Radical media, politics and culture.

Precarious Workers Adrift (Part II)

hydrarchist writes ... continued from Part I


Mobility is the quality which best describes the present malleability of the work force around the three axes: time, space and task. Mobility in the disposition of rhythms and schedules, mobility between jobs and, beyond that, in geography, in vital decisions, in lifestyle, and mobility in ‘unit acts’ and in the ways of developing them, always subject to mutations, to processes of evaluation and adjustment, a constant auditing. Mobility opposed to the old staticness, to bureaucratization and routine and, without a doubt, to the organizational capacity of persons who in any moment may find their functions modified and recombined, persons who don’t know the limits of what they have to do, and in general, of what they themselves are.

In the past people struggled against the reification of daily life, primarily incarnated in work but also in the family and mass consumption, and this determined a change in business policies, particularly in the management of human resources.[13] Today security and continuity have become, in name at least, increasingly precious, although the price that must be paid for them is often too high and one ends up accepting mobility and unrestricted availability in an attempt to compose a destiny which at least is not totally prescribed. The only stable element is being in perpetual transit, the “habit of the unaccustomed”[14] which characterizes work paid by the hour, by the job, or until something better is found. Which, as our guides through the mysterious world of telemarketing commented, never really happens, such that one returns again and again to bounce off different campaigns which the virtual enterprises in the sector contract with the big communication multinationals under ever more competitive conditions.

In our drift through the social nursing sector, Carmen explained to us in detail how the lack of acceptable work opportunities in Spain and the demand for this kind of work in other countries is motivating a flow of young nurses who, besides working in their own field, aspire to learn languages and live in other places.[15] The passage through past and present work places –a health center in which she worked as a substitute, an attention center for drug addicts marked by organizational chaos and lack of resources, return to the health center, a training course for social workers of the IMEFE[16]for which one must sign up from one day to the next – gives the sense of the sustained unpredictability within a life which besides employment –interest, security and salary – values other types of questions: the relation with others as something which is never pre-determined and as something which is esteemed in its singularity, or this idea of “the social” as a public good which extends beyond work as socialization, learning, exchange, consciousness raising, and vital context but which, as Carmen insisted when comparing her vision with that of her mother, also a social worker, one must learn to limit, to use to one’s advantage. Carmen formulates the dilemma in this realm of action in her comparison of two interpretive frameworks: one as “working for the people” an attitude Carmen attributes to her mother, and the other “working for the system” a tactic she claims for herself. The distinction is important, demonstrating as it does how life is absorbed by work and work by life. ‘Working for the people’ one loses ones own limits with respect to work and melds one’s energies and one’s emotions in an exercise of continuous and committed sociability which attempts to overlook the mediation, in this case of the State, which exists in a health center, where the privatizing tendency has skyrocketed in recent times and where the incentive system rewards a perverse model of medicalization and neglect.[17] ‘Working for the system’, on the other hand, regulates this exercise of fusion by entering into a relation which emphasizes institutional mediation (though generally not from a critical perspective), supervising the link and embittering it by quitting from it the open, experimental and unlimited character of relation with others. We are also talking about the difference between a strictly medical focus, adjusted to the “viability” of health minimums, and a more social focus which is necessarily interwoven with the habits and histories of each and every one of the persons whom we see during our trip to the Alcobendas health center.

Mobility as an existential, subjective condition constantly puts us up against an ambivalence which makes its most important effects uprootedness, lack of a stable identity, an unbalanced practice of flight, nostalgia and submission. We have caught a train in Atocha and once seated, we listen attentively to these reflections, previously written by one of us, as we move rapidly towards the industrial suburbs.

A rootless person is pitied or repudiated, blamed for lack of identity, roots and traditions. But to construct an identity from local cultural elements is absurd in the changing world in which we live, of dislocations, temporary habitats, migrations and mixture.

Stripping myself of certain traditions and values in my case has been a cause for celebration and relief. Leaving Ecuador for the first time at 18 was an intuitive desire for flight and experimentation. Although my adolescence in Quito is full of happy memories, it was also a period of much energy wasted: whether to repress desires and curiosities or else to conquer them.

