Precarious Labour

Soon we will resume our the discussion on precarious labour in Europe in light of the Euromarches against poverty and exclusion. In light of to the confusion in Paris and Brussels over defining this - which still continues in the Netherlands - this is an ambitious plan.
In Holland we made a little progress along the lines of networking among concerned activists and organizations, communication via the Internet, new forms of organisation and our stance towards institutions involved in labour issues. (Action)research is done with people involved and the issues have been set, through different channels, on the agenda of the national unions.
In this contribution we concentrate on a somewhat formal reconnaissance of »precarious labour«, and briefly sketch recent Dutch social-economic history, together with information that may facilitate a comparative analysis in a European perspective.

Precarious ... what is in a name?

In some interpretations of the definition »precarious labour« it really IS everything bad, wicked, ugly and dirty. [1] Others specifically point out the reintroduction of (forced) labour of the unemployed on public benefit.[2] Yet another exclusively mentions illegal immigrants in this context.

The word precarious according to the Dutch version of the Encyclopędia Britannica means: uncertain, undependable or risky. Precarious labour therefore means labour that can be described as something uncertain, undependable or risky. It indicates the conditions under which labour is performed and tells something about its nature. In those cases where we mean wage labour, it is questionable when »precarious« adds any meaning. Wage labour in a capitalist context is by definition - more or less - uncertain, undependable and risky. Also in that sense precarious labour is of all ages - in any case as long as wage labour has been in existence. Some even suggest that there are forms of wage labour that are not - or not anymore at least - uncertain, undependable or risky. By defining it this way it achieves an ideological charge that confirms the status quo.

Still, it could be useful, on the other hand, to differentiate between regulated en unregulated wage labour. This form of regulation usually takes place in the form of Collective Labour Agreements, which are to some extend enforced by the state. Labour relationships that do not comply with or totally ignore these CLA“s, and escape state regulation and control, could then be termed »precarious«. This approach hinges on the role- and position-taking of the (official) labour unions. Also relevant are the economic sectors in which they operate and their practical approach towards organising the people involved, and their specific dealing with issues regarding non-regulated labour.

Having become an integrated part of society, social democratic unions today definitely are a cofactor in these matters. If, on the other hand, we do not limit ourselves to wage labour, we will have to come up with an answer to the question: Why do people continue doing what they do, notwithstanding its precarious nature? We - as a natural given it seems - theorize people to avoid this form of wage labour. Yet there are numerous cases in which the relationships governing precarious labour can not be labelled wage labour. An extreme example is slavery. But also in the context of the family home and religious or political organisations, unpaid labour is performed under conditions that can only be termed precarious. And these conditions are - as the phrase has it - of all ages. In this light it seems no longer meaningful to wonder what precarious labour is or isn“t. That question only leads to a hairsplitting academic debate.



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Precarious Labour

Precarious ... what is in a name?

Precarisation of our lives

The Netherlands in turmoil/Holland in transition

On Globalization...

.... and informalisation.


[1] At our first meeting after Paris in the Amsterdam working group on precarious labour a dazzling number of ideas and concepts flooded across the table, ranging from voluntary work, work-fare, to domestic labour up to the cleaning jobs of undocumented workers, etc. etc.

[2] In Paris different delegates talked about the reinvention of work-fare, regular labour on an income below the minimum standard.

Precarisation of our lives

The importance of the concept of precarious labour is in her analytical an political significance, in the hypothesis that labour done by (a great number of) people is becoming structurally, and not temporarily or by chance, more and more uncertain, undependable and risky. Can we, by understanding this, describe specific changes in labour relations, in a way that gives a clear insight into the dynamics of changes in society? Is this concept, finally, useful in offering people a shared perspective in articulating their interests in various situations and social positions? As a prerequisite and starting-point of collective political action? Answers to these questions are not found in books. Only on the »battlegrounds« of day-to-day political practice.

We define »precarisation« of labour as a development in which flexibilisiation, deregulation and subcontracting etc. on one hand and exclusion through immigration laws and conditional citizenship on the other, act together under the pressure of competitiveness in a process of »informalisation«.

An analysis that runs parallel to this one is by the economist Saskia Sassen, of Dutch origin and presently lecturing in the US. [3] She states that there are developments in the economies of rich western countries that enhance the need for informal labour. One of those developments is the unequal economic development and growth. Another is the fragmentation of markets. She poses in fact that modern economies will grind to a halt without an informal zone of illegal and semi-illegal labour activities. That informal economic activity acts, notwithstanding her informal character and transgression of laws and regulations, as a kind of lubricant of the formal economy. A government policy of exclusive repression is therefore inapplicable in these matters. It also ignores the fact that these informal activities have numerous positive aspects as well. Those involved learn a trade, obtain an income and are - in a manner of speaking - far too busy this way for more violent forms of obtaining it. Lastly it contributes to building and upkeep of an economic infrastructure in poorer areas.

