out amongst EC states for particularly long hours for full-time workers (Employment in Europe, 1994, page 113). The replacement of part-time work on the bosses' terms by job-sharing with full equality of conditions for full-time and part-time workers, and by work-sharing deals which will benefit the unemployed, is both a challenge and a problem. Whilst the engineering unions have won substantial concessions on working hours, the chances of successfully mounting such campaigns in the economy as a whole are affected by a large number of derecognitions and a fall in trade union membership, now at the lowest level since 1946 (Hutton, op.cit., pp 92-93).

Under `Fordist' conditions, it is possible for workers'struggles to influence both the direction and impact of technological change and therefore to forestall deterioration of workers' conditions. For example. in large automated plants in France and Germany workers have been able to negotiate modifications of working time patterns to reduce the impact of labour shedding, or to create greater blocks of leisure time within the typical working week. But unfortunately the concept of a reduction in working time to a 35 hour week without loss of pay `mainly reflects a German male manufacturing worker point of view' (Financial Times report on European Trade Union Institute conference, 9.12.94). The arena in which trade unions are powerful enough to negotiate pro-worker work-sharing deals is declining all the time. With the public sector shrinking and being privatised, and large-scale manufacturing plants continually falling in number, there is less opportunity for that kind of bargaining to take place.

These changes, and the threats to union strength from the phenomenon of `flexploitation', call for specific trade union strategies to draw in temporary and self-employed status workers. One possible model is for the union itself to become the supplier of labour, through itself organising a `temp' agency. The dock labour sector provides some interesting examples of this (Turnbull, 1994) as does the work of the GMB within construction trades. Indeed, labour cooperatives amongst agricultural workers were amongst the earliest forms of trade unionism in Italy (Louis, 1983). On the other hand, for a trade union to take on such a role may exacerbate the contradiction already implicit within `its traditional function as half party and half merchandiser' (Negri, 1988).

Obviously there are numerous historical examples of effective unionisation of casual workers, from British dockers to Californian fruit-pickers. Nor does effective resistance necessarily depend on attachment to a particular industry or occupation, as shown by the 1993 struggle of French youth against a reduction in the minimum wage. But as the labour commodity changes, forms of struggle need to adapt. What is needed is an alliance between organised workers and the unemployed or marginalised, which attempts the organisation of jobseekers before the point of hiring, rather than after they have been hired. One option would be area-based approaches, following the example of the Tyne-Wear 2000 Group (Byrne, 1985). Another would be a unified struggle for radicalisation of the benefits system, to attack the discipline being imposed by the state on the unemployed in order to force people to accept low wages (Gray, 1988). The unemployed workers' movements of the 1930s, in Germany, in Britain and in the USA, are worthy of study.

As the state intensifies its attempts to discipline and control the unemployed, and use them to force a low-wage `solution' to the unemployment problem, establishment of a high-level minimum wage is crucial for both unemployed and employed. Caution is also needed lest left proposals for new measures to train and place the unemployed should inadvertently assist employers' strategies to reduce fixed labour costs through casualisation. In particular, the Spanish experience shows us to beware of temporary wage subsidies. Incentives to hire the unemployed need to be linked to the offer of a long term employment contract and to the recruit's opportunity to continue in the job. Generally, there is a danger in categorising all forms of `help' to the unemployed as positive. Unless constructed on the terms of a real alliance between workers and unemployed, such measures may be no more than a way of forcing through the employers' agenda.

E. `Flexploitation' as part of an agenda for a co-research initiative

It is not too difficult to build up a statistical portrait of `flexploitation' in the UK and in other countries. What is much more difficult to develop is a qualitative picture of how the various aspects of `flexploitation' interact with each other and with changes in the form and extent of workers' resistance. From the discussions of the CSE working group there emerged the idea of a `workers' inquiry', challenging the largely management orientation of much academic research on industrial relations and labour markets, and attempting to develop information and analysis by dialogue with workers themselves. It should avoid duplicating the collection of information which can be obtained from official or academic sources, now far more extensive than they were in Marx' own day. What is important is to gain a holistic view, from workers' experiences rather than simply statistics, of what is happening in the secondary labour market (the `Macdonaldisation of jobs' as somebody put it in the CSE working group); to find out what impact the spread of part-time, temporary and self-employed contract work is having on trade union organisation and methods. What alternative forms of resistance are emerging as a result of trade unions becoming weaker, threatened as they are by privatisation, casualisation and part-timisation, and also by state regulation under the Tories ? To what extent can self-employed individuals develop new forms of autonomy and bargaining power ?

Perhaps `co-research' is a better term than `workers' inquiry' since it suggests a collaborative exercise, an interchange of views between equals which avoids defining the informants as the `objects' of research. Academic and media workers are themselves sufferers from `flexploitation', and their analysis can begin from their own experience. Group discussions with shop stewards, with Trades Council delegates, with strikers, with unemployed organisations, could be ways of taking this process forward (1).


(1) For further information about the working group

on `The Future of Work', write to Martin Spence,

18 South View West, Heaton, Newcastle on Tyne,

NE6 5PP.




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