From that moment on the image of myself with my suitcase in hand was impressed upon my life story. Suitcase in hand to Brazil with the excitement of launching myself into the vertigo of the unknown, and with suitcase in hand, return home. Suitcase in hand through the cobbled streets of Beacon Hill with an address on a scrap of paper: the future house, the future cave, the future slave drivers. At the same time, the university campus became my new escape, my refuge. A year of exploitation in domestic service disguised under the name “au pair” was enough. Once again, the suitcase in my hand. (English teacher, drift with language workers).


The second axis is the border, both in its most immediate sense -the closing of geographical borders and the precarization which this entails- as well as a more general sense of the construction of borders which determine inside access and hierarchies within much more diffuse fields, such as the house in which one works and the personal relationships which one establishes with the employers and their families. Perhaps the most vivid image of all this was offered to us by Viki, an Ecuadorian friend who works in domestic service, when she told us about the barriers which are erected in the work of in-house domestics, especially in the case of foreigners. As A.Macklin has indicated, this work is marked by a series of ambiguities which situate those who do it both inside and outside: inside the nation and outside the State, inside the economy and outside labor relations, inside the home and outside the family.[18] The space of home and family, which in principle is a smooth surface, bit by bit reveals its strata: its forbidden places, its behaviors, its habits (in terms of food, cleaning, leisure, order, shopping, vacations, etc.) which are converted into rules, instituted in practice.[19] The uniform, Viki explained, is the first border, that which establishes upon the body and in the eyes of others which is the place occupied by each.

Really it’s very unpleasant, besides being an imposition. They don’t ask you if you want to wear it or not, or how you feel, or if it looks good on you or not. Nothing. They impose it upon you at some point just to make the differentiation, or to feel better, to feel that they are above this person who has her own feelings, her own ideas, who perhaps has come to do a lot of different things, to maintain her family… they don’t think about any of this, they just think in this moment that people that visit them or the family itself will see that this person is inferior, is inferior to them, nothing else.(Drift with domestic workers)

Food –the access to certain foods or the times and places for eating- constitute another strongly gendered border territory. The rules of hospitality which reign in the household apparently guarantee equal access to the foods in the refrigerator. Nevertheless, the existing hierarchies determine ever narrower and more arbitrary limits (“Who drank the baby’s juice?”). The assistant or the babysitter, like the housewife, experiences a severe dietary regime which “obliges” her to eat at fits and starts, on foot in a free moment, as if she were on a diet or picking at leftovers.[20]

The telephone operators also spoke to us about the clothes worn to work as an exteriorization of position, although in this case in the opposite sense: the wardrobe is meant to produce a non-differentiation between workers who may in fact enjoy different working conditions but happen to coincide in a particular campaign. During the telemarketing drift, and in front of an anonymous building - one of those that is all opaque glass - Teresa and Bea told us how the Unidos workers, who earned more and who were advised to come to work “very well dressed” were to serve unwittingly as models for other workers with lower salaries and worse conditions.

(…) They had told them that they could all dress alike so there wouldn’t be any difference, and everyone thought that was alright- anyway, they didn’t argue- and nobody complained that this was happening, and so we found out by accident, since we didn’t see anyone who looked like a telephone operator and really you can usually spot an operator on the street. (Telemarketing drift)

Image, be it for the purpose of differentiating or equalizing, is fundamental, even if one is working by telephone.[21] Image, especially if one is a woman, is part of the company, but it is also something of one’s own, something connected to the self-esteem and the perception one has of oneself in relation to others. For this reason no one wants to identify herself as a telephone operator. This double character makes it possible for the interests of the company, designed in accord with a rationalization of ‘desire’ and the ‘necessity’ to maximize profits, can appear indistinct from the interests of those who work in it: young people just passing through, university students with big plans, girls concerned about their image. This is the case of those working in telemarketing who aspire to “a better image of themselves” (in the eyes of their families, for example) who pretend they work in a “big company” in the telecommunications sector: “Nobody works for Qualytel, nobody works for Iberphone, everyone works either for Natural Gas or for Iberdrola or for Madritel or for Telefonica. Or else you can just say you work in Jorge Juan.[22]” The telephone operator, Teresa explained to us, does not identify herself by her occupation nor by her education, and certainly not by her profession, but by the name of the company that has contracted her. The important thing is to be able to speak![23]


