EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Value(s) of labour in austerity-era Europe
Location U6-1E
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Samuel Weeks (Thomas Jefferson University) email
  • Daniel Knight (University of St Andrews) email

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Discussant Theodoros Rakopoulos, Andrea Muehlebach

Short Abstract

This panel addresses labour value in the workplace as understood in austerity Europe, exploring how marginalised workers perceive dispossession, precarious employment and limited social mobility. How do people conceptualise their economic/workplace futures and what is the legacy of economic reform?

Long Abstract

Value has been examined in terms of exchange, systems of morality and social practice, leaving a substantial legacy in economic anthropology. However, the study of the actual work people do - 'labour value' - has received limited attention. Building on Marx's 'labour theory of value', Harvey discusses value in terms of accumulation and dispossession, locating the economic value of workers' production in the hands of employers and global neoliberal players. Intersecting a growing body of literature inspired by Harvey's approach with more classic studies of symbolic value in the workplace, we seek to understand how marginalised workers rationalise hardship and exploitation. We locate our enquiries in austerity-era Europe, where top-down fiscal reform has left millions unemployed, living on the poverty line and with little hope for future prosperity. In countries undergoing this so-called 'structural adjustment', with increasing erosion of the welfare state, the logic of work is being reassessed - social mobility is improbable; power has been relocated from the family and sovereign state; and there is exhaustion and disillusionment with the future. Papers will show how value(s) traditionally associated with work have been destabilised during the European 'crisis'. How have interactions with, and expectations of, the workplace changed post-2010? Has there been a revaluation of labour? How do people conceptualise their economic/workplace futures? What legacy is this building for times ahead? In asking these questions, we hope to shed new ethnographic light on labour value and further the critique of economic 'reform' in Europe.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Hard work or non-work? Contested meanings and practices of precarious labour for Bulgarian Roma mobile workers

Author: Neda Deneva (Babes-Bolyai University)  email

Short Abstract

Meanings and practices of precarious labour are a contested terrain where workers and states/politicians/employers struggle over the right to be a worthy citizen. Through the case of Bulgarian Roma low-skilled mobile workers I trace how these tensions produce dispossession and exclusion mechanisms

Long Abstract

With this paper I seek to understand how changing realities of work practices and labour relations are invested with meaning and value. Drawing on the case of Bulgarian Roma impoverished workers engaged in labour practices both as citizens in Bulgaria and as migrants across the EU, I explore the conflicting interpretations of what work means as crafted by different actors and institutions in different localities (workers, local government officials, social policies, political discourse etc). Labour value in this context is a contested terrain where power struggles over meanings have further implications for the way workers are positioned as deserving or undeserving citizens and as morally worthy or unworthy individuals. I focus on the case of Bulgarian Roma low-skilled mobile workers in the EU, engaged in informal, irregular and flexible labour between Bulgaria and the Netherlands varying from street work, day labour in construction and agriculture, informal work in factories, to paid-per piece-herb and fruit picking. Recognizing these labour practices as 'real work' is key for providing access to certain citizenship entitlements (mainly welfare benefits), but also for generating moral value and worth. While for the workers their labour is what makes them dignified members of society, for the institutions and the public discourse, which employ a narrow definition of legitimate work as formal employment, they are seen as idle, tax evaders or milking the welfare state and treated accordingly. I trace ethnographically how these contestations of labour value become a mechanism for dispossession and devaluation of workers

The value of labour from the standpoint of marginalised individuals: a case study of Roma ethnics from Romania

Authors: Melinda Dinca (West University of Timisoara, Romania)  email
Janne Paulsen Breimo (NORD University)  email
Irina Zamfirescu (University of Bucharest)  email
Theofild-Andrei Lazar (West Univesity of Timisoara)  email

Short Abstract

The present paper reviews the segmented labor market, consisting of a primary market and a secondary market (Reich et al.,1973), the dynamic between such markets (Pereira et al.,2015) and the mechanisms upholding and maintaining the informal labour market in the case of Roma ethnics in Romania.

