Doctoral Student, Manchester Metropolitan Business School
Paper presented at the International Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, 15-17 March 2010
This paper draws upon recent research on the position of agency work within Burawoy’s regime of hegemonic despotism with the aim of setting out the theoretical and empirical rationale for researching the experience of agency workers in the automobile sector in France and the UK. Agency work is a growing presence across a range of sectors in European countries, including those traditionally associated with the standard employment contract (Koene et al, 2004). In the automobile sector, evidence1 suggests that manufacturers appear to be using agency work as a means of reducing labour costs in the context of intense global competition. The recent crisis in the sector has made this “hidden” workforce more visible as temporary agency workers have been the first to bear the brunt of the succession of lay-offs2.
Numerical flexibility in the form of contingent workers appears to be becoming less and less “atypical”. Whilst there has been an increasing number of studies looking at the conditions of work of agency workers, there has been a lack of engagement with the theoretical implications of the growth of agency work within labour process theory. Examining the experience of agency workers in low-skilled manufacturing work is worthwhile in its own right from the perspective of critical research, however beyond this are the potential insights and theoretical implications of such research. Labour process theory is necessarily concerned with the unfolding dynamics of workplace relations, which are framed in terms of the “central indeterminancy of labour” (Littler, 1982) and the subsequent consequences of this for the everyday experience of work. Whilst research on permanent workers in the automobile sector reveals a rich tapestry of variegated workplace dynamics, agency work tends to be approached in a more one-dimensional way, reminiscent of Braverman’s description of the labour process. This suggests that, on the one hand, the complexity of the experience of agency work in the sector has yet to be uncovered, and on the other, labour process theory has not yet adequately incorporated agency workers into a discussion of workplace relations.
This paper has two parts. The first part discusses the significance of Burawoy’s theory of production regimes within the context of second wave labour process theory as it endeavoured to incorporate an acknowledgement of the variety of workplace relations whilst maintaining an essentialist Marxist critique of capitalist labour process. Burawoy’s Politics of Production, published in 1985, built on his earlier seminal work, Manufacturing Consent, by laying a systematic framework for comparing the various manifestations of production regimes. By insisting on the social relation between labour and capital – the necessity of labour to engage in waged employment for survival – as the source of capital’s domination over labour in the production process, it was possible to identify modifications in the concrete expression of this through the intervention of the state, itself a product of the class conflict arising from the relationship between labour and capital. State intervention in the form of welfare and state regulation is therefore a vital factor moderating the extent and form of the domination of capital over labour expressed in workplace relations between management and workers. The degree of state intervention also frames the responses of workers to management attempts to control the labour process.
This forms the basis of Burawoy’s characterisation of different types of production regimes – despotic, hegemonic and hegemonic despotism – which the paper briefly describes. The next section of the paper gives an overview of how labour process theory has viewed lean production techniques in the automobile sector as a manifestation of hegemonic despotism, with a particular emphasis on the UK and France, before discussing how the conclusions drawn from the literature can be applied to agency work in the sector.
The second part of the paper discusses the significance of the unique contractual status of agency work as a major component of the politics of production, drawing upon recent literature which has challenged explanations of agency worker behaviour that fail to go beyond theories of workplace dynamics which have been elaborated on the basis of the standard employment relationship. (Gottfried, 1992; Smith, 1998; Degiulli and Kollmeyer, 2007; Nichols et al, 2007). The theoretical insights of this literature provide the basis for setting out the both the strength and limitations of adopting Burawoy’s theory of production regimes in relation to the experience, perceptions and agency of agency workers, both on the shop-floor and in the temporary work agency.
