Radical media, politics and culture.

Precarious Workers Adrift (Part III)

hydrarchist writes:

This is the third part of the essay. All footnotes are collected at the bottom of this segment.

Part I.

Part II.


Let’s just say that we have fallen into the same productivity that capital expects from a worker, that it expected from a factory worker, except that now the factory is life and we almost never do anything that does not have a clear purpose, whose end has not already been determined. (Drift with language workers).

When the differences in salaries are really a minor detail because everyone is earning shit, the value of what one does, of what one is, produced inside and outside of work, becomes of primary importance. What we discussed earlier: style, bodily indications, language, cultural traditions, existential itineraries, informal competition and its reinterpretation within the bosom of social enterprise. For those people, mostly university graduates, who have worked in food service and pizza delivery and distributing flyers, this office job, say the telephone operators, represents a big improvement. We speak about “total mobilization” of a design in which everything intervenes, from environmental elements (the neighborhood, one’s appearance, the availability of various objects at one’s working station…) to the difumination of the exercise of power. Don’t deny yourself, don’t get irritated, everything is possible later…

In the company they never say no. Of course. But they always have to do viability studies. The question of the earphones in particular lasted two years and at the end they resolved only to give individual cushions.

Power is assumed, is made one’s own; one reproduces it in a pattern altered by the addition of each node in the network. Doctors do this under the pressure placed upon them by incentive systems and pharmaceutical companies, social workers do it harassed by lack of resources, telephone operators do it motivated by a difference in status, editors do it seduced by the sheen of public image, section bosses do it pressed by the responsibility of their belonging to a big firm. Emotional blackmail, immaterial privileges, ideas of solidarity and political ideals, intangible promises, potential promotions, the opportunities that they generate, the viable projects, psychological harassment and benefits which depend upon favors and compromises constitute an emotional grammar well studied in certain spheres such as the domestic, where to go to the doctor is always a concession which compels some compensation, translated into time or work or tribute. The radically feminine relations between the lady of the house and the domestic assistant are, in this sense, a complex asymmetrical game of mutual dependencies in which they negotiate the intimacy of care and cleaning, blame, responsibility, and the total dependency which is generated by organizing a life around others’ needs.

The negotiating table has dissolved, the moment of contracting is interminable, the system of rights and obligations is established ‘as we go along’, such that the mere act of formulating this grammar is an arduous if not impossible task. The general wage agreement, for those who have it and for those who have it in their own sector, is more or less anecdotal, ill-fit to the rationality of the activity.

It depends on the company. In some they give you a bonbon, in some they some pay more if you work on a holiday, in others you get a night supplement if you work at night, so it more or less equals out. In all the companies I think the owners have it worked out this way so each one can give some things better and some things worse. As for a general wage agreement, well, in the works committee we are habitually struggling for just that, that they fulfill the agreement to the letter. Now they’ve done something good, which is that now there’s a break from looking at the screens. Before there was a break of 10 or 15 minutes, depending on the hours you normally work, but now what there is is a five minute break for every two hours of work, to relax your eyes. Its important that people know this and that if they pressure us not to pay attention, that we have the right to the break. But what happens in this job is that if in this moment there are a lot of calls the coordinator is there to tell you “wait a moment, right now there are too many calls, or else you won’t be able to go to the bathroom.” No one knows very well what is the function of the coordinator, but that one person can tell another that she can’t go to the bathroom… anyway, with the question of the breaks, if you enter in the rhythm that everybody enters when you arrive you think, okay, I’m going to do things well and I don’t really care if I go out five minutes earlier or later, and then that is established, and very easily you end up without any break at all… So do they fulfill the agreement in general, yes, but of course its not in general, its each day of work, and since the calls are entering and you want to attend them well and they sell you this idea of professionalism… (Telemarketing drift)

The important thing for them, as the telephone operators commented, is that what you actually do resembles- or at least that you believe that it resembles- what you wanted to do in the first place.


