Casualisation and 'flexibility': an analysis

Casualisation and 'flexibility': an analysis

An overview of the casualisation of work, and some of the broader implications of the forced “flexibilisation” of the labour market.

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.
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 organising.

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 and pensions 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 originally 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, until further EU legislation outlawed this practice as well, so employers then cut temp workers' hourly pay back to below its previous level.  Capital seems to have brought about 'just-in-time' employment to go with its 'just-in-time' production.

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 starting 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 1000 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 sex-work.


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 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-effect, 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 factors:

・ the shift from a manufacturing to a service based economy
・ decomposition of the working class as a political actor
・ increase in investment capital flows

The shift away from manufacturing (with its 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 [does the writer mean staff unions, sweetheart unions or what?]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 class power.

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 market.

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

One possible model for mitigating the effects 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 [this can work where income has been traditionally low like actors and artists/designers, but didn’t have much appeal when the ex-dockers tried to promote this idea amongst their members] being able to provide higher direct wages and benefits to its workers and possibly providing a site of political re-composition.     

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.  Apart 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 strikes.

Originally in Organise! Magazine #64, by the Anarchist Federation, with minor 2011 updates by