Radical media, politics and culture.

Precarious Workers Adrift

Anonymous Fls
writes here is a long article in three parts, the first below, the Part II and Part III. All footnotes are at the end of the final segment.

"Precarias: First Stutterings of Precarias a la Deriva"

Precarias a la Deriva

Trabajo flexible ¿Es que somos invisibles?

Trabajo inmaterial ¡Ay que estrés mental!

Trabajo de jornalera ¡Eso es la repera!

(Little song by Precarias a la Deriva in the General Strike of 20 June 2002)


"Precarias a la deriva" (Precarious women workers adrift) is a collective project of investigation and action. The concerns of the participants in this open project converged the 20th of June 2002, the day of the general strike called by the major unions in Spain. Some of us had already initiated a trajectory of reflection and intervention in questions of the transformations of labor (in groups such as ‘ZeroWork’ and Sex, Lies and Precariousness, or individually), others wished to begin to think through these themes. In the days before the strike we came together to brainstorm an intervention which would reflect our times, aware that the labor strike, as the culminating expression of a process of struggle, was unsatisfactory for us for three reasons: (1) for not taking up –and this is no novelty- the experience and the unjust division of domestic work and care, almost entirely done by women in the ‘non-productive’ sphere, (2) for the marginalization to which both the forms of action and the proposals of the strike condemn those in types of work –ever more common- which are generally lumped together as ‘precarious’[1] and (3) for not taking into consideration precarious, flexible, invisible or undervalued work, specifically that of women and/or migrants (sexual, domestic, assistance, etc.). As a friend recently pointed out in the context of the more recent ‘political’ strike against the war (April 10, 2003), “How do we invent new forms of striking when production fragments and dislocates itself, when it is organized in such a way that to stop working for a few hours (or even 24) does not necessarily effect the production process, and when our contract situation is so fragile that striking today means risking the possibility of working tomorrow?”

We saw that many of these jobs in the margins: the invisible, unregulated, unmoored jobs were in no way interrupted or altered by a strike of this type, and that the precarization of the labor market had extended to such an extent that the majority of working people were not even effected by the new reforms against which the strike was directed. Therefore we tried to think of new forms of living this day of struggle by approaching and confronting these new realities. We decided to transform the classic shut-down picket into a survey-picket. Frankly, we didn’t feel up to upbraiding a precarious worker contracted by the hour in a supermarket or to closing down the little convenience store run by an immigrant because, in the end, despite the many reasons to shut down and protest, who had called this strike? Who were they thinking of? Was there even a minimal interest on the part of the unions for the situation of precarious workers, immigrants, housewives? Did the shut-down stop the productive process of domestic workers, translators, designers, programmers, all those autonomous workers for whom stopping this day would do nothing but duplicate their work the next day? It seemed more interesting to us, considering the gap between the experience of work and the practice of struggle, to open a space of exchange between some of the women who were working or consuming during that day and with those who were moving in the streets. This small, discreet sketch of an investigation was the starting point for what became the project of the ‘drifts’.

The exchange of that June 20th was fruitful. Not so much for what people told us here and there, or for what we made visible for ourselves and for others, as for the opening we glimpsed, the possibilities for unpredetermined encounters, the pleasure of an unclassifiable dialog, mediated by no apparatus besides the tape-recorder, camera and notepad.


These and other questions arose, as we have said, from reflections which in one way or another had long been circulating among us. In the first place, we too situate ourselves in the midst of change and continuity in productive processes, we too, in various ways, are faced with a new work context strongly marked by neoliberalism.

A dominant tendency in much neo-Marxist thought points to the emergence of so-called immaterial work (work which is affective, communicative, creative, linguistic, etc…).[2] This work, which has to do with cognitive processes, production of knowledge, languages and links is not, despite what many analyses might suggest, homogenous. It is heavily marked by the social value assigned to the different kinds of work within this category, which is what establishes a difference between giving a hand-job to a client and designing a web-page.

This is important for the debate, especially since all those questions which concern ‘reproduction’ -both in the strict sense, that is, domestic work and care (whether paid or not) and in a broad sense, such as communication, management, socialization, production of well-being, lifestyles, etc. (a formulation which goes beyond the ‘production and reproduction of immediate life’ of Engels[3])- generally remain in the shadows.

In the case of reproductive work in the strict sense, this is often explained away because these jobs are not part of the so-called “hegemonic tendency”, but rather part of what is simply interpreted as the legacy of an historical disequilibrium which establishes a continuity and interrelation between paid and unpaid work, in one’s own house or the house of others, which women do and which, by extension, determine their position in the labor market (or is it the other way around?), as much in terms of the kind of jobs they do (office work, client assistance, nursing and care, etc.) as in terms of the differences in work and salary in general. The emergence of the Third Sector, with the precarized transfer of some women’s reproductive activities to other women, locally but also on a global scale, introduces a new element which we should keep in mind.