Income is habitually taken as the key criteria in defining precarious work, income and the condition of permanent temporariness to which we have already alluded and which we have tried to make more complex on the basis of things which have arisen during the drifts. The importance of the salary with respect to the other values such as prestige, resources, connectivity, opportunities for strategic projection or personal interests vary depending on the possibilities each person has, as an individual but more importantly as a function of one’s more-or-less fixed social position. For some, like the domestic workers, the job is just this: money, that which is immediately necessary to change things, to transform “this hell of instability in which we lived.”

The words of the women with whom we spoke in the Parque del Oeste, as well as the tone of their voices, their intonation, which we cannot reproduce through mere transcription, say it all:

-If I say to you ‘work’, what do you think of?

-Work is what you do to have money, because here everything is based on money… something to get work, I mean, money. (Interviewing an Ecuadorian woman in the Parque del Oeste, Domestic work drift)

Income is inseparable from residency papers and the condition of being a migrant woman. Both form the closed circuit of domestic work in which many women find themselves trapped, unable to develop their professions or interests. In this circuit the servile dimension also becomes manifest, a dimension which is most clearly and materially expressed in the very form of the salary: on the one hand, the salary appears ever more the variable vulnerable to adjustment by economic policy, that is, it is the task of the salary to absorb macroeconomic shocks, the rise or fall of the moment; on the other, it is ever more individualized: the standard wage (that which is calculated in the contract and which is based on the qualification of the worker: an irreversible element) is only a small part of real wage income, whereas an increasing part is based upon the degree of implication, zeal and interest demonstrated during the process of work, that is, after the contractual moment. Thus the salary becomes less and less a result of a contractual relation (and a relation of force) and more a purely individual remuneration for services rendered.[34]

We walk through the streets, we cross the city by bus from the zone of Embajadores to the neighborhood of Salamanca, a discrete surface but replete with marks, transitions, environmental changes inscribed in the businesses, the buildings, the urban real estate, the people. We go up Velázquez towards Jorge Juan with our noses pressed against the Christmas display windows of Loewe, a torrent of lights, golden bubbles, glitter and snowflakes swirling on the other side of the glass.

We pass by here every day to go to work and then to go home, so it is significant that as you go by you come across stores like this. What a display! And a purse for 100,000 pesetas. Yeah, it makes you wonder, being in this neighborhood, even for the lunch break: if you want to go down and have a coffee you know that its not going to cost what it does in the bar next to your house, so it is significant that you come here to work. At home they say “She works in Salamanca!” and it seems just like what they would have wanted, since they can’t live here they would at least like to have worked here. Many of the telemarketing companies are in la Moraleja[35] and the same thing happens, people go to work in la Moraleja, and if on top of that they go to work in a suit, imagine! The height of perfection. (Telemarketing drift)

We continue on the same sidewalk and stop amazed in front of the perfect image, the most elaborate metaphor for what these streets suggest to us in our passage through precarious work. It is the display window of some completely hidden prestigious company, the glass frosted to opacity, leaving only one tiny square of transparent glass out of reach, above our heads. When we clamber up to look we can see one exclusive garment on one mannequin. The visual conjunction of inaccessibility and prohibition, of this obscene gesture of sticking ones nose in (where it has no business, for if it had you wouldn’t be climbing up there to look): this is the best description of what happens to us.


