The perversion of work flexibility and its origins


Should we describe the style of work of our era, the widely used definition would very probably be: flexible. And the reasons would be at a first glance clear: work flexibility as effect, among other things, of the information revolution and of globalization. In other words the outcome of the changing work organization.
If we can agree on this definition of flexibility as a paramount feature of the current work style, the judgement towards this phenomenon would remain deeply controversial. Most people will appreciate labour flexibility either from the individual point of view, or from that of the economic efficiency. They will also add that this new form of work favours a more open and agreeable style of life in an articulated and open society.
But, on the other side, a good deal of individuals will consider this to be an over-optimistic view. Most will challenge this appreciation and argue that flexibility has become synonymous of precariousness, uncertainty and insecurity. They will add that one of the consequences is, according to the title of Richard Sennett's book,
The Corrosion of the Character.
The judgments on the new forms of work is deeply controversial, probably also because we are in a transitional phase of labour organization . The old style of work is finished, while the new one undertakes different and ambiguous features. The landscape is very variable, and always changing in relation to our point of view.

But, before going ahead, let's ask ourselves: what led work trough this dramatic transformation? The kind of work we define as flexible is deeply different work from that of our fathers and grand-fathers. That was characterized by very rigid, unchangeable rules, over-determining, through its constraints, some essential aspects of the quality of life. That type of work is now mostly deemed unacceptable. Summing up, I would say that new generations would like to have a lead on their work, instead of work which assumes the lead on their personal life.

Is it a pure day dreaming? Let's us deal with this question. In principle, it could not necessarily be a dream, something that would be unreachable within the concrete world. Indeed, in the new context of the work organization, we could realistically imagine a new kind of work. Work based on a high degree of autonomy, creativity, ability to change in accord with changing needs or preferences of different individuals. That is not a pure and naive dream.
If reality is different, so very different, we have to ask: Why? What are the obstacles? I mean that we need to analyse and discuss the obstacles, and possibly how to bypass them whether we want to increase, as I think everyone would like, the well-being of working people.
The combination of the desires of individuals and the needs of enterprises, along a common research of flexibility, is theoretically a realistic marriage. We must remember that for most part of the past century, production was organized along the principle of the scientific management. That is to say, on the principle of a rigid division of work. There was no room for autonomy, creativity, self-determination and so on. The tasks were rigidly assigned. The time and the rhythms of work were "scientifically" pre-determined. The command of the managers on the manner to implement work was indisputable and absolute.
All proceeded well until the moment when workers started to refute, challenge and assail the taylorist scientific management. We can't comprehend and explain the uprising and the very cultural revolution of the labour world at the end of Sixties of the last century and its aftermath, if we don't take into account the fierce mass rebellion against the old, rigid, work organization, epitomized by the classic fordist model of the assembly line.

A different way of organizing the production was neither obvious, nor easy to be implemented. During following two decades, we could witness an instable loose mixture of old agonizing rigid work organisation and the various attempts to devise new form of work organization. These attempts were of course intertwined with the new information technologies. On the other hand, globalization became an essential engine for the implementation of the new labour division, based on outsourcing and a new global labour market, so paving the way to a new division of work starting from the manufacturing sector.

