Decommodifying labour

Nicola Countouris is a London based jurist who has been doing research on precarity in a transnational perspective. We met him at University College, London, in front of what seemed most adequate to the circumstances: three cup of teas, as part of our project on how young people cope with making a living. It was more or less sunset and, indeed, a remarkably clear one compared with London’s scarcely generous weather at this time of the year; words flew easily.

Gian Paolo Faella (G.P): What made you study precarity in the European labour market with a comparative method? 

Nicola Contouris (N.C): Precarity is becoming an increasingly important theme in labour studies, and I thought it was almost unavoidable to do that, especially considering that my main research area in labour law is the employment relationship and the contract of employment. To a certain extent workers that may be considered precarious depart from the standard model of employment relationship based on the standard contract of employment, which is what I’ve been working on recently.

G.P: In your recent research you argue that work relationships are in themselves precarious. Is it due to the current crisis, or rather towards more long-term phenomena?

I think there are structural elements in the employment relationship that makes it by its very nature precarious, and that is the elements which seats at the basis of the analysis of labour law: the employment relationship is the legal manifestation of a power relationship between the employer and the worker, and that power relationship is fairly unbalanced and tends to favour the position of the employer. So from that point of view every work relationship is precarious because one of the two parties in the relationship has considerably more power than the other party. Now this of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t particular types of work relationships which have emerged in recent years that are particularly affected by various elements of precarity.

G.P.: In the past labour law was designed to protect in the first instance what was the career par excellence: employment in factories. Should the welfare state now become something that should protect people above all for the time in which they can’t work?

It depends on the model of welfare state you’re thinking about. Some models of welfare state were falling in the paradigm that you just described in being particularly corporatist models: Germany, France and to a certain extent Italy, I suspect, would fall in that model. However some other welfare state models had more universalistic aspirations, and I think the traditional British Beveridge inspired model at least in the late forties and the fifties might have aspired to a bit more than to what you just said and you have the traditional universalistic systems from the Scandinavian countries that I think aspires to more than just filling in the gaps.

Vincent Kuiper (V.K): What do you think these aspirations would be? What are they trying to achieve beyond filling the gaps then?

They were very much associated to a notion of citizenship that went beyond the one of “industrial” citizenship that you’ve discussed and that was very much what I think Beveridge wanted to achieve, and you’re certainly right saying that probably the main focus was the blue-collar worker.

As for the future there are countervailing pressures: on the one hand there is a pressure that partly derives from precarity and from the fact that you have a growing number of people that engage less intensively with the labour market than, for instance, their fathers or mothers used to. Very often they engage with the periphery of the labour market through precarious forms of employment or work. So that pressure should probably suggest that we have more of a security network provided by the welfare state. On the other hand there are fiscal pressures that also derive from the reduced social security contributions precarious work gives, which make the current system allegedly untenable, let alone a system that had more ambition than the current one. So there are issues about the political and the fiscal viability of the current welfare states. Greece can be a tragic example of a system in which welfare cuts are hitting at the very moment in which 56% of the younger segment of the labour force is affected by unemployment.

V.K.: You’re talking about a power relationship between the employer and the employee. Don’t you think that if people are trying to make use of the welfare system, this power relationship which is unequal is shifted to the one between citizens and governments?

If you’re depending on welfare, you’re also in a relationship with the government who is providing you with money and benefits. I would be in favour of a more generous welfare state, especially because the labour market, for various reasons, doesn’t seem to be able to guarantee the dignity and the good level of subsistence that citizens used to expect and received just a few years ago. It’s clear to me that the welfare state, what I understand by it, will have increasingly to take care of that if active citizenship has to be promoted. While it is important that wages are decent it’s also important that we think about a decent income that is not necessarily attached to the labour market exchanges. Things like minimum guaranteed income, or basic income, and so on and so forth, are inevitably going to play an increasingly important role in those societies who want to maintain a concept of active citizenship.

V.K.: How would you define active citizenship then: having a job, paying taxes?

Having a job can both be seen as a form of active citizenship or as a means to achieve active citizenship, and I think both aspects of work are important: it has to be decent in itself, as we spend most of our life in a standard form of employment, and a considerable share of our life at work but it’s also important that it gives us the means, material or otherwise to be able to participate in society even outside the labour market to whatever form of engagement we may see fit, from engaging in the family and in the family network to being active in society through an NGO, a charity or a political party, for example.

G.P.: Do you think that this culturally advanced position can be held also in a global labour market? And above all – do you think there is something like a global labour market, as some sort of mainstream thought affirms?

This is really something that goes to the basis of the discipline I work in. If you accept that there is something like a labour market, you run the risk of accepting that labour is a factor of production, and that market forces should play an important role in shaping the value of labour, at a local, regional, or international level. I think the answer that would be traditionally accepted by the labour lawyers is that yes, there is a labour market, but labour is not a commodity. The way in which we rationalize that is that precisely because there is a labour market, labour should not be treated as a commodity, otherwise in the absence of labour law and labour rights, in the absence of decommodifying elements and rules, including the welfare state, what happens is that precisely because there is a labour market, labour can just become a commodity. The idea that labour is not a commodity is stated in the core paragraphs of the Declaration on the aims and purposes of the International Labour Organization of 1944.

