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Precair Forum Provocation, "Flexwork"

Anonymous Comrade writes:


Precair Forum Provocation

This is a further "provocation" for the Precair Forum scheduled for 12 February in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. It was composed by the group preparing the workshop about flexibilised work, i.e. that performed under zero-hour contracts, with minimal contracts or labour statutes, or through job-agencies. It is intended to spark some debate at the forum about what role "flexworkers" could play in social movements in the Netherlands. Other provocations and texts are here.

"We are the only ones who can represent us."

The current trade union movement is still oriented on the ‘trade’, the profession. We flexworkers, on the other hand, no longer exercise a profession, we no longer have a trade. Last autumn’s trade union actions (i.e. in the Netherlands) have relied in great measure on traditional segments of the working class: dockworkers, public transport, construction… Flexworkers weren’t visible in any of these actions as a recognizable part of the working class. Which is logical because we don’t work in any fixed sector, we work in all of them, we hop from one to another. The union movement knows these changes of the labor market and of the working class. She does not, however, draw any conclusions from it which have consequences for the structure of its organization. The current trade union movement does not, as it were, consider us as ‘workers’ in the full sense of that word.Starting from its orientation on the ‘trade’, the union fights mainly for the traditional privileges of the welfare state: fixed contracts, decent salaries, insurance, pensions. The key word is security. But the flexibilisation of work leads precisely to the opposite. Things the unions would fight for when they impact contract workers, they have to accept carelessly in the case of flexworkers, simply because their ‘ flex’ status is a legal fact. Take the following as an example: when, in 2001, economic growth slowly grinded to a halt, the first that happened was companies stopped hiring people through job agencies, then those working through job agencies were sent home… After that workers with temp contracts heard they wouldn’t be extended, and only after that forced layoffs were announced, layoffs, that is, of contract workers. Only at this point could we hear media speak of ‘mass layoffs’ and did trade union spokespeople start to use militant phrases like ‘not a man [sic] out the door’. Nobody even mentioned what masses of people had already been forced to leave through the same doors. And these weren’t mass-layoffs?

The flexibilisation of work was justified and considered necessary for maintaining certain privileges of the welfare state. The trade union, which today has really lost what revolutionary spirit it once had, could without any problem relate to this reasoning. So she agreed to the process of flexibilisation. But what advantages the welfare state offered, were only secured for workers who already have fixed, guaranteed contracts. In the mean time fired contract workers, young workers, and people pushed out of various benefit schemes (such as mothers who receive welfare) have come to the labour market as jobseekers. They are being recruited in ‘flexed’ job positions. And this is how young and old are being thrown around between companies, sectors and job agencies.

We are not allowed to work more than 26 weeks without a payrise. Sometimes this makes us too ‘expensive’. If the job agency or the company hiring us doesn’t think of us as too expensive at that point, we can still work for 52 weeks more through the same agency. If at that point we don’t get a fixed contract we have to start looking out for ‘something else’ (the glorious phrase of the flexworker), and for another job agency. We still have to meet that lucky flexworker who after 78 weeks got her fixed contract. All this insecurity is legally constructed. Flexworkers are sacrificed every day to the (supposed) benefit of contract workers. As a result, a clear division has been created within the working class between those with, and those without guarantees of job security. The intensive competition between flexworkers over jobs causes a far-reaching individualization within the flexed segment of the working class.

We no longer identify with the workplace (which one?) and neither do we identify with our co-workers. We work and take breaks with different people all the time, and in different companies too. Our remaining social relations exist mostly outside our work, in our free time. It is our friends from our street, our neighborhood, from concert halls, cafes and bars, who tell us about possible jobs and decent job agencies. With them, we eat during breaks when occasionally we work at the same place. Because the current trade union desperately keeps holding on to the ‘trade’ and does not develop any credible ideas about our situation, it cannot represent us.