The New Service Proletariat

By Antunes, Ricardo | Monthly Review, April 2018 | Go to article overview

The New Service Proletariat


Antunes, Ricardo, Monthly Review


In recent decades, the spread of information technology, industrial automation, and other innovations has inspired visions of a coming "postindustrial society of services," in which the proletariat as it existed in earlier eras would effectively disappear. However, even a cursory survey of the reality of contemporary global labor markets belies this myth. The emergence of a new class of educated, salaried workers in high-tech fields is predicated on the increasing invisibility of workers employed in sectors and settings ranging from call centers and telemarketing to hotels and cleaning companies to retail, fast food, and care services. The great majority of these jobs are precarious in one way or another: seasonal, part-time, temporary, informal, or freelance, with little or no security or benefits.

An emblematic example is the zero-hour contract, a perverse form of employment that thrives in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Instead of working a fixed number of hours or shifts, zero-hour employees must remain perpetually at their bosses' disposal, waiting for a call. Once they receive this call, they are paid only for the time they actually work, and not for the time-days, weeks, even months-spent waiting. Information technology firms in particular have embraced this method of complete flexibilization of labor, which serves at once to make workers continually available for exploitation and to further normalize the regime of precariousness, leaving workers with ever fewer protections.

Uber is another example. The company's drivers, who are treated as independent contractors rather than formal employees, must provide their own cars and pay for all expenses, including vehicle repairs, maintenance, insurance, and fuel. The Uber "app" is in fact a global private enterprise that uses wage labor masked as "independent" and "entrepreneurial" work to appropriate a larger share of the surplus value generated by the services of its drivers.

Still another example of these disguised forms of labor exploitation can be found in Italy, where a novel form of occasional and intermittent work was recently introduced: voucher-based work. Workers were paid with vouchers whose value corresponded to the exact number of hours they worked. But precariousness was not the only problem with this form of labor, which relied on an even more underhanded trick: the vouchers had to be paid at the legal minimum hourly wage, but contractors also offered to pay overtime hours at a rate below the legal minimum. The system enabled a degree of precariousness and exploitation greater even than that of occasional and intermittent work. For this reason, Italian trade unions denounced the practice, and the government was compelled to suspend it.

The spread of these new forms of informal, part-time, temporary, independent, occasional, and intermittent work has given rise to a new category of labor, the "precariat." A movement of self-identified members of the precariat is quickly expanding in Europe, especially Italy, Spain, England, France, and Portugal. As this movement has struggled to find space in the structures of traditional trade unions, it is developing independently alongside them. Pioneering examples can be found in Italy, with the cases of San Precario in Milan, a movement fighting in defense of the precarious workers (including immigrants), and the Clash City Workers movement, a group with a strong presence in Naples made up of precarious and rebel youths.1

Thus, what might be called the "uberization" of labor-a ruthless entrepreneurial modus operandi aimed at generating more profit and increasing the value of capital through the forms of precarious labor outlined above-has expanded to a global scale. In addition, the fact that more and more work is done online has made it almost impossible to separate labor from leisure, and employees are increasingly expected to be available for work at any and all times.

The future of work for the world's laboring masses appears to be one of flexible employment, with no pre-established working days, no clearly defined working spaces, no fixed wages, no pre-determined activities, no rights, and no protection or representation by trade unions. …

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