For us this investigation is, above all, a way of thinking together towards collective action, an effort to locate the scattered sites of conflict and know how to name them, to inaugurate other previously nonexistent ones along with those we already experience: in the process of job-seeking, in the job-interview (that grand machine of daily humiliation!), in networks, in shopping centers, on the telephone, in the park, in social centers… After this first cycle of drifts, whose itineraries and reflections we try to collect in this text from the June 20th strike to the more recent and frustrated strike against the war in Iraq on April 10th, we have thrown out two questions, in first and in second person: “What is your war? What is your strike?”.[36]

The primary objective of the Laboratorio de Trabajadoras was to create a space of permanent communication which would not be restricted by work-place nor limited to the strictly work-related -as if this could be separated from other aspects of life- and that would not be restricted to the singularity of this or that company, this or that specific conflict, some particular demand, but that could be reinvented as a practice, contaminating and provoking chain reactions. A laboratory which would permit us to be on top of events and improvise coordinated movements of support and of rebellion (to intervene in the firing or the abuse of a live-in domestic worker, to participate in the strikes and struggles of health workers, telemarketers…).

As much in the course of the drifts as afterwards in the two workshops of Globalized Care, we have only just begun to go over some of the memorable recent experiences of struggle: the janitor’s strike in Ramón y Cajal Hospital, the struggle of the Qualytel telephone operators, and other gestures, bursts, protests and budding processes of uprising. For some the encounter with the janitors in our brief visit to the hospital was strange, alien: alien to us because we saw them in a localized conflict, still influenced by unions like CCOO[37] (with which the workers of the Eurolimp-Ferrovial contract in Ramon y Cajal had had such confrontations in order to maintain their autonomy and their grassroots structure), in a conflict in which the question of precariousness resides basically in the increasing loss of rights, in the disappearance of the workers’ functions in order to intensify their activity, and in the absolute repression of any and all burst of protest.[38] But we immediately recognized the intimacy of the relationship they sought with the patients and their families and with other social groups outside of the realm of the unions, and we identified with their discourse about care as something related to citizenship and their criticism of the privatization of health care.

Perhaps the conflict of the telephone operators struck us closer to home, especially for the absolute nonexistence of representative structures, the extreme mobility (the constant shuffling of workers) and the isolation to which they are subjected, as well as some their hybrid practices of struggle in which they play with anonymity, networked action, clandestine organizational processes, the use of symbolic tools to break through isolation and fear, etc.[39] Their experience of communication “with whoever is beside you” in order, bit by bit, to construct a common sensibility, their necessity to recognize themselves, because the common names are not obvious, or their ability to short-circuit the company’s logic producing other logics give us a few interesting hints for future interventions.

By exploring the intimate and paradoxical nature of feminized work we discovered a few points of attack: turn mobility to our advantage – as we said in the debate following our “Grand Show” – appropriate the communicative channels in order to talk about other things (and not just anything), modify semiotic production in strategic moments, make care and the invisible networks of mutual support into a lever for subverting dependence, practice “the job well done” as something illicit and contrary to productivity, insist upon the practice of inhabiting, of being, a growing right.

Our incursions into spaces of non-work, or, to be more exact, in our existential and subjective itineraries, have isolated precedents into which we have plunged, among them the campaign against Inditex[40] organized by various groups of women off and on since 1998[41] or the reappropriation of maxi-pads which has gone on for years. Transforming labor struggles into citizen struggles which act upon the asymmetries of sex and sexuality, place of origin and legal status, race and age, and which cut through the metropolitan circuits of precariousness constitutes an itinerary which each of us has entered from a different points: some from our own work, some from social spaces, some others from a syndicalism in transformation, from the feminist movement, from the personal encounters that are going on around us.


At the close of this first phase we wanted that our efforts to map the territory be expressed and multiplied, that they strike up a dialogue with other restless realities. But how to express such an intimate and complex process? How to express, in just one evening, in just one place, the particularity of the spaces and the lives through which we have drifted? This led to what we called the “Grand Show”: a performance –as lively as we could make it- of the drifts, comprised of a theatralization and a fictional reproduction of the places –crosswalks, display windows, screens, homes, construction work, hospital rooms and class rooms, passers-by- which we passed through, and the people with whom we had the opportunity to speak played by… themselves! Video, slides, audio, a debate for which we were all already too tired and, to finish it off, a cocktail in La Eskalera Karakola.

