Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Time Warped: The Flexibilization and Maximization of Flight Attendant Working Time *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Time Warped: The Flexibilization and Maximization of Flight Attendant Working Time *

Article excerpt

WHILE WORKING TIME HAS BEEN THE SUBJECT of debates and struggles throughout the history of industrial capitalism, the current context of rapid economic and social transformation on a global scale is having a profound impact on this complex aspect of people's lives. A growing body of literature informs us that working-time patterns are shifting, and these changing times are affecting workers throughout the world (Bosch, 1999; Bosch, Dawkins and Michon, 1994; Durand and Pichon, 2001; Felstead and Jewson, 1999; Hinrichs, Roche and Sirianni, 1991a; O'Reilly, Cebrian and Lallement, 2000). Employers are reorganizing workplaces and introducing new working-time arrangements in an effort to gain flexibility, reduce costs, control labour, remain competitive, and strive for higher profitability. These temporal mutations tend to be presented by employers and governments as inevitable and necessary for survival under economic restructuring and globalization.

The new work temporalities are visibly redefining the nature of the employment relationship and the structure of the labour market. They are also modifying working conditions on the shop floor, in offices, and in sales and service settings. The specificities of these transformations have yet to be fully investigated and understood. Indeed, our knowledge of the existence of a new working-time regime has been gleaned mostly from large quantitative data sets (Bosch, Dawkins and Michon, 1994; Golden and Figart, 2000; Statistics Canada, 1998; Zeytinoglu, 1999). While this information has been crucial to identify patterns of change, it does not provide us with sufficient details about these changes to better comprehend their depth or the impact they are having on workers. What is more, the expanding service sector has been characterized by a major increase in non-standard working times, yet the service economy remains an underprivileged area of research. Women's positioning vis-a-vis the new temporal order also deserves more investigation, especially in light of the gender division of labour that cuts across the public-private divide.

This article helps fill the large gap in our knowledge and understanding of the tangled web of working-time changes, and thus of the shifting temporalities that tend to be identified with the post-industrial era. I focus on the new working-time realities of flight attendants at Air Canada, close to 90% of whom are women. (1) The story of the transformation of the working time of the national carrier's cabin crew is part of the larger narrative of the restructuring and globalization of the airline industry, itself set within the macro-economic and political neo-liberal turn of the past few decades.

My main argument is that working-time mutations in the airline industry have deepened the commodity status of flight attendant labour power, all the while accentuating the peculiarity of a commodity embodied in human beings. Under the new work temporalities, or what I refer to as the "globalization/deregulation-era airline-industry working-time regime," flight attendants' already atypical work arrangements have been rendered more flexible, unpredictable and disruptive. Flight attendants' working time has also been maximized and intensified, and these workers have suffered a greater loss of control over the conditions of the sale of their labour power. In other words, changing working times, which area fundamental feature of the current processes of restructuring in the airline industry, are reconstituting these in-flight workers as commodities more akin to the inanimate commodities that are brought to the market. Flight attendants are increasingly seen as non-human and machine-like. Yet, as capital more forcefully reasserts its need to convert labour power into a commodity like all others, the malleability of labour power as a commodity different from other commodities is being more fully exploited.

While my case study on the transformation of flight attendants' working time focusses on how enhanced commodification manifests itself for a particular group of predominantly women service-sector workers who have been in the unusual position of benefiting from strong union representation, it illustrates how the neo-liberal push towards employment flexibility can lead to the feminization of women's work. …

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