Long Abstract

The current paper aim to present the values of labour, conceptualised by the marginalised Roma ethnics from Romania, as it is constructed in the process of occupational integration at the crossroads of the public institutions, social network and individuals. Our research is based on the perspective of the vulnerable Roma individuals, from their standpoint, emphasizing the subjective perspective of everyday life. In our study we employed the feminist method of institutional ethnography by means of the semi-structured interviews, and we studied linkages among local settings of everyday life, institutions, and processes (DeVault and McCoy, 2002). Empirically, the study starts out by mapping the work and activities of everyday life that speak about the (lack of) opportunities of formal employment and the dynamic that tends to keep people stuck in informal labor markets. The conclusions of the present paper try to respond to the question of how do people perceive their precarious employment and how they conceptualise their workplace futures.

Enhancing and devaluing women's work: policies, ruptures and continuities, the case of Brazilian women in Barcelona

Author: Gemma Antón Ramos (Universitat de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

Work conditions of Brazilian women appear linked to structural aspects, rather than consequence of austerity-era Europe. The analysis of policies is focused mainly on two points, about the extent of the (in)efficiency and the political proposal in the attempt to revalue work of women

Long Abstract

This paper is focused considering the precarious and marginalized work of women, both paid and unpaid. In the case of Brazilian women in Barcelona, work conditions appear linked to structural aspects rather than consequence of austerity-era Europe. There is a limited occupational mobility in the host country for the highly skilled and overqualified women, who have worse employment status than Brazil. The prevalence of this situation involves work devaluation through the migration process and the redefinition of inequalities. In this sense, these circumstances are not understood simply in terms of a cause-effect paradigm regarding economic reform. Thus, the analysis of policies regarding work, women and migration, is focused mainly on two points. Firstly, about the extent of the (in)efficiency, what is related to structural situations due to they are not efficient enough. Secondly, considering that what have actually been destabilised over the crisis context, is the persistence in the attempt to revalue work of women through those policies, rather labour value in the workplace. On the other hand, migration of women is linked to structural inequalities in their country of origin, Brazil. Patriarchal norms, socioeconomic inequalities, and representations of postcolonial image, have influence on international migration, causing the rupture with the context of origin regarding the social reproduction process. Thus, women's perception about their work situation is linked to whether the goals of migration have been reached. Different dimensions of perception, rejection, empowerment and acceptance interact with structural inequalities, producing ruptures and continuities through migration process.

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Between imagined lives and lived realities: precariousness, feelings of depreciation, and social invisibility among highly educated young adults in Barcelona

Author: Corinne Schwaller (University of Bern)  email

Short Abstract

The paper deals with precarious work and life situations of highly educated young adults in Barcelona. It explores how they experience the shattering of their future aspiration and navigate between imagined lives and lived realities.

Long Abstract

The current generation of highly educated young adults in Barcelona grew up with the narrative of social upward mobility through education. But even though they did "everything right", many of them are not able to achieve their (socially inculcated) future expectations. Instead of a "good job" and a "good life", they are confronted with precariousness and exploitation at the workplace, social insecurity, high levels of uncertainty, and social decline.

The narrations of my informants all circle around the same experiences: they feel that their abilities and qualifications are not being valued in the labor market, not financially, not socially, not symbolically. The salaries are hardly sufficient to make a living, working conditions are highly precarious, and they are often treated with very little respect. In addition to material struggles, they are confronted with feelings of frustration, disillusionment, and lack of dignity. They expected their employments to be a (more or less) reciprocal relationship and instead find themselves forced to be grateful for being exploited.

The paper argues that the work of my informants is, in many cases, socially invisible, especially when it comes to very short-term employments and to work someone is highly overqualified for. Even though the work is often done in public places and in regular companies, due to its provisional character it is hidden from social recognition. It does not give sense to individual lives and biographies and it does not result in social status or access to state-provided social security.

