Generally speaking, the term ‘casual’ has positive connotations – relaxed, informal, easy-going. Applied to the world of labour, though, the reverse is true. It describes a situation of increasingly insecure, pressure-driven employment, at the whim of employers whose demands may chop and change, forcing millions of workers to realign their lives, routines and other commitments in their struggles to get by: less casuals than casualties.

Passing the Buck: Corporate Restructuring and the Casualisation of Employment is the latest volume in the excellent Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation series*. It is reviewed here by Richy Leitch.

Setting the scene for the book, Ursula Huws points out that our received views on casual labour – as an anachronism swept away by industrialisation, the growth of a formal economy and state regulation – are incorrect. Formed against the backdrop of the regulated post-war economy of the West and its model of employment (with permanent jobs, collective bargaining on pay and conditions, and a supporting welfare state) we have mistaken this temporary arrangement for a universal process; and are now rudely confronted with a dramatic reversal in new political and economic circumstances. An unprecedented trend of casualised employment is being unleashed by those capitalist forces of modernity we once assumed would sweep it away.

The book examines the boom in casual employment over the last quarter of a century, as globalisation, corporate restructuring and the dynamics of ‘financialisation’ have undermined established employment patterns and national accords between capital, labour and the state around the world.

Today’s transnationals (TNCs) increasingly rely on armies of “reserve labour” around the globe, attracting migrant labour or offshoring work to staff its value chains, for both primary and secondary functions. The old secure ‘core’ is now itself under pressure through outsourcing, bringing casualisation into the heart of the modern formal economy. All this has had massive effects on labour, which now faces a far more diverse and fragmented working experience across the globe, bringing new challenges for workers and the organisation and power of labour movements.

Let’s begin with the role of the TNC as mainspring of the new casualised employment patterns, as traced by Claude Serfati. He argues that the roots of this lie in the dual nature of its modern form, both industrial conglomerate and financial group. These giants are driven to expand value along both axes by short-term, market-led strategies, in a world where deregulated financial markets, new product innovations and the offshore economy allow  great scope for the asset management of their ‘vast, but evanescent networks of portfolio companies’. The much-noted turbulent restructuring of global value chains, changes in corporate ownership, fragmentation of production processes and switch to cheaper, precarious workforces all flow from this central tendency.

TNCs are able to develop their own integrated global spaces to coordinate these productive and financial activities, relying on extensive outsourcing, offshoring and the creation of intermediaries to house various forms of financial engineering – intra-company trading, transfer pricing, tax avoidance, trade in intangible services, even FDI flows. The two strands are increasingly intermingled, with as much focus on rent appropriation through the exercise of financial and intellectual property rights, as value-producing manufacturing. In sum, the logic of ‘financialisation’ has clearly taken hold of TNC activities, with drastic consequences for workers everywhere, as the case studies that follow show.

These studies, drawn from all corners of the global economy, illuminate some of the great variety in the contemporary forms of casual / informal / precarious employment. At one extreme are the Brazilian cosmetic resellers, an 800,000 strong workforce for a company that provides no contracts of employment, has no shops or distribution outlets, and prescribes no defined form or place of work. Ludmila Costhek Abilio suggests it is this very amorphous and dispersed quality that holds the key to their effective exploitation. Their direct selling can be inserted into a variety of social relations and spheres (home, work, family, neighbourhood, friends), combined with other existing social roles (paid work, domestic labour), and is open to all-comers – a feature that underpins its recent expansion.

From the point of view of capital accumulation, it is the resellers who bear all the risks and costs: they must deal with the ordering, delivery, storage and control of the stock, organise presentations and sales, manage the intense competiton between themselves, and provide marketing and feedback functions for the company. Most remarkable in all this is that the workforce undertakes all these tasks willingly, with no sign of any resistance to the extra exploitation it brings.

In the South African garment industry, Marlea Clarke and Shane Godfrey discover a dramatic shift from formal to infomal employment in recent years, as the sector struggled to deal with new competitive pressures unleashed by trade liberalisation and the rise of low cost importers like China. Unable to easily respond, its producers looked to outsource their work to local ‘cut, make and trim’  (CMT) operations that used informal labour. The powerful domestic retail sector added further constraints, forcing extra price and timescale concessions on manufacturers through their control of industry supply chains. A full-scale shift to informal employment across the sector duly followed, with manufacturers giving way to CMT operations coordinated by a new set of labour intermediaries and ‘design houses’ in a bid for survival. Overall the authors find that employment levels have stayed the same across the industry – but garment workers themselves now face far worse pay and conditions in unregistered firms or working at home, beyond the national standards and rights upheld in the formal sector.

