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

(-1970s)

workerism

autonomy

progressive pluralism

(Pizzorno, Giugni)

humanistic

unitarism

2. Maturity

(1980s-1990s)

post-workerism WST

NSM

political pluralism

(Regini, Regalia)

HRM
3. Crisis

(2000s-)

neo-

workerism

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.

References

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.