Precarity: Questions and answers about the casualisation of labour

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Our section in Spain produced the following questions and answers as a preparatory text for a day of study held in Barcelona last year on the question of ‘precarious’ or casual labour. These questions are those that workers most frequently ask in relation to this question, not only in Spain but in all the industrialised countries today.

1. Why the growth in casualisation?

Since the end of the 60's world capitalism has been going through a permanent crisis, one of whose most flagrant manifestations has been mass unemployment. There have been successive waves of lay-offs, and a total inability to integrate the new generations of workers into the productive process. To try and mask this enormous unemployment and to seek to avoid its explosive growth, which could expose the bankruptcy of capitalism, the exploiters have used the trick of filling a post using five, ten or even twenty different kinds of temporary contracts. In Spain, in October alone nearly one and a half million contracts were registered with the Employment Offices, and this despite the fact that the number of unemployed increased by more than 30,000 workers!

2. Is casualisation only a feature of some countries or certain governments?

The answer is NO, despite what the “left” parties or the “anti-globalisation” movements tell us about casualisation being the fault of right-wing governments or of “neo-liberalism”. What is true is that countries famed for their “social awareness”, such as France or Germany, have been developing the use of such contracts under preposterous names such as “insertion contracts”, “replacement contracts” etc. In Spain, the process of casualisation was begun by the “Socialist” Gonzalez government with the whole series of measures that it began to impose in 1984. The leading proponent of casualisation in Spain is the public sector. “Left-wing” regional and town councils have carried this out on a large scale.

3. Are casual workers the “new proletariat”?

From the trade unions to brainy sociologists, they try to sell us the idea that “the working class is not what it was”, since there is a division between: the “privileged” workers with “fixed” contracts, with redundancy pay and higher wages, on the one hand; and those with temporary contracts without any form of “security” on the other. The aim of all this ideology about the “new composition” of the proletariat is to sow divisions and conflicts within the proletariat's ranks, to the great rejoicing of the capitalists.

The proliferation of “temporary contracts” is a very pointed expression of the precariousness that is quintessential to wage labour. If by precariousness we mean insecurity about one’s own existence and the future, then the proletariat is the class of precariousness. Workers are totally separated from the means of life and production. If they want to eat they have to pass through the ordeals of wage labour. However, getting a job does not depend on one's will, nor the individual will of the capitalist, but the laws of the market. If this is expanding then more workers will have the “privilege” of eating in exchange for increased exploitation; but if it is contracting, as has been happening for the last 30 years, exploitation will continue growing but less workers will be able to earn a living or will have to put up with increasingly insecure work.

Unlike the exploited classes of previous modes of production such as slavery or feudalism (who despite all their poverty at least had their existence insured due to personally belonging to the master or to the feudal lord) the proletariat does not belong to any boss in particular but to the capitalist class as a whole. Workers have “freedom of work”, that is to say no individual capitalist has the commitment to guarantee their existence for life. This supposed liberty, as characterised by bourgeois propaganda, is, on the contrary, the worst kind slavery, because it is based on the most terrible insecurity and precariousness.

4. Does this mean that casualisation is not something recent, the product of “new capitalism”?

Indeed yes. Precariousness has always been part of workers’ existence. The existence of an important layer of the population needing work and therefore the means to procure its existence (what Marx and Engels called the “reserve army of labour”) is not only a consequence but a necessity, a pre-condition, of the capitalist economy itself. The present massive process of casualisation is not the expression of a “new way” found by capitalism in order to “reinvent itself”. It is the most patent manifestation of its terminal crisis.

5. Are some sectors of the working class protected from casualisation?

Absolutely not. Permanent work is on the way to becoming a museum item. In Japan and Germany the myth of a “job for life” is crumbling. In China – which for years was presented as a “proletarian revolution” and which today is sold as a “capitalist miracle” - not only is unemployment growing, but for the “fortunate” ones with jobs in the “new industries” working conditions are frightening. Not to mention the other countries of the Third World where permanent work never became a mass reality in the first place! Neither in the technologically “cutting edge” industries, or in the more traditional sectors, are workers guaranteed the means of survival.

Time and again we are told that the “casuals” are in a very different situation from those with “permanent” jobs: the latter can at least count on the safeguard of redundancy pay or unemployment pay. The truth is that such benefits are progressively being reduced, as has recently happened in Germany with the measures against the unemployed imposed by the “progressive” Social Democrats and Greens. As for redundancy payments or early retirement, they are nothing more than the deferred wages of workers exhausted by working for years in miserable conditions. It is also necessary to remember that very often these retired workers have to maintain or at least support their children and grandchildren whom capitalism condemns to unemployment, precariousness and the denial of access to a livelihood.

In the history of the proletariat we can only talk about a short period of time (from 1945 to the end of the 1970's) where it was true that there was “guaranteed work”. This has to be put into parenthesis because the economic reconstruction that followed the slaughter of the imperialist Second World War was an exception in the existence of successive generations of workers.