In the house, a translator spoke to us –between phone-calls and computer crashes- of isolation, stress, and the intimacy of the text. In the classroom a teacher gave an English lesson to the rhythm of chanted slogans. Again in the house, a domestic worker described her hours of work and the long-distance management of her family. We went out, walked around, reflected, saw the video of a virtual drift with a precarious archeologist always on the road, then interviewed one of the Ramon y Cajal workers. We let ourselves be overwhelmed by the rhythm of the keyboard, the calls, the saucepans, the outbursts.

And then oriented and disoriented, stirred-up and united, we watched a montage which pulled together voices and images from our passages. We debated, we talked about precariousness; everybody talks about precariousness these days. But can we really? Is it useful? How do we define a category which contains such differences, such a variety of experiences and situations? Doubts arise. Is putting the work of a high-wire freelance researcher together with the work of an in-house domestic worker without residency papers in the same category not a way of obscuring a terrible difference in social power? How shall we delineate precariousness outside of labor? And with these and other questions we go to have a drink and to plan, drunken, future itineraries of the singular common.

[1] There is no adequate English translation for all that is implied by ‘precariedad’. The word, increasingly common in discourses about work in Europe, while sometimes used to refer only to a condition of inadequate income, can be applied more generally to the diversity of life/work conditions associated with part-time, flexible, unregulated, multiple, no-contract, no-benefits, at home, project-basis, freelance, illegal or invisible employment.

Webster’s defines precarious as: “dependent upon chance circumstances, unknown conditions, or uncertain developments; characterized by a lack of stability or security that threatens with danger.” This is pretty much right on target.

[2] See the works of A.Negri, for example The Labor of Dionysis and his articles in the magazine Futur antérieur: “Value and affect” with M.Lazzarato, “Immaterial work and subjectivity” . Also M. Hardt, “Affective Labor” Boundary, 2, 1999.

[3] Engels, The origin of the family, private property and the State

[4]See, among others and from very different angles, D.Haraway Science, Cyborgs and Women; C.Sandoval Methodology of the Oppressed, A.Jonasdottir The power of love: does sex matter to democracy?, R.Braidotti, Metamorphosis: towards a materialist theory of becoming, C.Carrasco, Mujeres y economia.Nuevas perspectivas para viejos y nuevos problemas, J.Flax, Psychoanalysis and feminism. Fragmentary thoughts, C.Morini, La serva serve: Le nuove forzate del lavoro domestico.

[5] The Laboratory of Women Workers, but it sounds better in Spanish.

[6] See L.Balbo, La doppia presenza and L.Bimbi, “ La doppia presenza: fattori strutturali e processi sociali nella diffusione di un modello complesso di lavoro femminile dalle economie centrali a quelle periferiche” en Mariella Pacifico (ed.) Lavoro produttivo, lavoro riproduttivo. Contributi sulla divisione sessuale del lavoro, Nápoles, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1989.

[7] If, as Braidotti observes, “the only constant at the dawn of the third millennium is change, the challenge resides in thinking about processes and not about concepts[…] the question is not to know who we are but, at last, what we want to become, how to represent mutations, changes and transformations, and not Being in its classical forms” (2002).

[8] C. Vega, «Estranjeras en la ciudad. Itinerarios de mujeres okupas y migrantes por el barrio de Lavapiés» in A. Bernardez (ed.) Perdidas en el espacio. Formas de ocupar, recorrer y representar los lugares, Madrid, Huerga y Fierro, 1999.

