‘Slow’ comparativism – a contextual note

We recently published “A manifesto for ‘slow’ comparative research on work and employment” in the European Journal of Industrial Relations. In this note, we outline some of the context in which this paper was developed, in order that readers can understand more fully both the reasons for the development of the initial argument, and what we are arguing for (and against).

Phil Almond and Heather Connolly

We recently published “A manifesto for ‘slow’ comparative research on work and employment” in the European Journal of Industrial Relations. In this note, we outline some of the context in which this paper was developed, in order that readers can understand more fully both the reasons for the development of the initial argument, and what we are arguing for (and against).

The genesis of our paper came from two main sources. The first of these was from an attempt to explain/sell the methodology behind a funding bid which intended to follow a broadly ethnographic approach to comparative IR research (this eventually became Heather’s British Academy Fellowship Trade Union Futures: Representing Precarious Workers in Europe). In seeking to explain this, we found a distinct lack of resources explaining or justifying the merits of a comparative research project which engaged substantially with the societies under study. Second, it crystallised a view, developed over substantial experience on both our parts, in very different sub-fields of employment relations research, that what we came to describe as “slow” elements of research projects were undervalued. While it was clear to us that, whatever our formal methodology, comparative research had greater claims to truth when conducted by people with substantial investment in researching specific places, this tended to be written out of methodological statements intended for publication both by ourselves and others.

Our position was (and is) not that “slow” is the only way to do comparative research, or even that all international research needs to be explicitly comparative. Both of us have conducted research that we would not claim to be “slow”. What we were trying to do was to defend and hopefully advance the position of slow approaches within the ecosystem of internationally comparative research on work and employment, both in the domain of publishing, and in the provision of resources (and patience) from external funders and, to an even greater extent, universities (one of our concerns was the ways in which the administratively imposed project management of doctoral theses acts against “slow” forms of research).

The paper was originally intended to be a position statement for a research centre on comparative employment research that we were launching at our former university. As it turned out, our former employer proved to be an entirely unsuitable place for arguing the case for patience from university managers, even in the case of successful, externally funded researchers. The speed with which our former employer went from establishing a new research centre in the area of employment relations, to “strategically aligning its research with areas of future teaching growth” and therefore decapitating the department in which we both worked, was exceptional even in the world of British universities. This was very hard for both of us to come to terms with, and the removal of what was until fairly recently an environment capable of fostering critically-oriented HR and employment relations research with relative patience remains bitterly regrettable.

While both of us have social/political motivations behind our research efforts, neither of us has hitherto been particularly interested in making public commentary on the nature of work in academia. However, our recent experiences as researchers and as workers have made it very clear that our particular arguments about the conduct of comparative employment relations research have to be seen in the context of a much more general argument that researchers, from graduate students to professors, need to be given the time, patience and freedom to perform meaningful research. As professional social scientists, attempting to deepen understanding and knowledge of the social world should be seen as doing our job. However, it is clear that, in a context where universities are allowed to claim the work of staff that have been made ‘redundant’ for the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, creating and preserving the space for research aimed at in-depth understanding of society is very much a case of swimming against the tide, both for early career academics trying to access and survive within the system, and for those senior academics who attempt to defend such research. As such, our manifesto needs to be read not only as a statement on comparative methods in our field, but also as a statement of resistance against those who seek to destroy the space within which such work can be performed.


Phil Almond is Professor of International Management, and Heather Connolly Associate Professor of Employment Relations, both at the University of Leicester. Correspondence should be addressed to Phil (pa195@le.ac.uk) or by messaging CERCnet via Twitter.



Macron’s labour reforms are a major test for France’s trade unions

President Macron’s extensive labour reforms are part of a programme of state-led liberalization which will shift the balance of power towards employers and test trade union strength and unity

Heather Connolly

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the current labour reforms in France, for employers, workers and their representatives. The Government seems fully aware of the significance and the potential for extensive opposition and has chosen to push legislation through by decree, avoiding parliamentary debates and votes.

The proposed reforms are wide-ranging and include broader social reforms (in the area of unemployment insurance, pensions and training) to come in the following 12 months. The labour reforms have been a priority for the new President, Emmanuel Macron and go much further than the El Khomri law of 2016, that I discussed in an earlier blog. The most significant reforms for trade union practice are: the merging of representation structures from three statutory bodies representing workers to a single body; expanding the number of issues that can be agreed at company level and that supersede sectoral level agreements; and the ability of small companies to by-pass negotiating with trade unions or nominated representatives in favour of conducting a ballot of employees directly on a number of significant issues.

In terms of work, the reforms include changing  the nature of permanent contracts to introduce the non-permanent permanent contract, the CDI ‘de chantier’ or ‘de projet’, which allows employers to employ workers on permanent contracts (CDI) but only for the time needed to complete a particular project. The reforms also include changes to make it easier for employers to make workers redundant in the case of poor company performance at a national level (as it stands, companies find it difficult to make workers redundant if a multinational company is in profit at the multinational level), less constraints on employers wishing to make collective redundancies, and upper limits for pay outs from industrial tribunals.

All of this (and there is more), of course, works in the interest of employers (and the state), allowing them to budget more effectively for pay outs from industrial tribunals, for example, and use labour more flexibly by employing workers on ‘bogus’ permanent contracts and sacking workers with less constraint. There are measures which arguably work in favour of employees, such as the possibility to work more flexibly, from home for example (le télétravail) and having individual training accounts. However, much of the discourse around flexibility tends to blur the fact that overall there will be a fundamental shift in the balance of power from labour to capital and the measures will undoubtedly lead to increased economic insecurity for many employees.

France is often accused of failing to adapt to the realities of globalisation and to hampering job creation and growth by having such ‘rigid’ labour protections. The reforms of the labour code are intended to continue a process that has been taking place over the last few years of loosening up the labour market and reducing employee protection, with the intended outcome being the creation of new jobs. Job creation is held up as the answer for achieving economic growth, but with little attention paid to the types of jobs that will be created as a result of loosening up the labour market and the ((un)intended) social costs that creating more precarious jobs and with it greater economic insecurity has on society more widely. Flexible employment policies are often balanced in favour of employers and encourage a ‘disposable labour model’ which is heralded as the answer to solving productivity problems and economic growth.