Production regimes as a source of workplace dynamics
The Politics of Production built on the theoretical innovation of Burawoy’s earlier work Manufacturing Consent (Burawoy, 1979), by providing a systematic framework for analysing the diversity of management forms that had emerged during the twentieth century. Burawoy and other labour process theorists challenged Braverman’s (1974) theory of labour process that was based on an uncomplicated narrative of linear degradation and deskilling in the workplace. The goal of Braverman’s critics was to develop the “analytical and empirical tools to maintain the historic interest in the dynamics of work relations and the connections between workplace and the wider social system” (Smith and Thompson, 2009). Whilst Braverman had mapped out a path for the study of work to find a way back to the factory as a source of both conflict and class identity, this was undermined by a tendency to approach the labour-capital relation, expressed in the concrete process of production, in an undialectical way. Braverman’s (1974) generalised view of capitalist development as one in which real (as opposed to formal) subordination of labour is achieved over time by capital’s appropriation of the worker’s knowledge over the labour process, failed to take account of two interrelated outcomes of capitalist production: variations in forms of control in the workplace, and variations in responses to control – outcomes which are a function of capitalism as a social system as well as the mode of production from which the social system emerges. Despite a focus on the workplace, the lure of the “grand narrative” of one particular form of capitalist degradation resulted in a failure to acknowledge the dynamics of class interaction both within the workplace, and beyond reflected in historically contingent configurations of state politics.
Friedman’s (1977) recognition of forms of control beyond the “direct control” of scientific management, through the deployment of “responsible autonomy” as a means of harnessing and realising labour power, provided a space for cooperation in the labour process at an individual level and collectively, as trade unions became a source for collaboration as well as conflict. Edwards (1979) provided a further impetus to the theoretical significance of localised and varied control strategies and worker responses. Both Friedman (1977) and Edwards (1979) drew attention to the micro-dynamics of the wage-labour relation at the plant level in the playing out of control and worker resistance (Thompson and Smith, 2009), thus moving beyond the objective conditions of capitalism that Braverman was concerned with describing, and paving the way to a more sophisticated examination of complex societal interactions, one which highlighted the need to connect workplace outcomes with industrial relations and the state.
Burawoy’s (1979) identification of participation and consent through the metaphors of “games” and “making out” provided a particularly cogent account of a shift from the “despotic” regime of production described by Marx to the “hegemonic regime” of production, the success of which relied to a significant extent upon the ideological domination of capital over the historic interests of the working class. This involved a reformulation of the “dialectic of control and resistance” (Thompson and Smith, 2009) so that consent to participate in the capitalist labour process was identified as an increasingly important factor of workplace dynamics. Consent, however did not signal an abandonment of the core assumption of labour process theory, that labour and capital exist is structurally antagonistic relationship to each other. Strategies for “making out” enable workers to tap into psychological resources as a means of striving to escape from the alienating process of capitalist production. The recasting of workers’ identities by an association with the firm and perceptions of stakes in organisational structures, such as internal labour markets, can be a means of achieving some sense of meaning in an otherwise meaningless process of wage labour, though these strategies do not enable workers to overcome the alienating experience that is a universal and inescapable experience of the capitalist labour process (Brook, 2009).3 In examining the micro-dynamics of workplace interaction, Burawoy was consciously drawing upon the work of industrial sociology that had been explicitly rejected by Braverman. By viewing the active and subjective responses of workers to the objective conditions of capitalist labour process as a factor in mediating the experience and outcome of work, studies such as Mayo’s investigation of productivity and working conditions in Western Electric (Mayo, 1933), shared with Marx a preoccupation with the role of labour in the labour process (Burawoy, 1985:36), though the former was concerned with the experience and productivity of labour, rather than a critique of capitalist labour process. However, industrial sociology ignored how the capitalist mode of production (re)produced social relations within and beyond the labour process. The active participation of the worker in the transformation of raw materials into use and exchange values, involves not only the technical and organisational dimensions of production, it also involves ideas about social relations, based upon the combination of experience and ideological structures which inform perceptions concerning interests, and subsequent behavioural patterns which flow from these perceptions and interpretations (Burawoy, 1985:36).
The Politics of Production takes these theoretical developments further by conceptualising how state, market and societal conditions generate the forms of production regimes in which workplace dynamics are embedded, expressed in the variety of combinations and relative proportions of types of domination, from direct control to more subtle forms of domination, which operate to elicit consent from workers. The hegemonic regime typical of the factory which provided the empirical data for Manufacturing Consent was the product of the post-war compromise between labour and capital, reflected in the firm by strong internal labour markets and collective bargaining. Commitment to the firm and hard work was rewarded by the promise of secure, long-term employment (Padavic, 2005:112) and the possibility for the “best” workers to progress in the firm. Furthermore, comparative analysis of the labour process in different countries illustrated how socio-economic institutions, such as welfare and regulations governing employment, constituted the external political context which profoundly altered workplace relations (Burawoy, 1985:136).
