Apologies for such a long delay between this post and my last - reporting on another great CWU BME Leadership Weekend - but I have been away teaching a tremendous amount, with little time to reflect and write. (Also, this post has been finished when on holiday in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, so apologies for apparent brevity towards the end of this post)
I have though just landed back from a wonderful week of teaching at the ILO's International Training Centre in Turin, Italy (20-27 July). I was invited to teach by MA ILTUS alumni Ariel Castro (who was at Ruskin full-time 2008-09) and is now head of Asia and the South Pacific region for worker's/trade union education, having been based at the ILO's Delhi office for some time, after he had graduated from the MA.
The course, Trade Union Organising Strategies for Inclusion and Development ran from 20-31st July, and all training materials/resources can be found here, including a detailed list of participants and the course programme.
The students (pictured above) comprised highly experienced trade union officers and activists, many of whom combined wider political/social campaigning as their brief. Countries represented included the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand, India, Nepal and Myanmar.
Thus some of the countries represented comprised the worst violators of human and trade union rights internationally, and without wanting to sound overly fawning, it is quite humbling to listen/hear from international trade unionists talk of the day-to-day social and political dangers of carrying out their trade union work, when positioned in the relative advantage of the UK.
Whilst the course focused on how colleagues could apply and embed various ILO conventions and other technical instruments, a key emphasis was around the role of the ILO's supervisory mechanism to encourage the reporting of systemic abuse of workers' rights. Whilst the ILO can appear toothless in sanctioning rogue states, there exists a real-politik within the UN system which - whilst not as aggressive and direct as we would wish - can nevertheless effect forms of change when allied to wider geo-political shifts around trade, aid, migration etc.
False self-employment is nothing new. In ‘Blacklisted’ Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain pain-stakingly chronicle the means by which the UK’s construction industry forced workers into a primal form of self-employment; therefater brutalising and blacklisting workers when they rightly challenged not only this form of employment but also the degrading working conditions with which it comprised.
Some of the best analysis of the increase in forms of work embedded within new technologies has been written by Ursula Huws, and is all the more valuable for a gendered perspective. In ‘The Cybertariat’ Ursula Huws rightly suggests that we should see the ‘gig economy’as a new phase of capitalism, albeit one, I would contend, which poses massive challenges for organised labour, both to mobilise these workers (whether at one end of the spectrum essentially processors, and at the other so-called knowledge workers) but also to generate a systematic, uniform response to how these patterns of work are disrupting economic norms: http://monthlyreview.org/books/pb0882/
This, in essence, is the real danger of the gig economy, and one that Sundararajan acknowledges (although not forcefully enough I would contend) which is that the stability required by advanced (and emerging) economies rest, naturally, on the economic stability of those feeding into and off that economy. The peer-to-peer aspect of the gig economy (airbnb, Uber etc) are welcome aspects of a mixed economy, but their success (taking Uber in any major city of an advanced economy as an example) rests principally on profit derived from customers enjoying even relatively stable incomes of their own.
It’s important to keep an eye on the writing/analysis of Huws et al as the gig economy is far too large and relentless to ignore, particularly from a labour studies perspective. The reality however, both in the global north, and in the countries represented by the trade unionists I met in Italy recently, is that the majority of work sits outside of this economy, but is exposed to the fragmentary, unstable nature, and it is this overlap that must be our continuing concern.
Similarly, the challenge for movements (particularly for organised labour I contend) is how to respond to the occupational and economic outcomes of the cybertariart, whilst at the same time determining its own place in the technologies themselves. Dyer-Witherfood poses the challenge well when we writes:
Proletarian movements against capital must make use of cybernetic communication, because they are in a profound way inside such systems, and indeed of them, formed under conditions of technological subsumption that have for generations shaped workplaces, subjectivities, and cultures: it would be difficult to riot, organise, or occupy without using networks. At the same time cybernetics, perhaps to a greater degree than any other technological system, has been imprinted with and implemented for capital’s dynamic of abstract value, to accelerate, amplify and intensify the circulation of commodities.