As I argued in an earlier blog, French governments of various colours hold up the UK as an example of a flexible labour market model that France should seek to emulate. It is worth repeating that the UK is hardly a model that France would want to follow, considering the high levels of income inequality and the proliferation of precarious work in the form of zero-hours contracts, for example. Some argue that the reforms are designed to bring the French system closer to a Scandinavian-style ‘flexi-security’ model but from a close look at the reforms the changes are heavily weighted towards the flexibilisation of work, but without any additional securities for workers. The reforms increase the discretion of employers and are evidence of state-led liberalization of industrial relations in France.

There are of course social costs attached to high levels of unemployment and particularly for young workers who find it difficult to enter the core of permanent, protected workers. This is a problem in France, with a 9.6 per cent unemployment rate almost double that of the UK and Germany, and nearly 22 per cent youth unemployment. The question remains whether the answer is to increase economic insecurity and make everyone more precarious in the process of trying to solve the unemployment problem.

This blog draws on my British Academy funded research examining the possible futures of trade unions in Europe in the context of growing numbers joining the precarious workforce. Trade unions often struggle to access and represent precarious workers, and in countries where there are low levels of employment protection these workers are even more exposed and more likely to be outside regulated spaces.

So how have the French trade unions responded to the reforms? For a start the major confederations have not taken a unified stance in response, with the more radical trade unions (Confédération générale du travail – CGT and Solidaires) staging a number of strikes and demonstrations against the reforms. The more ‘reformist’, and largest trade union confederation in France, the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) hasn’t joined the strikes to date, which has made the trade unions look weaker and perhaps encouraged the Government to push through the reforms by decree. In fact, the CFDT has put in place training sessions for their activists on how to apply the reforms in the workplace, which sets out clearly its pragmatic response.

There have been three days of strike action since September and the number of strikers and demonstrators has dwindled with each action. Recently, however, the third largest confederation, Force Ouvrière (FO), joined the action alongside education trade unions and students that is planned for 16 November 2017. It remains to be seen whether a stronger and more unified response will emerge as the reforms become reality (some of which already have) and touch wider forms of social protection. Trade unions in France have traditionally been able to halt or amend reforms through mass mobilisation and protest including the watering down of the El Khomri laws in 2016.

The financial resources from union membership fees is low (membership levels are less than 10 per cent of the French workforce) and the changes being made to the workplace representation structure will impact the institutional resources of trade unions (in terms of the time paid for by employers to carry out representational duties). It is through representational structures that much of the class consciousness raising and identity work of trade unions is carried out.

If the trade unions are unable to amend or halt these reforms they will need to find renewed ways of demonstrating their relevance and maintaining a multi-level power base in French society.

This post was originally blogged by SPERI on the 13th November 2017.

Heather Connolly is Associate Professor of Employment Relations at the University of Leicester, and co-founder of CERCnet. This blog was written as part of her British Academy mid-career fellowship ”Trade Union Futures: Representing Precarious Workers in Europe’.

Ryanair’s problem is not pay, it’s the working conditions they offer

Maria-Jesús Belizón

On September 21st 2017, Ryanair CEO’s continued a five-day saga of flight cancellations noting that they “have some goodies to discuss with pilots”. In a series of press conferences, the general public was invited to consider and acknowledge the longstanding service Ryanair has offered over the years. When one delves into that big picture, the problematic cancellations are nothing compared to the number of flights Ryanair has offered in its lifetime. For Michael, 2,100 flights seem to be small potatoes.

However, his argument shifted towards the reflection of pilot salary levels. Once more, Michael presented the broader picture: pilots earn between €150,00 and €180,000 for the simple task of navigating the skies in charge of the lives of a few hundred passengers. For him, they are overrated “taxi drivers”.  But Michael insists because… how do these salaries sound to your average Joe-So that travels with Ryanair and that is listening to him on the radio or watching the news?  They sound high, very high. Ryanair pilots earn more than a Full Professor in a public Irish university. They earn probably the same as some experienced senior managers in Dublin. And is that fair? Any spectator’s first reaction to this can be: are we going to defend these pilots? And why should they earn that much? There is indeed research evidence to state the added value of pilots once they have passed their specialised education and minimum number of experience in simulators and actual aircraft is low and remains constant over their career. This is not new to us. It is also known that the added-value in airlines is produced by their cabin crew. Hence, one can also argue that pilots are perhaps overestimated. It can be a valid position depending on the rewarding criteria each organisation uses. In any case, Michael would like to trade with his pilots for an extra €10,000, buying out their annual leave. After all, in this day and age, practically anything can be bought with money.  Or can’t it?

Perceptions of pay and fairness vary across sectors of operations and also across countries and cultures. They might as well be the focus of some discussions as the Luas drivers’ salary level was a few months ago. However, the bottom-line problem is not pay, it is the remaining working conditions that are offered along with that pay and the ideas they embodied.

James Atkinson, a former Ryanair pilot, tells us in The Guardian that “some of Ryanair’s pilots are employees of the company, on Irish contracts; but most are not. The airline uses a clever scheme to mask most of its pilots as “independent service providers”. These “contractors” wear the same uniform, have the same company ID and fly the same general schedule as employee pilots do, but are employees of no one. They sign contracts with one of just a few agencies supplying pilot services exclusively to Ryanair, and these contracts are written as take-it-or-leave-it offers, subject to no bargaining of any kind. Employee pilots have somewhat better working conditions than contractors, and they have a small pension scheme; but they are far behind even their peers at easyJet (unionised), to say nothing of pilots at legacy airlines such as Lufthansa or KLM/Air France. People have trouble believing it, but it’s absolutely true: no pilot or other staff member at Ryanair is entitled to even a free bottle of water while working. If you want it, you buy it”.

There are two underlying high-stake issues present in this declaration. One is the superficially unimportant problem of the bottle of water. Should a society be concerned about providing or not providing a bottle of water during working hours? The excessively tight control Ryanair exert over its workforce mirrors the concept of the neutral worker, the disembodied worker that Joan Acker, American sociologist, brought to light. Exploring the antecedents of women discrimination and gender inequality, Joan explains that most organisations are designed according to the disembodied worker who exists only for the job and job tasks. Such hypothetical worker does not have have a body (and thus, can not be thirsty), emotions or other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job. Thus, those existential imperatives that fall outside the boundaries of the job are not catered for.