In the contribution the Dutch delegation made in Paris, we mentioned some of the aspects of precarisation in differing labour situations. For an international comparison of those changes it can be useful to map a few of these aspects more precisely. A problem in these matters - off course - is the difference in definitions used in almost every country and administration, and the fact that even in one country these definitions change with the political fashion-of- the-day.[4] In this aside we give a birds-eye perspective of developments in the last 25 years.[5]

The Netherlands in turmoil/Holland in transition

Mass unemployment, growth and changing composition of the (potential) labour population in the eighties are most prominent, together with the improved participation of women and rise in the number of part-time and flexible contracts, early pensioning of elderly labourers, and the influx of young adults at a later age. Due to the higher levels of education and the recovery of corporate profitability and record-breaking earnings of internationally operating companies and the emergence of »flash« capital.

Economic restructuring in the mid-seventies resulted in a record number of unemployed in Holland in the second half of the eighties. (Mass)unemployment rose from about 50,000 in 1970 to 200,000 in 1980. By 1984 that number had exploded to 847,000, or 16% of the total labour population at that time. A slight gradual reduction follows until 1992, only to resume rising again until, by the mid-nineties the numbers steadily show an annual decrease of about 100,000 people. In the mean time the potential labour population grew from 8.09 to 10.52 million.[6] The non-indigenous (born abroad or of non-Dutch parentage/nationality) part of the labour population in this period grew from 3.4% in 1979 to 10.7% in 1996.[7] By 1970, on a total potential labour population of 8.1 million, 4.7 million people were truly active. In 1999 it had risen to 7.01 on a total of 10.6 million people.
The active labour population grew a little older. This is largely due to a delayed influx of younger people caused by a longer period of education.[8] Increased participation of (mostly married) women is also a very prominent factor. Twenty-five years ago only 1 in 5 women worked for money. Nowadays more than 50% do so. The number of women in the active labour population rose from 25 to 40%.[9]

[3] For the next presentation of the work of Saskia Sassen we thankfully use a contribution, made by Hans Krikke, for the booklet »Uit de schaduw« (out of the shadow), published by OKIA/Plus6Min6.

[4] In the Netherlands the official definition of unemployment changed in 1987 and 1992. The first amendment was connected to the PM-statement that his political career would end at an number of one million. The next change helped to legitimise cuts in legal claims on social benefits.

[5] The most figures mentioned here are derived from the national bureau on statistics, their 1998 report.

[6] The population aged between 15 and 65.

[7] Before 1979 the national registration on ethnic backgrounds of the population was up to non-existence. In World-war II the efficient Dutch administration on the Jewish population was famous in its kind.

[8] The average number of workers educated on a level below high school dropped from 53 to 29%.

[9] In dominant theories that explain these changes one overstate the influence of emancipation over the mere need of extra money to make end meet for a family

Not only the active part of the labour population grows. Also the number of jobs increases. Between 1994 and 1999 alone by 900,000.[10] The total number of productive working hours per year nonetheless remains the same, and has to be distributed over an additional one and a half million people. Aside from the general reduction in workweek duration from 40 to 38 to 36 hours and an increase in recreational leave this apparent contradiction can only be explained in the light of the increase of part-time and flexible contracts.[11] Between 1970 and 1996 the percentage of these contracts has doubled to a total of 30%. In absolute numbers the number of people employed in this manner has gone from 600,000 to 1,800,000. And, over three quarters (77%) of part-time jobs are occupied by women.

For the time being, permanent contracts remain a dominant feature even in part-time labour, but flexible labour agreements already have a solid 12% of the total figure. Half of those positions are held by women, which results in a doubled risk of ending up in a flexible labour situation. For juveniles this risk is doubled even again. In matters concerning part-time and flexible labour contracts Holland is running in pole position. Aforementioned »job explosion«, in which many politicians take great pride, has totally passed by the long-term unemployed. A large majority of these new and mostly lowly-waged positions are taken by (rejoining and/or married) women. Unemployment figures among immigrants continue to drop as well, but slower by far in comparison with those for the indigenous part of the population. For them, the risk of becoming unemployed has even become greater, when seen in relative numbers.

