Vulnerable Work: Navigating Sigma, (in)visibility and Opportunity
This second seminar explores the role of stigma in marginalising certain forms of work. The discussion will consider the ways in which such vulnerable work becomes visible as such; and the implications of working marginalised positions for worker agency.
Louise Waite (Geography, Leeds)
Francisco Calafate Faria (Sociology, Goldsmiths)
Lydia Hayes (Law, Cardiff)
Readings for next session (25.11.15) will be made available today.
Working on the Edge of Society: Precarious Migrant Lives
Exploitation at work is a topic that has received significant attention throughout history. Yet there is a growing body of evidence that exploitation is on the rise across the world today. Often presented by governments and the media in the Global North as mainly a problem for poor countries and marginal workers in the Global South, over the past two decades the prevalence of extreme exploitation and what some have called ‘unfree labour’ has become undeniably globalised. This talk will explore how and why migrants in particular are implicated in these precarious labourscapes. It will empirically focus on a group who are seldom considered in debates around extreme exploitation and unfreedom; forced migrants who interact with the asylum system. I will build an argument of the production of vulnerable and precarious work through the UK’s asylum system. It will be suggested that workers' movement along a multidimensional continuum of unfreedom towards severely exploitative labour cannot be understood without recognising the intersection of job precarity, precarious immigration status, transnational family obligations and migration trajectories. The idea of the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ will be shown to be an important analytical device to demonstrate how welfare, work, race, rights, journeys, the economy and neoliberalism all come together to create the ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ of vulnerable subjects and how they intersect to produce multidimensional insecurities.
Law at work – vulnerability and the institutional humiliation of the homecare workforce
My contribution to the re-thinking work debate is based on my ethnographic study of working class women engaged as homecare workers and personal assistants to older and disabled people; caring for them in their own homes. I have engaged in interdisciplinary which combines ethnography and social theory with a doctrinal assessment of the employment law status of homecare workers and their various construction as legal subjects at work. In my forthcoming monograph Working in Homecare: class, gender and law, I trace the ‘institutionalised humiliation’ of the homecare workforce in the UK. There is little doubt that homecare workers occupy a marginalised position within the labour market since their working terms, conditions and tasks are aligned at the fraying edges of concepts we associate with the world of paid work. These include the margin which separates ‘work’ from ‘pleasure’, the margin between paid labour and the fulfilment of unpaid familial duty, and the margin between care-giving as employment and care-giving as social conscience.
The vulnerabilities associated with such conceptual ambiguity, in which homecare workers might be regarded as standing on a multi-dimensional fault line in the labour market, are made material in the inferiority of their working terms, conditions and tasks. However, the evidence suggests that it is a consequence of marketisation and privatisation that homecare workers are now at the bottom of the UK labour market hierarchy. These women are providing paid care in circumstances where the very notion of the labour market begins to crumble.
According to Fineman, vulnerability is a human condition to which the law responds inadequately, since law valorises autonomy, independence and an abstractive economic rationality. However, if vulnerability is a human condition which is imported into, and ever present within, contemporary employment relations, how might we account for marketisation and privatisation as legal processes through which vulnerabilities materialise as inferiority? In my account of the institutionalised humiliation of the homecare workforce, worker vulnerability is a gendered legal construct; by which I mean that the homecare workforce has been rendered vulnerable in law and through law on the basis of gendered doctrine.This is evident in the structuring of legal rights, such as the right to equal pay, which incentivises privatisation and embeds deeply sexist attitudes about the valuing of women’s labour in relation to the labour of men. It is evident in the denial of statutory entitlements, such as the benefit of national minimum wage provisions, on the basis of legal misrecognition of caring labour. It is evident in the gendered application of employment protection law according to sexist presumptions and in the gendering of a labour market order which is organised around legal concepts of employment status. Most recently it appears in the development of criminal law sanctions which apply in relation to uncaring behaviour or sub-standard conduct at work and especially target the homecare workforce. The state's turn towards criminal law to regulate the homecare workforce is intensifying a discourse in which the ‘wrong kind’ of homecare worker represents an ever-present threat to established gender and class hierarchy.
“They sell their dinner to buy their lunch”: precarity, temporality, and futurity in the work and lives of waste-pickers/informal recyclers in Curitiba, Brazil
The Brazilian city of Curitiba is famous for its urban planning and environmental policies. Since the 1990s it has received several major international awards on account of its innovative solutions. Amongst them is the city’s municipal recycling system implemented in 1989. Curitiba has become a model for the cities of the global North, from within a country and a continent which are usually regarded as undeveloped, and therefore tending to the past. But these model narratives, which are projected locally, nationally and internationally conceal a very important fact: informal collectors and informal circuits of commercialisation are responsible for more than 90% of the municipal waste recycled in Curitiba.
The official narratives of the city (also known as “first-world capital”) seem incompatible with the persistence and preponderance of informal recycling as an element of “underdevelopment” with which the city always tries to deal, without ever acknowledging it. As disruptive elements of a narrative of futurity, waste-pickers are increasingly marginalised, even if the city’s focus on recycling offers enhanced possibilities of participation. My ethnographic work with waste-pickers (or catadores as they are called in Brazil) sought firstly to investigate beyond the city’s curtain of self-promotion into the material human infrastructure that is responsible for the prideful recycling rates that make the model city.
Working with theoretical and empirical tools developed by urban geography and sociology I also aimed at bringing waste-pickers’ lives and discourses to confront some of the stereotypes and preconceptions developed by researchers and NGO workers who intervene on the ground. In my first contacts with institutional actors in the field I heard heard utterances like: “they sell their dinner to buy their lunch” so as to explain the difficulty in implementing the programmes that are designed to solve “the problem”. By following materials and actors through recycling circuits (from collection to industrial re-processment) and organisational spaces, with attention to their work, lives, personal aspirations and political expression, I found evidence that contradicts structuring notions of temporality based on general stereotypes about waste-pickers.
Amongst those basic notions that structure interventions and determine marginalisation is the association with waste-pickers with the waste they pick, not only in terms of social value but also in terms of temporality. Thus waste-pickers ubiquity in the city and their crucial role in the cleaning of the city is met with disgust and pity, based on the idea that waste-pickers are not only deemed to be swept away by progress but also that their own biographies can only progress if they leave the activity.
In this seminar I will present evidence of an unacknowledged temporality amongst waste-pickers, which ethnography allowed me to unveil. Contrary to dominant perceptions their work has different roles in waste-pickers’ biographies, often mobilising aspiration and futurity, collective and individual aspiration, as well as a will to participate in the city, and not simply to survive off its discards.
Reading fro next session:
a) Abrantes, Manuel. 2014. Domiciliary Care and Migrant Domestic Workers: Grasping the New Institutional Landscape, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 34 (9/10): 593–608.
b) Lewis, H., P. Dwyer, S. Hodkinson, and L. Waite. 2015. Hyper-Precarious Lives: Migrants, Work and Forced Labour in the Global North. Progress in Human Geography 39 (5): 580–600.
These are accessible through the institutional login, but if you need access, please email Lizzie Richardson
The event will also include short presentations by early career researchers discussing works in progress in relation to this theme.