And yet, the job is not only taken but also realised by human beings, whose nature includes a body, emotions, and other needs. Organisational data analysis and scientific management aiming at cost minimisation do not necessarily have to be viewed through suspicious lenses and they can, indeed, contribute to bettering efficiency levels. However, should our society accept companies using these tools along with a dehumanised approach to managing their people? Should society tolerate companies whose HR practices do not take into account employees basic needs?

The second issue is the challenge Ryanair employees face: the nature of their contract and status along with their rights to be represented collectively. The bypassing of industrial relations legislation in host countries that Ryanair has orchestrated has been unprecedented. US multinational organisations have been predominantly union avoidant wherever these strategies were possible, mostly in liberal market economies. More rarely, in highly regulated labour markets, US multinationals would offer attractive individual compensation packages coupled with other appreciated benefits in training and development among other areas in order to discourage their employees to engage in collective representation. There is evidence to say that this approach has also been successful in many instances but has not been commonplace. On the contrary, right-based industrial relations systems such as those in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries are usually host locations where multinationals are used to comply with industrial relations legislation. One could argue that these nations constitute a double-edge sword for Ryanair: they offer a cheaper labour than the Green Island but it comes with a price: the possibility of engaging with collective employee representation. However, this is not the case. Over the past days, Spanish Ryanair pilots have reported earning more than pilots working for other airlines in the Iberian country such as Vueling or Iberia. Yet, Spanish pilots employed by Ryanair are ‘autonomos’ (freelancers) and they are contracted through a broker, agencies based in Ireland or in the UK. Since 2010, most of these ‘employees’ are paying taxes in Spain as a result of the Ministry of Transport’s intervention. However, it is worth noting that by being ‘autonomos’ they lose their right to be represented as they legally work for themselves.

Oftentimes, they are asked to join other pilots to form a company based in countries with unusual fiscal systems and once Ryanair wish to rescind their work, they break the contractual relationship.  Needless to say that Spanish pilots working under the form of these companies do not pay taxes in Spain. The notion of collective employee representation in these circumstances is also a moot point.

In both instances, pilots earn by the hour and this has some negative consequences. Pilots often fly when they are ill, which is never advisable according to safety requirements. Perhaps we need to turn again to that concept of the disembodied worker, the worker that has no voice. This worker has been crystallised by Ryanair’s stratagems to minimise cost at any price, including not respecting their human dignity or circumventing the legal system in intricate and worrying ways.

Perhaps, it is a good time to call the attention of our politicians, our public representatives, in order to ask them to work closely on labour issues with multinational organisations. On issues that are at stake and that are not proper of a society that describes itself as postmodern.

Maria-Jesús Belizón is Assistant Professor of International Human Resource Management at UCD Dublin, and a member of CERCnet.




Studying work in theory and practice: insights from Italy

Stefano Gasparri reflects on Italian research traditions in industrial relations. His full paper on the subject can be read in the  Industrial Relations Journal.

 Theories travel easily in an increasingly globalized academia, but what happens at their destinations remains often unclear: are they accepted, manipulated, or refuted? My article just published in the IRJ investigates the relevance of national context in the theoretical development of Industrial Relations (IR). The aim is to make sense, for the broadest audience possible, of peculiar national IR trajectories such as the one present in Italy.

The link between theory and context is particularly critical for IR for two reasons. First, the destiny of IR is uncertain, given that increasingly neoliberal universities threaten its existence (the clearest example, with IR scholars’ response, is told in the 2009 BUIRA pamphlet). This means that IR theory reproduction is subject to contextual external pressures trying to bend its core principles (for a list of these principles, see Meardi 2014). Second, IR has some ‘ethnocentric’ traits (Hyman 2004), mostly due to its relevance to the policy-making (traditionally national, especially as regards labour law and industrial relations institutions), but these are currently misplaced in a globalised economic context. IR is therefore a field of study highly exposed to the risk of ‘methodological nationalism’, and this constitutes a main concern for IR scholars (see the ‘slow’ manifesto for comparative research on work and employment in this blog).

In the article, I argue that a forward-looking way to tackle these challenges involves a reflexive effort, in the sense that IR needs to further and broader investigate the understanding of its intellectual history and connect it to its present state.  I navigate through different historical phases relying on the theoretical compass provided by the ‘frames of reference’, an established framework which has gained new currency, also thanks to Heery’s 2016 book ‘Framing Work’.

The dialectic between the pluralist, unitarist and radical frames of reference is well known in the Anglo-Saxon IR context, where frames of references have often been used to assess the ‘state of the art’ (Tapia et al. 2015) and recent developments, with scholars such as Budd noting either a unitarist drift or a polarization away from the traditional pluralist fulcrum. Besides, frames of reference have also become a terrain where scholars engage with intellectual and, to some extent, political controversies. This occurred in the UK, with Hyman vs Clegg/Flanders (BJIR 1978), in the US – less explicitly – with Godard vs Kochan (ILRR 2000), and again in the UK with Ackers vs Edwards (IJHRM 2014, IRRU working paper 2015). Terms as ‘pluralism’s pluralism’, ‘pluralist orthodoxy’, ‘radical pluralism’, ‘neo-pluralism’ emerged from these debates.

Few studies have instead explored the intellectual history of IR outside the Anglo-Saxon hotspots, and among these exceptions the works by Kaufman, Frege, and Hyman stand out. This research fills the gap regarding a relevant case, Italy, which has remained under-researched despite three analytical advantages: IR has a quite long presence to detect a trajectory, a relatively modest size to allow a comprehensive assessment, and a set of scholars whose contributions are internationally appreciated. In the historical reconstruction of the field, I identify three main phases.

I) The early years in the 60s and 70s, aspired to a ‘progressive pluralism’. Key-figures are the labour law scholar Giugni, who adapted Dunlop’s ‘system of industrial relations’ to the Italian context, and the sociologist Pizzorno, who popularized seminal concepts as ‘political exchange’ and ‘cycles of protests’. Alternative approaches took off, poles apart and firmly outside IR: the unitarist, in a ‘humanist’ version, following vision of communitarian unionism and philanthropic entrepreneurship; and the radical, thanks to neo-marxist analysis by ‘workerists’ and ‘autonomists’.