6. Permanent and casual workers have the same interests then?

Yes, of course. Being subcontracted, casual or “on the pay roll”; being active or retired, working in the great factories of the capitalist metropolis or in the filthy workshops in the slums of the Third World, these are the conditions that capitalist exploitation imposes on workers. This means that whether active, unemployed, retired, casual, immigrant, in the most advanced or in the most underdeveloped countries, proletarians everywhere belong to the same class.

The exploiters and their ideology try to destroy this class identity through creating all kinds of confrontations and divisions between some workers and others. To workers with temporary contracts they say that their situation is caused by the “privileged” workers with “permanent” contracts. On the other hand, temporary workers are presented to the latter as “competitors” who drive down working conditions and put pressure on their wage levels. “Temporary” contracts are more abundant amongst the youngest workers: the capitalist propaganda machine seeks to use this situation in order to create a generational division, a confrontation between young and veteran workers, through recourse to stale “sociological” considerations. Not to mention the confrontation they want to create between workers of one country and their brothers that have emigrated there!

The whole class suffers the same slavery and insecurity: wage labour. The whole of the working class is the collective producer of the immense majority of the social wealth which is appropriated by our true enemy: the capitalists. No part of the working class lives at the cost of another.

7. Do the unions “allow” casualisation because they only defend permanent workers?

This is another great lie with which they try to create new divisions between workers, whilst at the same time putting forward the idea that the unions “at least” defend one part of the working class. For decades, since capitalism became incapable of providing improvements and reforms to workers, the unions have been turned into an instrument of the bourgeois state destined to co-manage exploitation and to sabotage workers’ struggles. On the one hand, they are the accomplices of the bosses and state in the signing of the whole class to agreements that destroy our living and working conditions; on the other hand, whether their highly manipulated “strikes” and “demonstrations” are passive or “radical”, they have the same aim: the sabotage of workers' unity and fighting spirit. The two faces of union action have been shown to us yet again with the shipyard workers.

Only the real struggles of the working class can defend worker's interests. To call on the unions to help casual workers is to ask the fox to guard the hens. A “Union of Casual Workers” would integrate them into the same machine as the others, and stoke up even more opposition between them and permanent workers. The unions have underwritten the measures against permanent workers and helped to develop casualisation. When they cry crocodile tears about the “high level of temporary workers” they are demonstrating the cynicism that is typical of the class that they serve: the bourgeoisie.

8. How can we struggle against the impact of casualisation?

It would appear that the unions, politicians, and the capitalists are “worried” about casualisation. In Catalonia there are negotiations between the unions, the government and bosses in order to put forward a pact in which “stability” of work is exchanged for the unions’ offer of “labour flexibility”. Nor is this a question of “made in Catalonia”, since the same things has recently taken place at Volkswagen in Germany. In fact this policy of “stability in exchange for flexibility” is presently very fashionable in German and French capitalism.

In reality the bourgeoisie knows full well that casualisation, the replacing of expert labour with temporary workers who continually come and go from the productive process, can only end up damaging productivity. Therefore the most intelligent parts of the bourgeois understand that they can further ratchet up exploitation through imposing more working hours for less pay. In order to bring this about they offer the dishonest present of “stability of work”.

There is only one way of putting an end to unemployment and the precariousness of labour: to put an end to capitalism

9. But how do we put an end to capitalism?

What allows capitalism, a social system condemned by history and one which will not stop causing endless suffering for the whole of humanity, to continue to survive is the division, confusion and disorganisation of the working class. There will have to be a hard struggle in order to overcome these divisions, which keep the working class tied hand and foot to exploitation.

In order to struggle against divisions within the working class it is necessary to break with the ideas that the unions always impose on the struggles: the struggle is to “save the business”, “to save the sector”, “to save the national economy”. The business, the sector, the nation are the framework through which the different factions of the bourgeois carry out their life and death struggle to divide up the world. To defend these entities is to accept the sacrifices demanded by their interests and to integrate oneself into the competitive struggle between the capitalists that are causing such havoc for humanity. The first aim of the struggle must be to achieve maximum solidarity and unity of the working class faced with divisions of contract, sector, nationality, race, etc. Only then will we all have the strength we need.

In order to struggle against confusion it is necessary to unmask false friends and alternatives. The Tripartite government in Catalonia and the Zapatero government are as much enemies of the working class as the Partido Popular (the previous right-wing government in Spain). The question is not to pressure them to “fulfil their promises” or to “take up the defence of the workers” but to impose a balance of forces against these agents of the capitalist system.

In order to struggle against the disorganisation of the workers it is necessary to take the struggles into our own hands and to start breaking with the unions and unionism. We can only organise our forces through general assemblies and elected and revocable committees that are responsible before all the workers. These organs, precursors of the revolutionary workers’ councils of tomorrow, can develop the unity and strength needed to successfully struggle against exploitation.

December 2004

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