“During a busy day I don’t get much done”: values of work / non-work in a multinational service firm in Mumbai/India

Author: Frauke Moerike (TU Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper illustrates ambiguities and paradoxes of what the employees see and value as “real work” in contrast to everyday lived praxis at the corporate offices of a multinational corporation in the consulting sector of Mumbai, India.

Long Abstract

“During a busy day I don’t get much done.” This quote from a business consultant summarizes the dilemma discussed in this paper: what officially counts as “real work” rarely corresponds to daily lived praxis in the office.

Ascertainable deliverables in the form of documents, excel reports, or presentations slides stand in the focus of attention and most employees in the organization are measured on them. Their correct, accurate and timely submission represents the formal basis determining career advancements or failure of the individual, including an elaborated value system attached to the various types of deliverables. This output focus stands in contrast to the Alltagswelt in the office which is characterized by highly frequent, non-formalized interactions (face-to-face, phone, chat, email). These are getting paradoxically even more intense in situations of upcoming deadlines for submission. Such a scenario of high interaction between the agents is exactly what transaction cost economics try to minimize, assuming costs for each coordination activity between the individual agents to achieve the production of goods or services (Ronald Coase). The ethnographic example suggests a rather contradictory work practice, yet it might be an explanation for the employees’ focus on the outputs of the work and their notions of “not getting things done”, despite being constantly involved into work related communication and decision-making processes.

The paper is based on 12 months of fieldwork at three offices of a multinational consulting company in Mumbai, India, with approximately 800 employees of various hierarchy levels and designations.

Contingent problems of redefinition and revaluation of labour against the backdrop of economic crisis

Author: Ieva Snikersproge (The Graduate Institute)  email

Short Abstract

In France, various life-course crises have led to urban-to-rural migration that in turn have escorted relatively individualised forms of labour revaluation. Yet, the radicality of the revaluation(s) remains curtailed by the larger economic crisis and state policy.

Long Abstract

Diois is a rural area in France that attracts intra-country immigration animated by a wish for a "better life." Many of the newcomers see it primarily as a "life project" and only secondarily as an "economic project." A significant portion of them depend on RSA, a type of guaranteed minimum income. Locally it is variously judged in the spectrum from parasitism to dignified renumeration as an incipient form of base revenue, which at times confronts the intentions of the state that had designed it as a reinsertion tool. Importantly, on an economic plain, in order to make living the income often needs to be supplemented with labour that has been valued otherwise - outside of traditional workplace and “the market." The options vary from activity in absolutely informal networks, to activity in a LETS, an hour bank, one of the many associations, or a tentative to create a complementary currency that would create a bridge with the "real economy." The diversity of overlapping, competing and/or complementary informal-to-formal approaches and scales of action reveal the legal and economic difficulties for both revaluing labor outside of formal workplace and succeeding to procure livelihood.

Labour value(s) in crisis: a case from the Lisbon periphery

Author: Samuel Weeks (Thomas Jefferson University)  email

Short Abstract

Utilising ‘labour value’, I examine the work experiences of Lisbon’s Cape Verdeans from 2010-present: how my informants are earning much less and how they have been frightened into ‘accepting’ this fate. These factors show how value(s) long associated with work have been destabilised in the crisis.