II) The age of maturity in the 80s and 90s, described as ‘political pluralism’. Research investigated cooperative and consensual industrial relations at the decentralized level, either via ‘micro-corporatism’ (Regini) or ‘territorial pacts’ (Regalia). In this phase, IR in Italy was still unable to include not only more radical themes as ‘New Social Movements’ (Melucci) and ‘World Systems Theory’ (Arrighi), but also an emerging unitarist perspective such as HRM.

III) The crisis and transformation since 2000, promoting an Italian ‘neo-pluralism’, that is a peculiar blend of pluralism and unitarism. Perspectives on labour revitalization other than social partnership are typically deemed as unfit to the Italian context, despite a creeping liberalization of the labour market and a recurrent anti-union government agenda that have eroded the space for social partners’ involvement. At the same time, new research centres – Adapt, Secondo Welfare – have conditioned the developments of the field, increasingly interested in integrative, often HR-driven employment relations. This has also triggered controversial debates about the links between work/welfare regulation and the Catholic social doctrine or philanthropy. With IR drifting towards unitarism, it is unsurprising, despite some exceptions (for instance, Burroni, Pedersini), key critical IR thinkers like Meardi, Baccaro, and Pulignano, are abroad.


The IR trajectory in Italy: inclusions and exclusions

  Frames of Reference
Radical Pluralist Unitarist
1. Origin




progressive pluralism

(Pizzorno, Giugni)



2. Maturity


post-workerism WST


political pluralism

(Regini, Regalia)

3. Crisis




critical pluralism

(Baccaro, Meardi, Pulignano)

neo-pluralism (2W, Adapt) HRM



Overall, this analysis confirms that an internationalized academia does not prevent its own national trajectories from diverging. The three phases of IR in Italy reveal a trajectory anchored to the pluralist fulcrum, but with influence first from radical perspectives and then from unitarist ones. This means that, although the pluralist frame of reference remains pivotal, the trend is toward an increasingly firm-oriented perspective. ‘Market without pluralism’ (Cella 2013) is becoming the rule, both in practice as well as in theory.

While confirming the relevance of national research styles in IR, this article demonstrates that the ‘frames of references’ provide a universal theoretical compass for IR theory, making its ‘ethnocentric’ traits travel from the Anglo-Saxon base to Italy and, hopefully soon, elsewhere. This conclusion also informs debates on the ontology of IR, currently influenced by the philosophy of critical realism, and suggests the inclusion of social constructionist and post-modern approaches, as suggested some time ago without much success (Godard 1993). Indeed, IR theorising seems to need some reflexivity, if IR scholars plan to travel confidently in a globalising academia.


Stefano Gasparri is a teaching fellow in employment relations and HRM at the University of Warwick, and a member of IRRU.


Cella, G. P. (2013), ‘Mercato senza pluralismo. Relazioni industriali e assetti liberal-democratici’, Sociologia del lavoro, 131, 19–36.

Godard, J. (1993), “Theory and Method in Industrial Relations: Modernist and Postmodernist Alternatives”, in Adams, R. and Meltz, N. (Eds), Industrial Relations Theory. Its nature, Scope, and Pedagogy, IMLR Press, pp. 283-306.

Hyman, T. (2004), “Is Industrial Relations Theory Always Ethnocentric?”, in Kaufman, B. (Eds.), Theoretical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship, Champaign: IRRA series.

Meardi, G. (2014a), The (claimed) growing irrelevance of employment relations, Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(4): 594–605.

Tapia, M., T. Kochan and C. Ibsen (2015), ‘Mapping the Frontier of Theory in Industrial Relations: The Contested Role of Worker Representation’, Socio-Economic Review, 13(1): 157–184.

Applied solidarity – some personal reflections

Phil Almond

Any hope of making our work, employment, communities and societies better places rests entirely on solidarity between people.

I am a social scientist, and broadly speaking of the left, but had probably never given what the word “solidarity” actually means that much thought. However, recent experiences, which among other things have led to the formulation of CERCnet, have led me to think about this rather a lot. So, here is what I think applied solidarity is, in practice, and what it is not.

a) It is very easy to say “solidarity”, particularly (in English-speaking countries) for those on the left. But too often we talk about solidarity for the relatively distant, about macro-politics, even as something of an abstract notion. A solidarity, in other words, for those who one cannot reasonably be expected to make genuine sacrifices for. I do view this as necessary. It is not, however, sufficient.

b) If you look around you, who is in need of actual acts of solidarity, now? What are you prepared to actually do, beyond feeling bad about bad things that are happening? Can you help? Is this at some possible cost (of any kind) to yourself? Are you willing to pay the price of the acts of solidarity that you think are right? If not, it is important to be honest with yourself about it. None of us are secular saints. We all, at some point or other, decide, consciously or otherwise, that the “right thing” would involve some form of sacrifice that we are not prepared to make. Most people probably also have “means/ends” dilemmas. People generally understand this. The important thing, I think, is not to “over-promise”, to be wary of slogans, and to think on an emotionally intelligent level about what you are prepared to do.

c) Emotional and practical solidarity at an individual level tends to be neglected in discussions on the left. This is unfortunate. When bad stuff happens to people, a lot of us worry about what to say to those people. Or if indeed to say anything. This is a serious mistake. If someone is suffering from what a previous post on this site refers to as the “symbolic violence” of the powerful, and you empathise with them in some way, if you want to display practical solidarity, the most basic thing is to contact them. Now it is possible that they do not want to talk to you at the moment, that they have other people to talk to, that they will not want to reply to your message. All that is up to them. Of course, if you are able and prepared to do something practical, then that is great. But even if you can’t, support starts with checking whether people are ok or not.

I am far from perfect on these points myself. The important thing is not our individual starting points here, but that we are prepared to learn. Equally, of course, the development of a solidarity adequate to the challenges of contemporary power structures involves many other elements not touched upon here. Nonetheless, the cause of those subjected to ‘symbolic violence’ would, though, in my view, be much advanced by well-meaning people becoming more aware of their potential for practical and emotional solidarity.

This post is written in a personal capacity.