G.P.: You insist on the legal determinants of precariousness, and on what should unify this concept despite the many cultural contexts to which European law is applied; but what are the causes of the fact that the perception of precariousness is so different in all these contexts? Is it just a matter of words or is there more?

I think in part there is more than just different expressions. At this stage there is a strong cultural resistance in the Anglo-Saxon world to accept the words “precarity” or “precariousness”, whereas they have been extremely popular in France, Italy and other continental countries, but moreover I think that even if there are certain commonalities in the manifestations of precarity, there are also some differences due to structural differences between the economies: the German market economy is different from the British one, and unsurprisingly manifestations of precarity are hence different in those two countries. There is this theory about varieties of capitalism which I think goes a long way about explaining why capitalist economies are different and therefore at least in part the legal arrangements shaping their labour markets tend to differ. It’s both a cultural thing and a structural difference.

G.P.: With your stress on precariousness, you suggest that the experience of many young people with their own work condition is not only a generational one, but rather a sign of something happening to all of us; what are the risks of a generational gap in people’s experiences towards work?

What I was suggesting with that comment is that although younger generations seem to be disproportionately affected by the growth of precariousness in the labour market and in labour arrangements at large, increasingly work relationships that were traditionally perceived as secure are becoming less so. We should probably think twice before simply arguing that the contrast between precariousness and security is also exemplified by a similar divide between the young generation and the old generation.

The young generation is certainly disproportionately affected, but the old generation is affected more and more every day by the legal determinants of precariousness. Of course that will vary depending on the European country we’re thinking of, but I can tell you there are lots of adult people even in the very secure Greek civil service that feel increasingly precarious, and that is certainly the case of the United Kingdom public sector’s employees, being they servants of the Crown, or employees of councils, which are currently suffering from enormous public sector cuts. People are feeling very insecure in their jobs. These are not the stereotypical forms of precarious work, such as, for example, the young worker without a clear status of employment working in a dodgy, shady call centre in Sicily. Having said that, there is an issue about a generation which is disproportionately affected by both precariousness and unemployment. Deskilling, demotivation, isolation are going to pose challenges that we may not be sufficiently equipped to deal with. We know that if somebody is unemployed for more than one year it becomes really difficult to get him back to work and now we’re talking about young workers in Greece that have been unemployed for the past three or four years and that have only seen the labour market deteriorating. We’re talking about more than 50% of the workforce between the age of 16 and 24 being affected by this kind of dynamics. This is not something that we’ve had to deal with in recent years and we don’t know what the effects are going to be.

V.K.: One could also argue that precarity is bringing something good, because obviously we’re coming at the end of a system, as this neo-liberal way to organize the labour market is getting obsolete and maybe this precarity situation offer also more opportunities for a whole generation to think about different ways to organize different conceptions of labour and how we relate with work in general and not just having a job to pay the bills, because that’s what most people would do. People are remarkably inventive in trying to make a living in different ways. Maybe it can also be that the start of something new and the end of an old paradigm, what do you think of that?

My feeling however is what you say may be partly true for some of the workers that are affected by this sort of labour market marginalization which is increasingly becoming structural, but it may not be everybody’s experience. I think it’s interesting to see the effects of the current ongoing crisis in terms of political change, political representation and electoral results in Europe. If one looks closely there seems to be a trend towards a protest vote against the current system, but the way in which this protest vote is channelled varies, and I do not feel at all optimistic about the protest vote being channelled into something like the Golden Dawn in Greece, which is attracting some of the protest votes. I am more curious about how this vote converges to other political realities. The current trend in precarity is that you have more and more people with a high level of education being affected by it and I suspect that one of the main consequences of precarity has been isolation, though people with higher levels of education, may be more inventive about finding novel ways of social interaction thus breaking free from isolation.. But even this may be a slightly overoptimistic view of what is currently going on. My view is that whilst we may be coming to the end of a cycle of what you defined as a ‘neo-liberal way to organise the labour market’, the future does not automatically hold an alternative, unless the case for an alternative is made more clearly and convincingly than it currently is. Paraphrasing Gramsci, we should remain cautious about the future, while working hard to make sure it’s better than the present.

Find out more on our project to understand how young people make a living and how you can get involved.

Nicola Countouris joined the Faculty in 2009 and was promoted to Reader in 2012. Before joining UCL he had taught law at the Universities of Reading, Oxford, and at LSE. He obtained his DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2004 under the supervision of Professor Mark Freedland, and holds an MSc in European Social Policy from LSE and a Magister Juris in European and Comparative Law (Clifford Chance Prize 2001) from the University of Oxford. He has acted as a consultant for the International Labour Office and the European Commission and has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Bologna, Italy, and at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain. He is one of the co-directors of the Centre for Law and Governance in Europe and a co-ordinator and founding member of UCL’s Labour Rights Institute.