[9] “Theory of the derive” Situationist International

[10] For us any text, any reproduction pales in comparison to the experience of the drifts; nevertheless, we have attempted to represent them in a few narrative accounts. You can read them at www.sindominio.net/karakola/precarias.htm (in Spanish)

[11] Our companions Amaia Pérez Orozco and Sira del Río explain all this and much more in «La economía desde el feminismo: trabajos y cuidados», Rescoldos. Revista de diálogo social, n. 7, 2002. Also in www.sindominio.net/karakola/precarias/cuidadosdoss ier.htm

[12] Habitually definitions and classifications of precariousness overlook these aspects we so insist upon. One of the classifications we have come across, thinking strictly in terms of employment and quite outside the problem of who occupies which position, distinguishes: migrant work: persons with completely unregulated labor relations, frequently illegal and very probably informal: industrial permatemp: atypical and dependant workers linked to flexible material production, easily blackmailed due to the uncertainty of renewal of their contract; chainworkers: all those atypical workers who work in services and fordist chains both public and private, and brainworkers: all those who, with miserable salaries and ever longer working hours, offer their knowledge and abilities to the companies of immaterial work (communication, internet, semiotic production, logistics, etc.)

[13] L. Boltanski, L. y E. Chiapello, E., El nuevo espíritu del capitalismo. Akal, Madrid, 2002.

[14] P. Virno, Virtuosismo y revolucion. La accion politica en la era del desencanto. Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2003.

[15] See Beneker and Wichtmann “ Plan de servicio sin fronteras. Sobre la migracion de
enfermeras” in Extranjeros en el Paraiso, Virus, Barcelona, 1994.

[16] IMEFE: A public institute responsible for employment training

[17] There are many examples this personal implication: the delicate “capture” of girls to talk about anticonceptives during an appointment about something else, or the work which Carmen’s mother does in the same health center, quite outside of her official responsibilities, with one group of battered women and another group of diabetics.

[18] “Labor of love? The migration of women as domestic workers” Regina, special issue ifu, 2000.

[19] Never do, Viki explained, anything extra, anything more than exactly what they have asked you to do, because if you do from that moment on it will have become a rule and an expectation and when you don’t do it they will demand to know why.

[20] See S. Bordo, “Hunger as an ideology”.

[21] The voice works similarly, and must be skilled in producing the effect of a “telephone smile” or in hiding the place from which it is speaking, as in the case of the Moroccan telephone operators with Spanish names and Spanish accents who supply telephone services in Spain at Moroccan prices.

[22] A main street in the luxurious neighborhood where many of the telemarkeing companies are located.

[23] A slogan of Telefonica, the Spanish telecommunications giant.

[24] See Susan Bordo, “Anorexia Nerviosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture” Philosophical Forum 17, 73-103, 1987.

[25]“Let us think, for example, of the shop girl I have referred to already. Evidently, the corporeality of this woman is previous to her employment in Zara, we cannot reduce it to a mere efect of her socialization at work. Nevertheless, it is inseparable from her work the moment her employment demands a stylization which goes beyond her clothing. How does this woman experience her body when she leaves home on her way to work, or the reverse, when she heads home without taking off her uniform? What transposition takes place in and through her body? It is not possible to think about phenomena of these characteristics without the presence of an ‘intellectualized’ subject, that is an agent capable of fabricating and putting into circulation products and/or cultural ideas, and thus capable of subverting or displacing their functions.” C. Vega, “La domesticacion del trabajo” http://www.sindominio.net/karakola/sexoment.htm

[26] Barbara Ehrenreich tells about all of this in great detail in her book Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America. On the power relations between employer and employee, also see the results of the investigation of Anacaona previously cited; “the Latina servant confirms her inferiority, behaving with deference and adopting maternal attitudes towards the patron; she is concerned for her, listens to her, tolerates her, comprehends her, she also accepts an ill-paid job as she has no capacity to negotiate her salary; and finally – on multiple occasions- she presents herself in a physically deplorable manner. The lack of seduction in these women is due to the kind of work they do, the hours of cleaning, using strong products: their aspect is lamentable. This increases the sense of undervaluing, making them feel ugly, deteriorated and old before their time. Some women said that before 40 their lives had finished.” http://www.sindominio.net/karakola/precarias/cuida dosdossier.htm

[27] In terms of the socio-demographic characteristics of the work force in telemarketing, the average age is around 22, and on weekends the majority are students. Now women of 40 or 50 are also beginning to enter. The majority are women (80 or 90%), and of the men most are gay, although this also depends upon the particular campaign. For example, in the campaign to file income taxes they prefer to take men since it gives a more technical image, but for client assistance and complaints they prefer women since they are more easy-going. We commented on how interesting it would be to reconstruct the evolution of this job from the old telephone operators, emblem of the incorporation of many women into the labor market, to the unemployed young university graduates and divorcees.