Meanwhile, in the booming Indian economy, the processes of development are playing our across the state of Karnataka (and its IT hub of Bangalore)  in new hybrid forms, with formal and informal labour acting as coexisting partners. Thomas Barnes draws on Indian Economic Census data to map these changes, showing that from 1990 – 2005 there has been a marked rise in waged labour, rather than the non-waged labour of household commodity production. However, this ‘proletarianisation’ has been primarily within small-scale enterprises which rely on informal labour, and has not resulted in masses of labour brought together in large factories (the assumption of classical Marxism). Barnes argues the census data actually underestimates the scale of this informal labour, since it does not capture its use within large enterprises of the fomal economy, by employers who rely on ‘atypical’ workers for their extra ‘flexibility’, costing less to hire and fire, and lacking any of the protections / rights linked to formal employment. The ‘old’ is clearly inside the ‘new’ here.

‘Passing the Buck’ also contains a set of more general, theoretical reflections on the role of casualisation in the global economy. Looking at the picture across the whole Brazilian economy, where over half the workforce now has an informal status, Ricardo Antunes describes this restructuring in terms of ‘freeze-dried flexibility’. Labour is losing its old stable forms. Flexible labour practices, subcontracting, outsourcing and homeworking, variable pay and the loss of permanent contracts, all leave it moving uneasily between work and under or unemployment. This tendency is found in manufacturing and the service sector, where a growing ‘infoproletariat’ performs its virtual labour. For Antunes, the increasingly knowledge-based nature of modern production is expanding the forms of labour degradation, cognitive labour being employed and its powers appropriated into the productive machinery, as the spur to further exploitation, through the ‘continuous improvement’ techniques of lean production. What results from all this is a familiar paradox: the age of scientific progress and digital accumulation is also an age of labour informalisation, insecurity and its fracturing into a massive variety of forms, social regress in place of social progress.

Giovanni Alves takes a closer look at what this generalised ‘precariousness’ means for workers caught up in it. Flexible employment practices covering working time, pay and contracts are creating ‘a new structure of everyday life for the working class’, affecting their working time, their subjectivities and overall quality of life. Relationships between work and non-work times and spaces are being redrawn to suit the needs of capital accumulation; the linking of pay and performance to targets generates pressure in work, as well as undermining collective wage negotiation; whilst the lack of any permanent contracts leaves workers uncertain, fearful and fragments their working experiences. Looked at in its broadest terms what we have here is not simply the dismantling of established labour relations but a wholesale assault on workers lives, their subjectivities and labour collectives.

Within the modern corporation itself, Claudia Figari cites evidence from Argentina to show how labour force recomposition and precarious employment fits into overall corporate strategies of ‘modernisation’. Although ‘Taylorism’ and ‘continuous improvement’ systems lie at the heart of corporate restructuring, their actual implementation depends on a lower level ‘set of mediations’ to reorganise working practices, labour forces and their cultures. She finds a two-pronged approach of standardisation and differentiation at work here. Company managers are systematically excluding experienced older workers – through voluntary retirement schemes and outsourcing of various functions – to clear the way for the introduction of new forms of standardised managerial control over a younger workforce, based on individual targets and remuneration, behavioural monitoring et al. Workers themselves are then divided between those retained as direct employees and those facing a more precarious existence in outsourced firms. This restructuring can throw up problems – especially a loss of technical know-how in the workplace – however none of the examples Figari cites show any significant organised worker opposition, even where trade unions have an active presence in the company. Labour is undoubtedly worse off as a result – worked and monitored more intensively, with less security of employment.

Overall then, as Ursula Huws points out, ‘precariousness is the normal condition of labour under capitalism’. After the historical interlude of post-war labour stability in the West, trade unions everywhere now face massive challenges in responding to labour precariousness, needing to move beyond protecting the interests of formal labour market insiders to include the masses of disposable casualised labour.

On the evidence of ‘Passing the Buck’ there is a long way to go. None of the unions discussed here – in India, South Africa or Argentina – have had any great success in resisting casualisation or ‘organising the unorganised’. In one case, the South African garment workers union found its efforts to achieve national collective bargaining undermined by the sector’s shift to informalisation, leaving many workers outside the scope of agreements reached.

This fundamental organisational challenge for trade unions today is one you can follow elsewhere on the New Unionism website.

* Passing the Buck: Corporate Restructuring and the Casualisation of Employment is the fifth volume in the series Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation, edited by Ursula Huws (Merlin Press Ltd, Octover 2011). The book can be ordered here.