The refusal of the old rigid rules of fordism was a component of the growing push towards the outsourcing of the unskilled, repetitive and fragmented work. The chain of production has become increasingly longer and fragmented. At the same time, as a consequence of market globalization, the quality of goods became crucial for the success of the enterprise. Competitiveness made a continuous improvement of quality an imperative task, and that implied a growing quality of work: such as the involvement of workers, recognizing a higher degree of autonomy, and the need to improve the skill-set in order to master the ever-changing technologies.
In this new framework, the possibility of a new combination and synthesis between the demand for autonomy, participation, responsibility, creativeness of individuals and the demand stemming by the firms for higher quality and competitiveness seemed at hand. So the new style of work could marry the preferences of workers, who had moved against the scientific management, and the needs of the enterprises in the new era of information technology and globalisation.
Theoretically, the best solution could have been possible. But the real world is always more complicated, and matters, usually, go forward in a different way. The borderless expansion of the markets exacerbated competitiveness. Outsourcing and delocalization of old manufacturing industries created huge unemployment in the old manufacturing areas. Restructuring became the password for the global competitiveness among firms. Restructuring meant, on one hand, the reduction of employment, and on the other hand, a new division among employees.
A segment placed at the high levels of production, acquired a privileged status in the extent that they occupied the core position within the enterprise. The flexibility of work for these elites was under their own control, while mass workers became increasingly weaker and precarious within the new globalised labour market. The pressure of competitiveness on the firms was downloaded onto the working force.
Flexibility have become more and more a means in the hands of enterprises to perform higher levels of productivity with scarce or no consideration of working conditions. The new framework was strained between a push toward a more autonomous and individualized forms of work on one side, and a constraint to exploit these new forms to obtain an increased productivity at diminishing costs. The outcome was growing unemployment, instability of work and income. Flexibility for most became increasingly synonymous of precariousness.
It was not really a contradiction without solution. The loss of employment in the manufacturing sector was increasingly replaced by the growth of service industries. These industries needed a high level of flexibility, but they were largely immune from the constraints of the global labour market. In the US, fifteen million jobs were created during nineties within the service sector; and about ten million in the European Union in the second half of the last decade. The demand for higher quality of old and new services was consistent with higher quality of work.
However, it became increasingly clear that flexibility was an ambiguous instrument.
It could make work closer to the attitudes, desires and hopes of the new generation. But it was also a powerful instrument in the hands of the enterprises to flee from worker's control on the use of the work force.
I want to stress this point. In the new context a new balance was needed between flexibility, security and effectiveness; a mediation between different needs and a new set of rules, given that old rules aimed to control the rigid taylorist and fordist work were now obsolete and ineffective. But we have hardly seen a satisfactory set of new rules aimed to mediate the different needs of production and workers.
The new rules were hugely over-determined by a new labour ideology, based on the principle of a deregulated labour market. It was the hearth of the general ideology of sovereignty of markets. Free labour market, liberated from the constraints of trade unions and stringent labour laws, was deemed the key of a perfect functioning economy, spontaneous full employment and a successful global market.
We call it an ideology. Its success was due to the upsurge of the neo-conservative forces as well to the rediscovery of an old and prestigious theoretical heritage.
Politically, we have to go back to Thatcherist and Reaganian revolution with the fierce and overwhelming attack against unions and social policies.
As theory is concerned, we witnessed the glorious return of market orthodoxy under the hat of neo-liberalism. The new labour ideology received also the imprint of the international technocracy, such as IMF, World Bank and OECD. It was the latter that in 1994 elaborated and disseminated, under the title of Job studies, what became the new bible on work and labour market organization.
We then got what we can now call a unilateralist and fundamentalist view of the labour flexibility.Flexibility, according to the doctrine of the international financial institutions, meant that work was totally subdued to market rules; in other words, to the needs of enterprises. The central criteria were the freedom to hire and fire, drastic reduction of the job protection, and flexibility of the wages.
Trade Unions with their bargaining power were considered redundant or counterproductive for the performance of the economy.
The new labour bible became the most successful and dominant ideology during the nineties. Any other position was condemned as conservative or regressive. The new dominant credo became the labour market reform (meaning its deregulation) alongside welfare reform (meaning its downsizing).
At this point, let's sum up
The revolt against the old rigid work organization has paved the way to a new style of work, more autonomous, and open to the individual possibilities and preferences, allowing to share responsibility and increase participation.
New information technologies theoretically favour this new style.
At the same time, globalization has pushed towards a new international work division with the outsourcing of the unskilled or less skilled and repetitive work into emerging countries.
In this framework, flexibility could have been organized as a combination of the interests of the two sides of the production, but this is not what we can observe looking at our societies.

The new labour organization has widen the gulf among workers in different ways. For a segment of the working people, it meant an improvement of work, freedom to move from one job to another, power to bargain work conditions and salary. For the large part of workers instead it meant worry, instability, job insecurity and anxiety.