All of this places us in the terrain of productive bodies. Something which for us now has a fixed and unforgettable image: the Nike macro-billboard in Plaza del Sol interpolating each and every one of us: “And you, who are you?”: the ‘diva’, the ‘yogi’, the ‘fighter’ and the others: a sweaty black woman in boxing gloves, a blonde absorbed in the lotus position, a rocker-girl in her plastic pants… a condensation of identity which speaks to the possibilities of corporeal or incorporated experience, assuming the sensibility which encourages us to “make yourself a (sexualized) body”, a sensibility which makes anorexia only the extreme experience of a common corporeality.[24]

The fusion in the body of life and work is a commonplace for many women whose work puts them in contact with the public: in commerce, hospitality and the new kind of administrative work which mixes paperwork with customer service. The desire to be appealing (to oneself and to others), a desire powerfully domesticated in women, is here recuperated for the diffuse control of labor and for the production of a subjectivity based on unconditional surrender.[25] The feminist revindication of corporeal self-determination (“Our bodies, ourselves”), inspired in a vision of the colonized body and of colonization as a superimposition of layers over an original and virgin nature demands an updated reflection.

The increasing abstraction of commercial and cultural products, converted into images or lifestyles, submitted to the devices of the optical unconscious and the optical test of which Benjamin speaks, has given priority to a body in which products and attributes become inseparable. Fashion advertisements, such as those produced by Mango, show a body in which the garments are imperceptible or no more perceptible than other physical characteristics: extreme thinness, reclining and invalid posture (sometimes barely managing to stay afoot), shadowed eyes (suggesting evanescence, illness and abuse), fleshy lips (hypersexualization in a hypertrophic body), the empty background which helps to emphasize the body’s elements, etc.

In this way, the opportunity to make oneself a body cohabits with the corporeal proposals in which (self)discipline, be it athletic or alimentary, becomes a common denominator. Ultimately it is about beating the body, knowing how to overcome it in the face of stress, exhaustion, age, illness, depression or laziness.

In this battle the first to lose are the domestic workers.

-And when I say physical exhaustion, what do you imagine?

-Ay, exhaustion, so much work and so much of everything, its like an illness, one can’t give another drop.

-Do you feel physical exhaustion every day?

-Yes, yes, yes, every day, because one wakes up in the morning, because even though one works part-time if one is a mother and a wife and besides all that I also have my mother here, I’m a daughter, and so I have to be doing things, putting everything in order, a mother never rests, she is the first to wake up and the last to go to bed (questions to an Ecuadorian woman in the Parque del Oeste during the domestic work drift)

The work is hard. Yes, I get very tired. Sometimes my back hurts. But the doctor says its just from working. They gave me exercises to do. The exercises don’t seem to work. I have to keep working, so how do they expect the pain to pass? My head hurts too. And when I stop to think about my children I feel my heart hurt. The doctor says its depression. I don’t have anything in my heart… (testimony of an in-house domestic worker, Anacaona, from an investigation on Latin American domestic workers in Belgium, Las voladoras o de la migración international de mujeres latinoamericanas, 2003)

Physical exhaustion and all the aches and pains are enormous, and to them must be added other kinds of demands having to do with one’s appearance (also related to race, which is taken as a given to be accentuated), one’s health, or other more immaterial qualities such as attitude, none of which are aspects irrelevant to employers.[26]

Nothing in domestic work, including care work and nursing, contributes to self-care, nothing but the capacity of the worker to endure and preserve her most necessary tool which is her own body and her integrity faced with the enormous sadness of all that which she doesn’t… (“Migration – a woman in the park told us – is being far from one’s land”). Free time is, definitively, time to work more. Viki’s insistence on her need to feel herself treated “like a person”, like a “human being” has to do with this fabrication of submission, the reduction of her being to a mere body for the reproduction of others, pure work force unconnected to any specific quality.

