Factory, Family and Neighbourhood: The Political Economy of Informal Labour in Sheffield/Usine, Famille et Quartier: Economie Politique Du Travail Informel a Sheffield

Article excerpt


'Endcliffe' is an ex-industrial area in the East End of Sheffield, UK. (1) The length of Endcliffe Road, which leads up the hill to Endcliffe Cemetery, is punctuated by a hotchpotch of premises, some of which we will return to below: scrap-yards, derelict Victorian shop-floors, Gypsy sites, call centres, boarded-up community centres, electrical shops, the Sheffield Arena, the Bingo centre, Johnny's 'swap shop', the second-hand tool shop, the 'Greek' and Elysium brothels, Khaled's pub, and Milly's 'Black Sparrow'. In the cemetery the gravestones of dead steelworkers turn toward the valley overlooking big steel plants and small workshops dotted along the river Don. Inscribed with sober statements and facing each other in a circle as though for a business meeting, the gravestones of local entrepreneurs and MPs turn towards the street. Described by Marx in 1865 as the outcome of the new despotic capitalism, the many now derelict mills reflected on the surface of the river Don have endured a long history of expansion, nationalizations, rationalizations, and closures before reaching the calm state of desolation in which they may be found today. Since the 1980s, local council development policies have created a leisure paradise from what was Endcliffe's industrial landscape with its 'visually polluting and obnoxious scrap-yards, car-breakers and less capitalintensive businesses in the local steel and metal industry' (Sheffield City Council 1986: 153). The river Don has been cleaned up, re-landscaped with exotic plants, and repopulated with trout and salmon.

In official statistics Endcliffe is classified as an 'area of urban deprivation'. (2) It is one of the twenty-five poorest wards in England, with an average recorded income of [pounds sterling]4,000 per family and an unemployment rate of 25 per cent. (3) Relative to Sheffield as a whole, Endcliffe has high rates of mortality and divorce, drug use, prostitution, and crime. Despite this picture of extreme poverty and economic stagnation, my fieldwork shows that the people of Endcliffe manage to create what they would call 'a decent life' by complementing wage-work with informal economic activities. My research reveals, for example, that one person in four is informally self-employed, that half the population has multiple jobs, and that, contrary to the official statistics, the average family income is around [pounds sterling]17,000. (4)

The informal economy of Endcliffe relies on four kinds of activities: first, illegal activities--trade of drugs, sex, and stolen goods--and mutual exchanges of services and goods organized in the local pubs and households; second, wage-work paid off-the-books and subcontracted locally by the main steel and building contractors, moonlighting, and trade of steel scrap, machines, and tools; third, work subcontracted off-the-books by local petty capitalists; and, finally, transfers of benefits from the state. These four strands of informal economy are located at the level of the state, the factory, and the neighbourhood.

Informal economy

A number of studies on the informal economy claim that informal economic processes develop as a consequence of de-industrialization (Lupton 2001; Mingione 1983). These studies emphasize the gulf that separates formal and informal economic processes, the increasing marginality of those people involved in informal or illegal economic activities, and the function of these latter in redistributing resources from the state and the middle classes to the socially disadvantaged.

Other studies stress interdependence between formal and informal economic processes. Some authors (Leonard 1998; Portes & Walton 1981; Standing 1989) frame this interdependence in the context of capitalist restructuring. Others frame it in the broader context of the relationships between 'core' and 'peripheral' countries (Quijano 1977) or between capitalist and non-capitalist societies (Meillassoux 1981). …