In the broadest sense -if we accept this distinction between broad and strict senses at all- the reproduction of immediate life as an affective link turns out to be an extremely diffuse field which rapidly gets mixed up with life (“life put to work”, “the reappropriation of living time”…) visibilizing the aspects of domination which make life, cooperation, affective relationships, tastes, knowledge and sexuality very slippery terrains whose ‘naturalness’ remain unquestioned.

We see that some of those that participate in the debate on immaterial work are deaf to the question of reproduction and its relationship to patriarchal and racial domination. Facing this reality, we recuperate part of a long tradition of debate within feminism which precisely does elaborate a Marxist idea of reproduction in the broad sense, crossed through by multiple power relations. This orientation coincides with the ideas of Foucault about power and the processes of subjectification, that is to say, about modern forms of domination which to a great extent are not based upon the direct exercise of violence but rather in the active production of submission, an idea which has been amply developed, with different emphases, by thinkers like Butler or Pateman. It coincides also with many of the radical, materialist and psychoanalytic tendencies within feminism, those that give important weight to questions such as the sexual division of work, the control of sexuality, normative heterosexuality or socialization within the family.

The debates on reproduction smattered through the whole decade of the 1970s now have new things to offer which should be brought to light.[4] From them we rescue an analysis of reproduction, of the articulation of capitalism, patriarchy, racial domination, and now more than ever, the history of colonialism, the geographical asymmetries which have produced the inequalities motivating the displacements of populations in the last decades. We also rescue the political thought and practice which thematize the body as a place of expression of domination and exploitation, and we think of the “productive body” or the “production of the (sexed) body” as a continuous process of incarnation of subjectivities which are simultaneously bound and struggling to determine the conditions of their development. We also rescue the feminist theorizing on the public and the private as a form of approaching the continuities and discontinuities between what happens in the realm of relations and homes and what happens in the more socially valued realm of employment, politics and the State. The growing integration of these realms, of employment and personal life, of education and employment, etc., as a historical process which produces differentiations and as a political criticism of the segmentations of modernity seems to us an essential path for investigation.

Second, the studies done on immaterial work, whose homogenization we resist, look at other modes of organizing work which feed upon the very characteristics of the activities which they lump together in the category of the ‘immaterial’; specifically the strategies of neoliberal restructuring, which consist basically in cutting costs in rights and salaries and increasing the strength of command over an ever more fragmented and mobile labor force which presently works under conditions all too well known to women: by commission, with flexible and unpredictable hours, with long days then periods of inactivity without income, by hour, without contract, without rights, freelance, at home, etc. Thus the development of this category has to do with key questions to which we will return later, such as the reordering of time, space, contracts, income and conditions. The consequences of these modalities are known to all (women): isolation and incapacity to organize life “as it should be”, stress, exhaustion, social control, impossibility of developing a self-determined social life, of protesting, of “coming out” and of expressing oneself freely in all sorts of questions.

Third, all of this must be linked to other aspects of social life which permit that certain subjects occupy certain positions of disadvantage due to their limited mobility. This is what occurs when one does not have residency papers, or decides to get pregnant, or is a mother or just a woman, or has an “inappropriate/ble” presence, being, for example, transsexual, or non-white, or visibly queer, or physically different, etc… The articulation of all these elements is a constant source of differentiation and hierarchization which causes certain groups to be systematically poorer or to have lesser access to opportunity and choice. The so-called feminization of work thus consists in a ever more wide-spread servility or a generalization of precariousness, produced upon a tremendously irregular topography, reinforcing, reproducing and modifying the social hierarchies already existent within the patriarchy and the racial order inherited from colonialism. It is upon just this background that the changes in family and home structures, the global restructuring of cities and the performances and rhetorics of gender are imprinted.


That first picket-survey of June 20th, which was limited though very inspiring, gave way to a new project of interpellation based on displacement, that is to say, the possibility of preparing and carrying out a series of itineraries which would cross through the diverse metropolitan circuits of female precariousness. Thus, against the habitual division of life and work, a division long questioned by feminism, we opted for a research practice that would attend to the spatial/temporal continuum of existence and the experience of the double (or better, multiple) presence[6] as a subjective transposition or, as the Situationists would say, as a technique of uninterrupted passage through diverse physical and psychic environments.