Stress and physical exhaustion for some and tiredness, aches and pains and depression for others give form to the experiences of class, gender and migration which are impressed in the intimacy of different productive bodies.


“Listening and relating, especially relating with people”, thus Carmen describes what she puts to work in her functions as a nurse. Something which she shares with the telephone operators, the domestic workers, the prostitutes and other women in feminine precarious work. For us, the encounter with the telephone operators was a revelation in this sense.[27] The capacity to attend and to empathize, the anticipation of others’ desires, not so much in order to provide solutions as to make the other feel good in a more general sense, patience and the ability to produce a “telephone smile” are fundamental tools based in a common sensibility lauded by some feminists as an ‘ethics of care.’ Technical knowledge, but especially relational knowledge - something which the company rapidly skips over in a 3 day training course (unpaid and with no guarantee of work) and which is mostly learned with the help of more experienced workers - is the key to success.[28] In these training courses, and depending upon the kind of services – technical assistance, information, emergencies, sales, surveys, etc. – they establish guidelines about the length of the call, the methods of retaining, deferring or cutting the call, the line of argumentation to develop, the intonation, the prohibited words and the encouraged ones[29] or the activation of the famous ‘mute’ or ‘telephone tunnel’ through which they may leave the call on hold for any number of reasons, and to which the telephone operators have responded with Without the Mute, the title of the magazine they have produced about labor problems in telemarketing. The control over communicative capacity – emotional as well as argumentative rhetoric – constitutes a vast field for exploration.

Normally during the first year people see that their character gets much more dry, much more defensive, because in client attention you are the first barrier. People call you to say that something doesn’t work and you’re not there to solve the problem, you’re there to endure their anger. Then later if you can solve the problem you pass the call along or whatever you have to do, but you are there to stick it out. So its very important to differentiate, to know when you leave your work, to change and be able to smile, but its difficult… When I take a call, I know, first of all, that the guy is not mad at me, that it is not personal and that if he yells at me and then I yell at him then its going to get ugly, so I sit there with great patience and all the calm in the world, but not because they make me: because I take it like that, because I really don’t care. I understand that he has a problem but what’s it to me? It’s not my problem, so I’m going to do what I can –sometimes you can say that, sometimes no – but I have to hang on to the idea that I am going to do what I can, and even though he says I am an incompetent and I am not, I have to stick it out and not let it get to me. The problem one tends to have in this job is that you start out doing things as well as you can but you just can’t, you can’t do anything well because its really not your job to fix anything, your job is just to stick it out, and this is really hard because of course someone is there telling you something and you really do feel bad for him that his phone hasn’t worked for two days, and you can’t tell him, look, unsubscribe because no one is going to fix it. So its just a matter of putting him off, telling him that you’re going to do all that you can, and tell yourself this: that you are just doing your job. (Telemarketing drift)

The most experienced or most adept workers are able to limit the tension by establishing authentic subjective excisions. Nevertheless, the integration of knowledges and dispositions generates painful contradictions. This is what happens, for example, on the hotline for battered women, a service contracted by the Institute for Women, in which it is necessary to develop a communicative orientation dense in skills – listening, understanding, calming, consoling, informing, diverting, deciding, consulting, etc. – within a situation of great emotional tension.