Comparative employment relations research, the “slow” way

Phil Almond

A large volume of research in employment relations and human resource management makes claims to contribute to knowledge through cross-national comparisons. In a paper published in 2013 with Maria Gonzalez, we found 179 papers published in top IR/HR journals which had some claim to be making explicit cross-national comparisons in labour management.

However, it is not always the case that comparative research is based on an in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of the societies under investigation. Indeed, much comparative research is rather ‘thin’ in its approach to local social context, cross-sectional in nature, and very standardised in its approach from one country to another. This contrasts with a much more ‘deep’ tradition of comparative research, which has always had much more interest in developing a contextual understanding of national society, history and culture.

In work with CERCnet colleague Heather Connolly, we have argued the case for ‘slow’  strategies in cross-national comparisons. ‘Slow’ comparison is based on a long-term, in-depth engagement with the social contexts under study, in order to gain deeper and more reliable insights into the nature of, and reasons for, cross-national differences and similarities. This requires a kind of ‘implicit ethnography’, even (or perhaps especially) for researchers such as myself whose formal research methods are non-ethnographic.

We decided to present this argument as a ‘manifesto’ as this type of research faces difficulties in the rather ‘fast’ world of the neo-liberal Academy – funders want fast answers, universities want defined projects and rapid publication and rarely understand more iterative processes of knowledge production, and even doctoral students frequently face constraints on their ability to spend long periods of time researching abroad. Our argument is not that ‘thin’ or ‘fast’ methods of comparison lack value; our argument is that the ecology of comparative research in IR/HR would benefit from a better balance better faster and slower means of comparison.

The basic differences between thin and deep approaches, and fast and slow research strategies, are presented below. For further details, please consult the full paper.

Thin approach
Variable/contingency-driven approach


More interest in transversal knowledge of subject area than of deep understanding of national societies.



Deep approach


Problematises “thin” ideas of comparability of standardised variables


Argues for need to understand ‘interlockages’ between complexes of variables across national societies


More interest in contextual understanding of national society/history/culture


Fast strategy Slow strategy
Standardised questions (both in quantitative and qualitative research), relatively little deviation from methodological approaches used in non-comparative research. 

High tolerance of typologies


Maximise ‘superficial’ comparability of respondents


Perceives little need to acquire in-depth, on the ground understanding of national social dynamics. Low “societal reflexivity”


High degree of closure of projects


Much more iterative process, tolerant of variation in methodology in different societal contexts. 

Suspicious of typologies, seeks to access and evaluate counter-narratives.


Much less concerned with formal comparability of respondents; opportunist approach to data


Sees geographical context as very important, seeks to develop (implicit) ethnography of societies. High “societal reflexivity”


Low degree of closure of projects

Precepts of slow comparitivism

In an attempt to provide a starting point for a fuller discussion on the methods used by slow comparativists, we developed a number of basic precepts of slow comparativism as a practical methodological approach. These are:

i) speaking the “language” – This fairly obvious precept applies both literally and metaphorically. Even if research subjects are able and willing to communicate in a lingua franca, the social context does not follow suit. For the great comparative historian Benedict Anderson“When you start to live in a country whose language you understand barely or not at all, you are obviously not in a good position to think comparatively, because you have little access to the local culture…You cannot avoid making comparisons, but these are likely to be superficial and naïve”. To this, we would add that assuming comparability of meaning of terminology is a mistake to be avoided even in the same language, and this particularly applies if research subjects are likely to depart substantially from standard formal language.

ii) immersion – This refers to the ‘slow’ process of accessing the ‘common sense’ of relevant actors. A slow research strategy places value on time spent in the societies under study to acquire local meanings, and requires fieldwork to be seen as a much more encompassing process than just what happens in formal research settings such as interviews. Leads are often indirect, and valuable evidence can be acquired by informal conversations with relevant (or semi-relevant) people, and simply by developing, on an informal basis, a somewhat ethnographic approach to one’s interactions with the wider society. Relevant voices may not necessarily be exactly the same categories of people in different societies, and that a degree of idiosyncrasy has to be tolerated – and indeed encouraged – in slow comparative research. In other words, a slow comparativist needs to develop an ‘always on’ mentality, alert to the possibility that valuable background can by acquired in somewhat idiosyncratic ways.

iii) part-alienation and reflexiveness – the researcher must develop the capacity to distance him/herself sufficiently from the socialised rationalities of their own (or, for that matter, any other) country, ideally before finalising formal research instruments. This process is indispensable if research is to seek to avoid ethnocentrism. A good slow comparativist needs to develop an understanding of the various social logics relevant to the research questions that s/he is trying to resolve, but needs to inoculate against over-identification in order to try to avoid ethnocentrism.

iv) the ‘federal’ nature of comparative projects – a real problem, as argued in somewhat different terms by Richard Hyman, is that attempts at ‘deep’, ‘slow’ comparison often face difficulties in presenting structures and actor strategies in different societies as ‘comparable enough’ for comparison to work. To try to resolve this, it is often useful to think about fieldwork in different countries as constituting linked, but to some extent separable, projects. This argument is based on a position that non-comparability has in itself to be an object of a comparative research programme. It is important to discover what is absent, as well as what is present, in specific societies; for Anderson “what you will start to notice, if your ears and eyes are open, are the things you can’t see or hear. You will begin to notice what is not there as well as what is there, just as you will become aware of what is unwritten as well as what is written”.

Mitigating against the problem of non-comparability requires the slow comparativist to find a means of dancing between the requirement for some degree of ‘meta-comparability’ (i.e. a thematic unity across countries) and societal specifics at a more granular level. A degree of messiness in relation to the demands of positive science for precise comparison has to be tolerated, and indeed encouraged, in these efforts.

These precepts are a starting point for further debate, rather than a complete answer. However it is hoped that they provide a defence for obtaining deep contextual understanding in the first place, and some basic indications as to how ‘slow’ comparativism might achieve this.


Labour struggles and acts of physical and symbolic violence

Heather Connolly

On November 30th 2016 suspended sentences were handed down by a French court to three former Air France employees.  The three men received the sentences after having been found guilty of violent conduct for having attacked two Air France executives after a works council meeting a year earlier where the company announced jobs cuts and restructuring plans.  The images of the ‘shirt ripping’ of the executives made headlines worldwide. There was much condemnation in the press and from the government but some sources also reported that while the public condemned the physical violence they also understood the reasons for it.