We might have spent more time, seated, situating the theoretical bases of our research, the hypotheses we were dealing out or the feminist perspective from which we departed. But what pushed us on was, above all, the desire to experience the path, to communicate with each other on the road, to meet those new (and not so new) situations and realities of the precarized labor market and of life put to work.

We decided, moreover, that this drifting should be done in the first person, that is, with each one telling the others about herself, and walking together towards a prudent but sustained approximation of the differences between us. We talk, therefore, of seeking common places and, simultaneously, of singularities to strengthen. This approximation has grown through the subsequent debates which have made us modify the initial utterance “we are precarious workers” for others less prone to affirming identity as an original element and more attentive to the processes of (de)identification.[7]

Our situations are so diverse, so partial, that it is very difficult to find common denominators from which to elaborate alliances and irreducible differences with which to mutually enrich ourselves. It is complicated for us to express ourselves, to define ourselves from the common place of precariousness; a precariousness capable of bypassing a clear collective identity through which to simplify and defend itself, but one which demands discussion. We need to communicate the lacks and the excesses of our working and living situations in order to escape from the neoliberal fragmentation which separates and debilitates us, turning us into victims of fear, of exploitation or of the individualism of ‘each one for herself.’ But, above all, we want to make possible the collective construction of other lives through a shared creative struggle. Our insistence upon singularity we owe to our desire to not produce, once again, false homogeneities, without permitting that this insistence prevents us from saying anything at all. We thought, in relation to this, of the specific situation of some companions who are migrants working in domestic service and in the consequences of a link which demands other forms of commitment than those to which some of us are accustomed.

Basically it was a question of producing a cartography of the precarized work of women based on the exchange of experiences, shared reflections and the recording of all that was seen and told in an effort to materialize to the greatest extent possible –through photographs, slides, video, audio recordings and written stories- these encounters in order to communicate the results and the hypothesis which might be derived from them; a question of taking communication seriously not only as a tool for diffusion but also as a new place, a new competence and primary material for the political. Our point of departure: the occupied women’s house La Eskalera Karakola, point of arrival: unknown. It is the transit that interests us now.


The ‘drift’ or derive, is a tactic which some of us had already experienced in other research contexts[8] whose basic source is the Situationists,[9] and which has not always been easy to explain. Nevertheless, the course of events has clarified, bit by bit, the logic of substituting static interviews for journeys through the city. When proposing the ‘drifts’ we particularly emphasized not only passing through the past and present workplaces of our guides but also the possibility of linking the spaces and, once on the road, to see what would come up. Thus we ended up including in our routes streets, houses, businesses, public transportation, supermarkets, bars, shops, union offices, health centers, etc. We opted for the method of the drift as a form of articulating this diffuse network of situations and experiences, producing a subjective cartography of the metropolis through our daily routes.

In the Situationist version of the drift, the investigators wander without any particular destination through the city, permitting that conversations, interactions and urban micro-events guide them. This permits them to establish a psycho-cartography based on the coincidences and correspondences of physical and subjective flows: exposing themselves to the gravitation and repulsion of certain spaces, to the conversations that come up along the way, and, in general, to the way in which the urban and social environments influence exchanges and attitudes. This means wandering attentive to the billboard that assaults you, the bench which attracts, the building which suffocates, the people who come and go. In our particular version, we opt to exchange the arbitrary wandering of the flaneur, so particular to the bourgeois male subject with nothing pressing to do, for a situated drift which would move through the daily spaces of each one of us, while maintaining the tactic’s multisensorial and open character. Thus the drift is converted into a moving interview, crossed through by the collective perception of the environment.

So how do we do a drift? We depart from a few paradigmatic feminized sectors of precarious work. To begin, we chose five:

1) domestic

2) telemarketing

3) manipulators of codes (translators, language teachers)

4) food service (bar, restaurant)

5) health care[10]

and identified other equally important ones for a future phase of the project: prostitution, scholarships/research, advertising, communications, social work and education. The women working in these sectors whom we asked to guide us chose a series of relevant places: their houses, workplaces, supermarkets, the park, the cyber café, the yoga class… and we threaded these spaces together as points on an itinerary loaded with significance, the networks of chance and simultaneity which compose our daily lives. Thus, following an English teacher we were able to connect -through the fortuitous tour one of her students gave us in NCR (a multinational which installs and maintains automatic bank tellers) where she teaches- the reality of the flexible work of our companion within the new factory structure, recomposed according to the demands of the global market.