Okay, I come to this service and they tell me ‘you have to divert them’ but of course the caller tells me… for example in a rape case it was very clear, you tell her that she has to go to one of those police stations that has services for women and she says to you, yeah but it my village there isn’t one, because you get calls from all over Spain and if she lives in a village… sure, but its 200km away, so you send her to the police station, but its not going to be the same, so you have to give her some guidelines, tell her that she has to do this, this and this, but all this I say because I want to, and the company wants me to, but they don’t make me do it, they didn’t teach me to do it, and if I do it badly, what responsibility do I have? I have a personal responsibility, but the company can always say look, you said this on your own account and you’re not obliged to say that, and as a matter of fact, you’re not allowed to say that… (Telemarketing drift)

We find ourselves once again before the dilemma of care, before the frame of mind needed to work for people and not get burned, to find some means of subjective self-preservation, of integrity in contact. As Viki explained to us, although things are bad and

As hard as the situation may be, you can’t fill up with resentment and bad feelings, because then those feelings bloom and you teach them. If its caring for children, you teach those children all you know. Do you understand? All that your life drags with it, and all that has made you into a special person and a particular person. You transmit to these people all that you are. But they don’t pay you for that. (Domestic work drift)

Another interesting element of relationship which merits further investigation is the link between people working together, which was alluded to both by the telephone operators and by our guide in social nursing. In the case of the operators, the companies attempt by all means to reduce the contact between the employees, whether by giving them little physical space to rest - as we had the opportunity to witness in situ, all squeezed together in the Qualytel office – or by using strategies oriented to generate competition and individualism, such as what they call “horizontal promotion”[30] or incentives[31] (which are also used in public health). Nevertheless, the company knows that a good portion of the work is done thanks to the exchange between the workers which assures the transmission of the savoir faire accumulated by the veterans who have been there longer, and – take note – are already more burnt-out[32], and of the information necessary in the course of the telephone calls, information which certainly does not reside in the few folders which we found in the offices, nor in the computers, but rather in the heads of those who are answering the calls. The control of this process rests in modulated management, employing surveillance techniques (listening and recording), hierarchization (operation personnel: operators, coordinators and supervisors, and structural personnel), displacement and time changes (since the job is organized by campaign some workers are located in the headquarters of the operating company while others are in the contracting company, and thus they are continually changing) and differentiation based on salary and value (of the campaign, of the sex of those who are executing it, of their wardrobe, of the company, etc.). The sense of being in transit is permanent: the scientific organization of total work.

Despite all the impediments relations are established, the workers end up meeting each other again in the course of their rotations, experience and resistance accumulate and socialization projects itself out of the work space, first to the Dunkin’Donuts to which they lead us since it’s the only affordable place in Salamanca (the neighborhood of Madrid where Qualytel is located in an almost totally clandestine manner[33]) and then, far from the opulent streets of this area, into houses, bars, parks, public transportation, the city. Relationships, confined by the intense rhythms of work and by the acceleration of urban life, seek interior and exterior spaces for release. Bea and Teresa keep in touch with many of their former colleagues. Carmen, in our trip through her former job in a health center for heroin addicts, goes out for one thing or another with many of her former comrades in this nocturnal job.

Who has helped me is the team. Sometimes I wanted to go to work just in order to be with my colleagues, since I had no social life. My friends from the university have left town to work, many of my other friends too. Madrid has a super intense rhythm of work and no one has time to see each other. If I had more of my people here I’d go nuts because I couldn’t see them. So most of my emotional support is in my work. (Social nursing drift)

The fact that sociability exceeds and escapes from the the more rigid structures of work is a well known reality, the most interesting concretion of which we find in parks, where fellow migrants meet and work out all kinds of contacts. The fragmentation of the houses where they work, the invisibility of residency papers and the anonymity of being foreign are recomposed in a public space which resists the postmodern phenomenon of the “no place.” And we think: if a particular space should exist for the struggle against precariousness, this would be the city in its full extension; this park, that bar, the stairway of the building, the whole block, the metro, the crosswalks, the doorways, the empty lots… This gives us important clues for thinking about conflict from a spatial continuum which unfolds itself in daily life, not limited to work (how, for example, to create conflict from within the isolation of the domestic worker? Can we follow up on this? Meet in other spaces? Meddle?), and in the figures and positions which incarnate these situated flows (the occasional companions in the call-center? The fellow users of the internet café, the discount supermarket, the bus number 36?)."