The ‘physical violence’ of the employees has been juxtaposed with the ‘social violence’ being inflicted on the employees who were being forced to accept job losses and restructuring.  Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is useful for understanding the context in which workers take such desperate measures.  This of course not only applies to the Air France case but can be used more widely to understand worker responses to the ‘symbolic violence’ experienced as a result of the negative externalities within increasingly intensified systems of financialised capitalism.  What makes the Air France case most interesting is the fact that an act of physical violence by employees provoked debate around the physical and symbolic manifestations of ‘violence’.


First some detail on the case itself.  On Monday 5th October 2015 Air France employees broke down the gate of the perimeter fence at the company headquarters near Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  This gate was normally open and in the later court hearing the defence argued that padlocking the gate on the day of the works council meeting was a ‘provocation’.  After breaking through the gate, around 100 workers broke into the conference room where management officials were unveiling the restructuring plan to the company’s works council.


The large scale restructuring plan by Air France, which employs about 55,000 people, would have meant 2,900 redundancies in 2016 and 2017.  Air France-KLM returned to profit in 2015 after seven years of losses, but still faces stiff competition from Asian and Gulf airlines as well as new, low-cost long-haul alternatives and so has set out to make €1.8bn (£1.3bn) savings.  After several weeks of negotiations no agreement was reached as Air France management set conditions which were impossible for the unions to accept.  The company demanded that pilots work an extra 200 hours a year for the same salary; several routes would be closed; and 400 pilots made redundant.  Alexandre de Juniac, the Air France-KLM chief executive, announced that the company would go ahead with the cuts and redundancies regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.


So on the October 5th 2015, as the negotiations had been making no progress, the staff at the works council meeting became angry, and tussled with some company officials.  As well as human resources boss, Xavier Broseta, another executive, Pierre Plissonnier, had his shirt and jacket torn in the incident.  Guards employed by the company were also injured in the melee.  The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the men, whom he labelled ‘rogues’, should be given stiff sentences.  After the action by employees, the restructuring proposals were dropped.


In total 16 employees went on trial in September 2016 for their part in the incident.  Five men were accused of violence towards the executives as well as a security guard and bodyguards.  Eleven others were on trial for criminal damage for forcing open metal barriers outside the building.  On November 30th the court gave three men suspended sentences of three to four months for ‘organised violence’, while two others were found not guilty.  The eleven other employees were handed €500 fines for property damage.


Direct action has been a relatively common feature of French trade unionism within traditions of anarcho-syndicalism.  However this action was viewed as going beyond ‘boss-napping’ and strikes, particularly from the way the acts of ‘physical violence’ were reported in the media.


On the flip side, how should we interpret the acts undertaken by the Air France management in this case and to what extent are they acts of ‘symbolic violence’?  Bourdieu refers to symbolic violence as relations and mechanisms of domination and power which do not arise from overt physical force or violence on the body.  Keith Topper’s analysis is worth highlighting: Symbolic violence clearly lacks the intentional and instrumental quality of brute violence, and works not directly on bodies but through them…by extending the concept of violence to the symbolic domain, Bourdieu spotlights an often unnoticed mechanism for instituting or reproducing relations of domination.  And to the extent that such mechanisms go unnoticed they remain outside the purview of political deliberations or remedial action’.


While ‘overt violence’, as we see in the Air France case, attracts social disapproval and unwanted consequences, symbolic violence is a more efficient and effective mode of domination as in disguising the true nature of the relationship, it forestalls any such reactions.  As Richard Jenkins points out, symbolic violence is the imposition of systems of symbolism and meaning (i.e. culture) upon groups or classes in such a way that they are experienced as legitimate.  This legitimacy obscures the power relations, which permit that imposition to be successful.


Thus the insidious and invisible nature of symbolic violence as a mode of domination which acts upon employees within capitalist systems, in this interpretation, but which goes unrecognised, is important.  Symbolic violence is embedded in normal routines of everyday (working) lives and shapes social experiences and subjectivities in myriad ways.  This suggests the need for a broader understanding and conceptualisation of ‘violence’, including its symbolic manifestations.


There are multiple and often hidden costs of unemployment and poor working conditions.  These costs extend to so-called flexible forms of employment and a ‘disposable labour model’ which are often heralded as the answer to solving productivity problems and economic growth.


Back in the UK, during December and over the New Year period there has been industrial action involving postal and railway workers (among others).  The actions have been described as ‘vindictive’ and designed to bring ‘maximum damage and disruption’.  Again, underlying much of this is the ‘symbolic violence’ that workers are subjected to through the undermining of existing terms and conditions in the case of railway workers, and the constant restructuring of business activities in the case of the Post Office.


As we see in the Air France case, the build-up of symbolic violence experienced as a result of the vagaries of financialised capitalism, including constant restructuring, intransigent management and threats of redundancies, leads some to take desperate measures in desperate times.

This post was originally published on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.

Is skills development the answer to economic and social upgradation in the Global South? Some reflections on evidence from India

Anita Hammer

Skills are considered the answer to economic development and reduction in inequality in industrialised as well as industrialising societies. Not surprisingly, skill development has attracted considerable attention from policy makers in India, e.g. the formation of the National Skill Development Council to coordinate skill development and various public-private partnership initiatives on skill formation. The policy changes in India, evident in the National Skill Development Policy 2009, are in line with strategies elsewhere: skill formation and upgrading has assumed a critical role with increased global competition, either as a means to retain competitive advantage by industrialised economies or to upgrade by emerging economies.


India has witnessed an impressive increase in GDP growth over the last two decades. At the same time, it is undergoing a demographic shift i.e. an increase in the share of working-age population in total population. With a working age labour force of 431 million (those aged between 15 and 59 years) in the total labour force of 470 million (NSSO 2009-10), the challenge is employment creation and skills upgrading of the existing as well as growing workforce. The National Skill Development Policy 2009 set a target of 500 million to be skilled by 2022, with the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) target of skilling at least 50 million people by 2016-17. Indeed the fear is that if the skills challenge is not met within the next decade, India may not be able to sustain growth and it may leave large numbers among the increasingly youthful labour force unemployed with all its attendant negative implications for equality and social cohesion (Mehrotra et al. 2013). The key question is: can India remain competitive through its existing patterns of skill formation?