Long Abstract

This paper employs the approach of 'labour value' in an effort to bridge the conceptual gaps between the extant theories of value as exchange and practice. I view the work that people do to be informed by many different 'values' (in the plural) at the same time that it creates numerous kinds of 'value' (in the singular). The context for this analysis is among Cape Verdean immigrants on the Lisbon periphery, a long-marginalised area of a country trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of austerity and stagnation. In this paper, I expound upon parallel tendencies that have marked the work experiences of this population from prior to 2010 and into the current 'crisis economy'. First, I show that my study participants are earning progressively less in wages. While most Portuguese workers have seen their pay cut since 2010, the downward pressure on the earnings of Cape Verdeans has been particularly severe due to a reduction of hours, an increase in work loads, unpredictability in scheduling and longer stretches of unemployment. The second factor I trace is how my study participants have largely been 'cowed' into accepting lower wages by means of fear, persuasion or a combination of these sentiments. They frequently ascribe a low value to their productive agency, one that they believe is reflected in the paltry wages they earn. Taken together, these two factors shed light on how the value(s) traditionally associated with work have been destabilised in the wake of the recent multiyear economic 'crisis' in Europe.

In a queer time and (work) place

Author: Alessia Acquistapace (Università di Milano - Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

The paper describes how Italian queer precarious workers perceive their social and working condition, and how they try to resist work exploitation, addressing simultaneously normative assumptions about professional and sentimental “success”, and the “political economy of the promise”.

Long Abstract

Since 2013 Italian anti-capitalist queer and transfeminist movement has been inquiring on the connections between productive and reproductive work, affects and identity (SomMovimento NazioAnale 2014). My research itself is part of this wider grassroots self-etnographic poject.

In my paper I will describe how queer precarious workers who participated in this research perceive precarious employment and limited social mobility, but also how they try to resist exploitation and produce alternative work cultures that could enhance such resistance.

To understand this process, it has to be examined together with other component of the "good adult life", which is/used to be marriage, or at least a committed, cohabiting, long term future-oriented couple relationship.

Work and marriage - that is, having a place in production and reproduction - have been the main pillars of identity in Fordist era. Our field work shows that despite economic, political and cultural changes that have made young people less and less likely (and/or willingly) to actualize this model, it still works as desire and never-reached ideal (Berlant 2007), a process which has been called "political economy of the promise" (Bascetta 2014) and takes specific connotations in the case of gay, lesbian, transgender and sexually excentric subjects (Fiorilli 2014).

The paper will illustrate how queer lives, although among contradiction and conflitcs, constitute as an embodied critique not only to the content of the normative life course (work and couple) but also of its inherent narrative structure, the progressive, teleological temporality it implies and construct.

Labour, crisis and social reproduction: a view from southern Italy

Author: Antonio Maria Pusceddu (Universitat de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines people's experience and understandings of labour devaluation and its impact on social reproduction in southern Italy. Addressing the uneven geographies of austerity, it highlights the spatial complexity of socio-economic transformations engendered by contemporary capitalism.

Long Abstract

This paper examines people's experience, understandings and reactions to labour devaluation and its impact on social reproduction in southern Italy.

Jobs in the informal economy and a widespread pattern of single-income families characterize the socio-economic context of Brindisi, a town targeted by state-driven industrialization and torn by recurrent crisis and foreign capital restructuring. Despite increasing workforce precarisation, industrial (male-dominated) labour still raises expectations of income stability.

Drawing on the concept of "housewifisation" of labour - in terms of precariousness and crisis of collective negotiations, the paper aims exploring the meaning and experience of labour following a twofold perspective. First, it examines how structural processes of labour devaluation, as experienced in workplaces, impact on social reproduction. Second, it investigates how social reproduction arrangements, in relation to changing forms of labour exploitation, affect people's perception of labour in the workplace and in relation to regulatory state's role. Hence it asks: how do notions of "care", as originated from the reproductive sphere, frame people's understanding of labour and their relation to the global economy, both in terms of workers' positioning and self-awareness and in terms of corporate rhetorics of cooperation? How do tensions between autonomy and dependence underlying social reproduction are being transferred into the workplace in framing conflicts and solidarities?

By framing the analysis in light of austerity's unequal territorial impact in Italy, the paper suggests that spatial structures of inequality provide a useful perspective to address the complexity of social and economic transformation engendered by contemporary capitalism and austerity in Europe.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.