We know that differences continue to exist among different social models, as it is the case, when we compare Anglo-Saxon and the European continental models. But the push towards the Americanisation of the new style of work and society was and remains very strong. The merit of the American model would be the supposed trend towards the full employment, compared to the high level of unemployment in Europe. But we have seen also in US in the last two years a level of unemployment around 6 per cent which is more than in several European countries.
In any case, we should also consider the price of the American paradigm.
According to an EPI study 28 million people, about a quarter of working Americans, earn less then $9,04 an hour, and that means that a full time worker will remain under the income that marks the government poverty line for a family of four. But we must add that most are contingent workers, the majority of whom lacks unemployment benefit, health care insurance and supplementary company pension.
We should also consider the new category of working poor and the growing levels of inequality within the American society. One would like to know why a part time worker, man or woman that might be, performing the same job, do earn less, sometimes a by a half, of the hourly wage of a full time worker. And how is it acceptable that 43 millions citizens, most of whom are working people, are not entitled to health care insurance. And why should a worker be freely fired without any justification.
In most European countries the rules of work organization and labour market are tighter. The inequality is generally less marked. But the demand for "structural reforms", in accordance with the language of the international organizations, such as IMF or OECD, is relentless.
According to a recent survey of the European Commission, "some 27 per cent of the working population has experienced a decrease of job security over the last five years". There is also a worsening of job conditions for precarious and low-wage workers. The stagnation or even the cuts of welfare spending - which are at odds with a richer and a more productive economy - have eroded the protection mechanism leading to "perceptions of greater social insecurity, a feeling of powerlessness and a sense of injustice".
What are the causes of this social malaise? Most analysts blame globalization and the lack of new skills required by the so called new economy. But globalization and new technologies cannot be blamed if in US, for example, the current minimum wage is 30 per cent less, at constant price, than 30 years ago in the strongest economy of the industrial world. And there is no reason for keeping 43 million people without health care assistance.
The growth of inequality, the polarisation of earnings and social conditions are not a consequence of new technologies or globalization. This is a deterministic and unacceptable explanation. We have to take into account there is a political issue.
Actually, new forms of flexible work organization and labour market would be able to simultaneously increase productivity, economic effectiveness, social conditions and quality of life.
In my view, two conditions are necessary. First, the improvement of entitlements aimed to improve the worker's social condition. A larger, not a retrenched safety net is needed to match the risks for individuals and their families linked to the discontinuity of work. The safety net depends on wealth distribution at collective and national level.
There is no objective reason to reduce social expenditure. When we demand from workers more flexibility to increase efficiency and, in last instance, national wealth, then it would be right and a sign of social justice to allocate the public resources needed for a socially acceptable condition. There is a contradiction in asking flexibility to be competitive and then blame competitiveness to penalise those individuals who accept (or are constrained to accept) the new flexible forms of work.
The second point concerns empowerment. Labour law and trade unions had guaranteed collective and individual power of control on the old work organization. Working time, rhythms, shift organization, job safety and regulations on hiring and firing, gender pay equality and so on were object of collective bargaining. This empowerment is generally linked to labour unionisation. Labour unions have been weakened by the industrial restructuring, the cyclical unemployment, and the expansion of precarious jobs. But this is not the main and "objective" cause. Over the last two decades we have witnessed a more or less explicit attack against the labour movement and its bargaining power.
The case of Wal-Mart, in US, is probably the most impressive. The exclusion of unions is a guiding principle regarding the work organization in what is the most powerful retail enterprise at the global level, which employs 1.200.000 people. Actually, notwithstanding continuous efforts, no union has succeeded in the attempts to access any Wal-Mart's workplace. The outcome is a full time pay which is far from unionized retail chains, and more than 50 percent of its workforce is left uncovered by company health care plan.
This is a clear evidence of the fact that no alien origins, such as global markets, but national, social and political contexts are responsible for the individual misery and social disease.
What we are saying doesn't mean that we share a pessimistic view of the new scenarios of work. We want to rather stress that the present polarization of work conditions and of society must not deemed to be an objective and matchless consequence of work changes. A better and improving working life is possible.
Flexibility is not a divine punishment . New rules are needed. In my opinion, a new analysis and a new vision are needed. We live in a transitional epoch. The old one is finished. The new one needs new forms of collective and social engagement with a new political agenda.
*Intervention at the seminar on "Labour, in the present and in the future - Dialogue in Labour cultures" Forum Barcelona, July 2004


Antonio Lettieri

President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body, Member of the OECD's Trade Union Advisory Council and Advisor of Labor Minister for European Affairs.(