In that same period the economic structure has been uprooted completely. Caused in part by changes in international labour distribution, the shifting of locations of major production sites and worldwide trends in subcontracting, employment moved towards mainly service-oriented labour.[12]
Seventy percent of the total labour population now works in this field. Traditional sectors of productivity like agriculture, industry and construction have seen their share plummet from respectively 6.7 to 4.6%, 28 to 17%, and 11 to 7%. Within the service-oriented sector especially highly specialized positions requiring higher education and training like teachers, doctors, computer-experts, architects and engineers etc. are nowadays working for companies that do not necessarily stick to one sector alone. Quality of labour conditions regarding noise, dirt, stench and danger have not followed the gradual increase in functional levels. They contrast with a all-out increase of pressure in issues relating to time and productivity.

In the mean time the nominal income of the average employee has hardly risen, even though it had gone up 16% during the seventies. Even before the »invention« of the so-called »polder-model« in the Wassenaar agreements in 1982, the real income was heavily eroded by inflation. Between 1979 and 1984 by an impressive 12% even, to gradually fall back to 1979 levels in 1996 (n.b!)

On Globalization...

This sketch gives some insight in social-economic relations in Holland, and can serve as a background to the grotesque recovery of profitability of internationally operating companies. Concentrated economical and financial power, in the order of tens to hundreds of billions of guilders, are being controlled from a few metro poles, without being physically linked to them. It also feeds another phenomenon that wrecks many economies, flash capital, which even according to unsuspected sources (like G. Soros..), in the long run is an even greater danger to democracy than all dictatorships combined. The daily turnover of international financial markets is coming close to the annual global exports, and is generating totally new realities and forces that simply marginalize real developments.

.... and informalisation.

The field of fragmenting markets is less easily expressed in numbers. Mass-production and consumption asides, there is a growing demand for specific products and services, in smaller series, adapted to a whimsical individual change in preferences. This production takes place in the direct vicinity, aptly expressed in Dutch as »under its smoke«, but in this case literally under the shadows of the colossal office buildings that serve as »mission control centres« of multinational companies. This is the setting for an ideal mix of factors that lead toward precarisation of labour; a growing demand for informal labour. Intense competition between companies, operating internationally and locally, forces the costs of labour down, and a large demand for cheap and flexible labour is created. Largely this labour is supplied by the legally employed, who, pressed or not by their bosses, create an extra source of income outside normal working hours without paying any taxes or social benefits. Not only the unemployed, who supplement their (meagre) income, but also men and women, living in illegality, fill this need for cheap and flexible labour. Without illegal workers to do its cleaning or sweating in its hot and poorly ventilated kitchens, there would be no fast and cheap tourist industry. Without their assistance, as house keeper, many a double-income household would be in big trouble. Without their monotonous and heavy labour in greenhouses there would be no tulips in Tokyo.
Apart from this a growing number of people in metropolitan areas, where unemployment usually is far higher than average, is dependent of cheap products and services such as hairdressers, caterers, baby-sitters, massagists and pizza couriers. Sometimes employer and employee share the surplus income of non-payed taxes and social benefits, but in general pay is low and below minimum standards. The unofficially employed running greater risks to their health or racist and sexist treatment. The Dutch government treated the informal economy in a very negative and repressive fashion. Moral preoccupation and selective observation have lead to a »policy« of repression and exclusion. Time and again they misuse the popular negative and stereotypical image of illegal labourers, while turning a blind eye to corrupt and frauding company owners - especially those that benefit from low-prized services without directly employing illegal workers themselves. In dealing with informal economy the Dutch government opposes the poor working-conditions, healt-risks, housing problems and crime by new regulations and repression. In this way the Dutch government successfully dismantled Amsterdam“s thriving semiformal off-the-rack clothing industry. But in stead of acting within the interests of the labourers they only managed to relocate the problem of the informal economy. Clothing is now carried in from a bit further away and most employees have moved their activities to other sectors. Exploitation remains or even becomes more acute. In one move a whole section of the population was stigmatised and criminalized for years to come.

Amsterdam/IJmuiden, August '02
Jan Müter

[10] It is estimated that up to 160.000 jobs are work-fare jobs. Some of these jobs costs up to Eu 35.000 a year! Only a few alow an income up and above minimal standard. The vast majority earn their old social benefits and never escape poverty.

[11] Here we neglect the increase of productivity and economical growth.

[12] The »openness« of the Dutch economy varies over time. Only since 1970 the level rises vast. See also: Robert Went, in What's new in globalisation? Attack reader Amsterdam.











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