[28] In this field too the sexual division of work is at play; repairs are usually assigned to men, as is the income declaration campaign, while sales persuasion and emotional support fall into women’s hands.

[29] …they give you a class in how to attend the client, typical ‘black words’: like you can’t say ‘No’, you can’t say ‘Problem’, there are lots of things you can’t say. I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to one: companies don’t have ‘problems’ they have ‘incidents’… and then some words you have to say habitually, so they teach you that, and then you get used to it with practice. If you’re in a really strict company, one where they listen to everything, then yes they really take these things into account… anyway, you get used to it, and then you talk like that in your private life too. I remember when I began to work as a telephone operator and would pick up the phone in my house saying “Telefonica, good afternoon’ and then say goodbye with ‘Thank you for your call.’ Its unconscious, because its something you’re accustomed to saying eight hours a day, so the call in your own house might as well be one of them. (Telemarketing drift)

[30] With respect to internal promotion, it used to be for reasons of seniority, but now they promote those who have been there little time because they are less burnt-out. There is vertical promotion and horizontal promotion (they pass you from one campaign to another). Horizontal promotion, though it entails no improvement in pay or in category, represents an increase in prestige, and one passes on to a new process of selection and the company announces this to all your colleagues. It demonstrates that the company likes you. Work is more linked to the campaign than to the companies, and this increases the sense of instability. Even if you have been working for years in the telemarketing sector one day you may be working in one company and the next day in another.

[31] Depending on the campaign they may pay one thing or another as incentives, and its hard to control because, for example, in sales campaigns its all depends on whether the business then goes and makes the sale, and that creates a bad atmosphere. On the emergency telephone line they tried to pay incentives to those who could convince the caller that there was no need to send an ambulance, but then this policy ended. Bea and Teresa think they were just testing to see what the reaction would be.

[32] At first, the operators tell us, they chose the coordinators from those with most experience. Its logical: if they were better acquainted with the work they could coordinate it better, too. But quickly they realized that these people were too burnt, that precisely having suffered through this job made them more refractory in pushing their colleagues to hurry their calls. So the ended up choosing the coordinators from the new employees, who are more manipulable, people who have recently arrived and are more ingenuous, to whom one can still sell the company’s line.

[33] The anonymity of these businesses is a well known fact…

[34] C.Marazzi, I posto dei Calizini. La svolta lingüistica dell’economia e i suoi effetti nella politica, Edizioni Casagrande Bellinzona, 1994.

[35] Another luxurious upper-class neighborhood of Madrid.

[36] http://acp.sindominio.net/article.pl?sid=03/04/09/ 1234246&mode=thread

[37] Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain’s major unions, marked by a long history of pacts and compromises.

[38] http://www.nodo50.org/limpiezasramonycajal

[39] In this sense, the experience of the stuggles in the Madrid census a few years ago or in the Cirque de Soleil with people hired through the temp-agency Manpower have been other important sources of inspiration. http://www.sindominio.net/labiblio/archivo.htm#pre c

[40] The Spanish textiles giant which includes Zara, Berschka, Pull&Bear…

[41] http://acp.sindominio.net/article.pl?sid=02/05/20/ 0131215&mode=thread

http://acp.sindominio.net/article.pl?sid=02/05/27/ 2159245&mode=thread

http://acp.sindominio.net/article.pl?sid=02/05/27/ 229240&mode=thread"