The drift permits us to take the quotidian as a dimension of the political and as a source of resistances, privileging experience as an epistemological category. Experience, in this sense, is not a preanalytic category but a central notion in understanding the warp of daily events, and, what is more, the ways in which we give meaning to our localized and incarnated quotidian. It is not exactly an observation technique; it does not aspire to ‘reproduce’ or approach daily experience as it habitually occurs (an ideal of classical anthropology which has proved difficult to realize) but rather to produce simultaneous movements of approaching and distancing, visualizing and defamiliarizing, transit and narration. We are interested in the point of view of those that guide us –how they define and experience precariousness, how they organize themselves on a daily basis and what are their vital strategies in the short and the long term, what they hope for- without dismissing, in this process, the dialog and complicity which is produced in our encounter. There is no going back; once you get home from a drift your head keeps buzzing until the next one.

In all these wanderings we attempt to extract common names from this dispersion of singularities -each one unknown, even alien, to the others- which comprise the new reality of precarized work. We dream of substituting, albeit just a little, the weakness of dispersion for the strength of alliances, the potential of networks. But the difficulty of both objectives comes out during the drifts. The realities of precarious work are very, very different: the resources we can count on, the emotional and material support, the wages, the rights, the social value of what we do, the diversity of availabilities and sensibilities.


We depart from a rudimentary definition of precariousness and precarization as a process, and we define a series of initial axes which might help to comprehend this many legged reality. What is clear is that this word, often a hollow vessel, has taken form thanks to what each one has brought. We have preferred to overfill it in order to later give it greater precision.

It is a phenomenon which we associate with:

1) the new forms of employment (many of them linked to externalization and dislocation, to the extension of freelance work and contracts by job or service rendered, to decentralized and miniaturized empresarial structure and the proliferation of variations in types of contract);

2) the dislocation of work times and spaces (with flexible hours, part time, at a distance, and in-household workshops), whose effects upon household units and networks of care remain still to be estimated;

3) the intensification of the production process (result of ‘just in time’ production with extra hours which are no longer considered such, both because they are not optional and because they are not paid);

4) the incorporation of imperceptible qualities inherent in the workforce, difficult to estimate/remunerate or to assimilate in terms of ‘qualification’ and therefore difficult to reduce to simple units of work to which they impart value (personalized assistance, communicative capacities, empathy, appealing appearance, etc. It is expected that au pairs know languages but this is not part of the formal qualifications for the job, it is expected that a Zara worker be slim and stylish though that has no bearing upon her ability to inventory clothes, etc.);

5) cutbacks in salaries and the loss of the rights which have traditionally characterized ‘typical’ Fordist work and the Keynesian social pact (rights ranging from maternity leave to the regulation of pay, vacations or sick leave, not to mention benefits such as insurance and retirement).

With lesser frequency other conditions are referred to, such as:

1) the absence of a salary (as in the case of housewives);

2) the absence of any labor regulation at all, even the most minimal (as continues to be the case in paid domestic work –especially for live-in workers- not to speak of the general situation of those who do not have work and residency permits);

3) the ambiguity of the link between employees and employers.

We might venture a definition of the word precariousness, broad enough to acknowledge the amplitude and multidimensionality of the phenomenon, but concrete enough to avoid that the term lose all explicative force: thus we will call precariousness the juncture of conditions, both material and symbolic, which determine an uncertainty with respect to the continued access to the resources necessary for the full development of a person’s life.[11] This definition permits us to overcome the divisions between public/private and production/reproduction, and recognize and visibilize the interconnections between the social and the economic which make it impossible to think about precariousness from a strictly work-and-wage perspective.[12]


We dedicated several meetings to defining the axes of our approach, which later, in the course of the drifts, would take more shape. The axes which came out of our debates were informed by our experiences of time (stress, excess, saturation, the impossibility of planning, instability…), of space (mobility, life territories, borders, displacements, sedentarism…), of income (badly paid work, lack of resources, loans from friends and families with guaranteed work, limited access to public services and misappropriation of various cards…), of care and relations (communities of work, affect, sociability), of conflict (possibilities and processes of struggle…), of hierarchies (in many cases diffuse and painful), of risk (insecurity, vulnerability) and of the body (discipline, abuse, sporadic care, compulsive sexuality…). After various drifts, the axes took shape and meaning beyond our own initial intuitions.

We finalized the axes thus: (1) mobility, (2) border territories, (3) corporealities, (4) knowledges and relations, (5) empresarial logic, (6) income and (7) conflict. The axes do not cover all experience but they do help to interpret it. What follow are some partial and yet-insufficient reflections following our first five drifts. The pages below are a whirlwind of descriptions, notes and testimonies which point towards incipient hypotheses, encounters with the form-text for talking about the form-drift, and utterances which attempt to express the joy and the insatisfaction which we feel before what are only barely our first stuttering efforts: a sort of balance of the first phase of the project.