The role of skills is particularly emphasised in new industrial regions that are developing in order to attract industry, especially multinational firms. Specifically inserted into global production networks, such regions are often associated with skill development and/or overflow. In policy literature, this has been examined through the concept of skill ecosystems (Finegold 1999) that rests on a certain balance of power between firms, the state, and skilling institutions. My research conducted in the manufacturing firms of one such region in North India during 2014-15 reveals there are considerable institutional barriers to the emergence of a skills ecosystem. Trade unions are excluded from skilling decisions and institutions, and labour is not an actor in a context where post-independence compromise meant that the state represents the interests of labour. For unions, their exclusion takes skills out of their bargaining portfolio further weakening their position.


One-sided supply side skilling strategies persist in firms that reinforce the institutional fragmentation within the Indian skilling system as well as the considerable unequal power relations in the labour market. On the one hand, the system of skilling institutions is fragmented between public and private institutions, between centrally certified providers and others that go considerably beyond this and are oriented at the German system. On the other, when it comes to the demand for labour, recruitment decisions always have to be considered against strategies of in-house production vs. outsourcing. Inevitably, long supply chains in the textile and automotive industry draw on the informal economy which, to a large extent, is based on informal skilling practices. Informal workers are /remain weak in the absence of a clear employment contracts, and with limited union coverage and social security.  Because of their weak labour market position, even skilled informal workers cannot bargain for much. These factors combine to entrench disincentives by firms to train or to involve labour in skilling decisions. Only 17% of firms provide training in India. The political economy encourages outsourcing, and thereby further undermines any requirement to engage in skilling.


In conclusion, while the government has put forward an integrated and holistic policy, underpinned by the insight of the skills ecosystems literature, the new policy faces severe challenges in a context of fragmented institutional skilling structure and unequal capital and labour relations both nationally and in the region. With over 93% of workers as informal, power relations are skewed in favour of employers. The imbalances between capital and labour do not provide any collective constraints or offer firms any incentives to develop work organisations that require skilling in a coordinated institutional environment. Firms draw their competitive advantage from recruiting from and outsourcing to the informal economy. This is unsustainable in a globalizing world where other destinations may provide the cost advantage to capital that India currently does. No matter how comprehensive a policy, it is unlikely to succeed unless unequal power relations in the labour market are addressed.


Industrial politics and global production networks: first, don’t make things worse

Phil Almond

(originally published December 14, 2016)

Current debates over the future of the UK’s relations with the EU seem to be taking place with a limited appreciation of how international productive capitalism works in a globalised economy. Some on the Right argue that being outside the single European market is likely to be a catalyst to trade with the rest of the world, without explaining how this might be the case. Some in the Labour Party argue for a ‘hard Brexit’ on protectionist grounds.  Both ignore the complexities of how the international production of goods and services works. It is therefore worth recapping what we know about competition between countries and regions in global production networks, and how this has developed. Our focus here is on Europe and North America, as globalisation processes have somewhat different outcomes in the Global South.

The post-war internationalisation of production was done mainly by industrial firms with fairly integrated production systems. They benefitted from national markets which were protected by tariff and other trade barriers. These firms made monopoly rents on their domestic production. Where labour movements, or political pressures, were strong enough, these translated into rising real wages. To differing extents in different places, states and capitalists often came to support rising real wages, in order to boost demand.

Some of these firms sought to expand production beyond their national borders. This was done for a variety of reasons: to exploit national differences in wage levels, to reduce transportation costs, and to avoid tariffs and other trade barriers by opening branch plants. Branch plants basically reproduced domestic production for a foreign market. They did not generally engage in much R&D or other high value-added activities.

“Branches” continue to exist where product market access requires them to. Walmart, for example, obviously needs to open large stores outside the USA. However, in general, ‘production’, whether of goods or services, is increasingly fragmented. This has been enabled by the growth of economies outside the Global North, the liberalisation of global trade, the building of continental markets in Europe and North America, financial globalisation, and by technological advances.  Fragmentation refers to two things:

– organisational fragmentation – lead firms increasingly outsource large parts of the processes by which they create value. Outsourcing once mainly concerned relatively peripheral parts of firms’ value chains. However in recent years it has extended to previously ‘core’ functions such as manufacturing and R&D.

– geographical fragmentation – firms have become increasingly able to locate their production across a wider range of geographies.  This means they can make very fine-grained decisions about where to perform different elements of their production processes. This geographical fragmentation sometimes takes place within multinationals, and sometimes outside them, in wider production networks.

An example of this can be seen in the travels undergone by just one component, a fuel injector for diesel lorries manufactured by the US-owned component maker Delphi. As the FT’s Peter Campbell writes:

“This part uses steel from Europe which is machined in the UK before going to Germany for special heat treatment. The injector is then assembled at Delphi’s UK plant in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, before being sold on to truckmakers based in Sweden, France or Germany. If the resulting truck is sold into the UK market, the component or materials used in it will have crossed the Channel five times before the lorry is ever driven by the customer”.

Places – countries, regions, cities and towns – then compete to be the best location for specific activities. This is sometimes on a global basis, but perhaps more often at the level of continents. Different countries, and different regions within countries, may have different advantages. These might include, among other things, cost, light regulation, low tax, but also access to skills, to innovation systems, and access to markets.

Specific places may have well-known forms of advantage in this competition. So for instance Germany is often seen as having advantages in complex manufacturing through its high-quality training system, and relatively participative patterns of work organisation. However, being competitive, whether through ‘high road’ high quality, high wage approaches, or low road, low cost approaches, is not as simple as building competitive forms of labour and other regulation. It is also about continual processes of adaptation, as places continually try to boost their competitiveness by building relations with international firms. For example, in our research into multinationals and regional development, we examined an old industrial region in Spain (Asturias). This had excellent engineering education developed through its long history as a mining region. It was able to repurpose this in order to establish a high-end global R&D centre for a German multinational originally attracted to the region to perform lower-value assembly work. This process involved civil servants, a university, trade unions and various employer organisations.

Such processes of adaptation are necessary because lead firms have the capacity to make fine-grained decisions about the geographical and organisational location of their activities. This means that subsidiary units increasingly compete to exercise functions on an international basis. This is sometimes referred to as ‘mandate competition’. Units which are unsuccessful in these contests face dim prospects in cases where access to markets no longer requires the existence of national ‘branches’. This process also occurs, in a slightly different way, in external firms that the multinational has close links to.

In previous work, we have argued that this results in ‘regime shopping’. In other words, firms play the regulations and fiscal regimes of countries and regions off against each other.  It also leads to ‘resource shopping’. This describes the process of firms seeking places where the most ‘positive’ resource combinations are available for specific tasks.

To be clear, ‘regime shopping’ is clearly problematic.  It puts pressure on wages, on trade unions, and on the tax base of nations. Equally, we may object to vital public services being organised in private hands as a result of liberal regulation.

However, identifying that something about contemporary capitalism has bad consequences is quite a long way from finding a remedy for it. Having researched this subject in Canada, it is very clear that the game of attracting firms to countries and regions is very much dirtier in North America. This is because NAFTA is a much less regulated market for state support of firms than the European Union is. This enables overt competition on the grounds of high-subsidy, anti-union arrangements.

Britain is currently embarking on a process of striking a new round of deals with multinationals. It does so in a context of marked uncertainty about regulation. It is difficult to see how opaque deals such as that apparently reached with Nissan are likely to be more socially progressive than what they replace. Such deals are going to have to be reached with any firm with a loud enough voice.  This is likely to happen quite a lot in the case of a ‘hard Brexit’: from the firms’ perspective, gains from these negotiations simply compensate for the lost advantage of single market access.

Avoiding models of international competition built on worse outcomes for workers and the public has to be an international enterprise. This is, of course, difficult at the best of times. However, global production networks are not about to be abolished. The problems of regime shopping in general will be worsened, not cured, by attempts to build ‘walls’.

Some of the arguments here are developed in Almond, Gonzalez, Lavelle and Murray, ‘The Local in the Global: Regions, Employment Systems and Multinationals’, Industrial Relations Journaland in Almond and Gonzalez (2014) ‘Geography and International HRM’ in the Routledge Companion to International Human Resource Management.

Informal Economy/ Informal Work: Challenges for Industrial Relations

Anita Hammer

Industrial relations has predominantly focussed on the formal workplace and formal institutions of representation and neglected the informal economy/work. Informal work, instead of being a transitory phenomenon, has been a predominant form of work in the Global South and is increasingly prevalent in the Global North (Chang 2013; Kalleberg 2009). As work continues to reach beyond the formal workplace and into the informal economy – into the community, household and the realm of social reproduction – institutional forms of industrial relations face a challenge. While Organising and Social Movement literatures address this challenge, conceptual and methodological issues remain underexplored in industrial relations.


Initially conceptualised as the ‘informal sector’ (Hart 1973), since the 1990s the term ‘informal economy’ has focussed attention on a broad and heterogeneous type of employment and enterprises that are unregulated and unprotected (Portesand Castells 1989; Hussmans 2005; Agarwala 2009). The expanded definition of the informal economy sees it as segmented into a range of informal firms and employment relationships i.e. self-employed with assets and employees, survival self-employed (own account operators and unpaid family labour), wage labour, casual wage labour, domestic labour and industrial outworkers/homeworkers. As Breman (2013) puts it ‘there is not one but a variety of regimes of informal labour, not all vicious to the same extent. These also differ in coping behaviour and resilience, some segments being more successful than others’. In sum, informality has multiple levels of exploitation as well as of forms and avenues of resistance.


Accompanying this recognition of the permanence of the informal economy is also one that recognises its significance to capitalist development. The relationship between the formal and informal economy is seen as a continuum of economic relations of production, distribution and employment where firms and workers move along the continuum or can operate simultaneously in both (Chen 2007; Lerche 2010; Harriss-White 2010).There is a recognition of diverse socio-economic relations that can result from the interaction of the formal and informal economy.  Agarwala(2008) captures this in her relational understanding of the informal economy where informal workers are intertwined with the formal economy, society and the state through structures, networks and political institutions. Informality is now fused within formerly formal parts of the economy, through outsourcing and supply chains.


My research in a new industrialising region in North India shows how manufacturing firms, domestic as well as multinational, tap into and structure the informal economy. Over a span of ten years they have reduced their permanent workforce while employing three times the number of informal workers. These are segmented into contract, casual, company casual and apprentice workers and often fulfil the jobs of a full-time production worker inside the firm. In addition, firms draw upon informal workers through outsourcing and long supply chains both in the textile and the automotive sector. As in earlier industrial sociology, neighbourhood comes into the firm and the firm reaches into the neighbourhood. This blurs the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction when analysing control and contest. Trade unions are unable to respond to the needs of informal workers or formulate a strategy to counter the state-capital restructuring of work.


For industrial relations, the challenge is how to conceptualise these interlinkages between the formal-informal work/economy and how to organise disparate, dispersed and often mobile informal workplaces and workers. This requires a rethink of definitions and conceptualisation of labour, framing options, organisational forms and strategies, and types of struggles for labour in spheres of production as well as reproduction. ‘New’ questions, with long history, have arisen. Is labour a mere production input or ‘social’ labour? Is work only in the sphere of production or is it all the work that helps in capitalist accumulation? Do we need to conceptualise labour as an actor, or only as collective actor? Can, or indeed should, the informal be ‘formalised’? Why is informal economy/work so difficult to regulate? What role do inter-firm relations play in informality? Do we need to go beyond institutional forms of industrial relations? What are the methodological challenges in researching the informal economy/work?


One of the many ways forward is Bernstein’s (2007) ‘classes of labour’. The approach provides an analytical framework that is flexible enough to capture the diversity of employment in formal-informal economy. Another possibility is the integrated framework of social reproduction (Luxton 2006; Ferguson and McNally 2015) that captures social relations of capitalism more comprehensively. Such approaches are sensitive to varied economic survival strategies of different groups of informal workers and the diverse means of resistance.


A more differentiated understanding of work and labour, and links between oppression and exploitation and production and consumption may help in framing strategies to address the challenges informal economy/work poses to industrial relations and to the labour movement.