This represented an important analytical shift away from a too narrow focus on the production within the workplace itself, by connecting the micro-dynamics of workplace relations to macro-level structures. The specific forms of labour process in a given workplace cannot be reduced to a single economic moment of production (Burawoy, 1985:123), since the labour process can only be fully apprehended with reference to the “political apparatus of production” formed by the various structural factors in which the labour process is embedded, the key determining elements being state support for the reproduction of labour power, and state regulation of workplace relations4.
Whilst the latter is easily observable within the workplace via the policies and practices which employers are obliged to adhere to, the former is less visible though arguably plays a more profound role in attenuating the fundamental social relation that lies at the heart of capital accumulation: the inability of the worker to reproduce her/his labour power outside of the wage relationship. The dependency of the worker on the capitalist for survival is one of the conditions described by Marx for the unfolding of capital’s control over labour in early industrial capitalism, so that the source of control within the labour process lies in the compulsion of the worker to sell her/his labour power to the capitalist in order to survive. (Burawoy, 1985:123).
The subsequent replacement of despotism by more subtle forms of control over the labour process within advanced capitalism undermined Marx’s prototypical despotic factory regime. Burawoy’s (1979; 1985) identification of consent and compliance as a feature of post-war workplace relations is a compelling critique of Braverman’s contention that the application of technology and scientific management to the labour process was the final piece in the struggle to subordinate labour totally to the demands of capital (Braverman, 1979). Unlike Braverman, Burawoy’s point of departure is not the process of production per se but rather the vital social relation which lies at the heart of capitalist production, and which was the basis for the market despotism which Marx described. Sources of changes in management strategies for control over labour are located in contingent and historically bound negotiated compromises, rather than in a linear progression of deskilling and degradation towards the final and “real” appropriation and subordination of labour.
Consent becomes an imperative when the dependency of labour on capital is alleviated by state intervention, either indirectly via social welfare protection or directly by limiting the dominance of management over the labour process through institutional mechanisms such as collective agreements, minimum wages, employment rights and protection. Arbitrary despotism gives way to negotiated interaction between the employer and employee as an outcome of the intervention of the state in the reproduction of labour power, and its regulation within the workplace. Different forms and degrees of state intervention result in the existence of different types of hegemonic regime (Burawoy, 1985:138), each with differing proportions of control consent and resistance.
The subsequent retreat of labour in the face of capitalist restructuring, rising unemployment and welfare state retrenchment in the 1980s altered this time-bound configuration of the labour-capital relationship, as labour became increasingly exposed to globalised and highly competitive markets, with a corresponding increase in the dependency of labour on a less regulated capital. This set the scene for the modification of workplace relations towards a regime of hegemonic despotism. Hegemonic, since consent through hegemonic domination continued to be an significant element of employer-employee relations, and despotic since the external economic and political environment was weakening the position of labour in relation to capital, rendering the former more dependent on the latter, whilst reinforcing ideological domination over the workforce as management presented changes to working conditions as necessary to the survival of the firm.
Hegemonic despotism and automobile workers
The automobile sector has provided much of the empirical context for academic debate on the transition from hegemonic regime to hegemonic despotism. Whilst the specific organisational and technical changes associated with the introduction of lean production techniques in the sector were not part of the theoretical origins of hegemonic despotism, developments in the sector corresponded to the changes in workplace dynamics that Burawoy (1979) described. At the time of the publication of The Politics of Production, “labour relations in the American auto industry [at that period] were an ideal typical example of hegemonic despotism” (Sallaz 2004:691). Automobile manufacturers were quick to point to the increasingly competitive global marketplace as the rationale behind “necessary” change. Collective bargaining, which in the period of the hegemonic regime was a mechanism for extracting concessions on behalf of labour, was rapidly becoming a mechanism by which capital was able to secure concessions from workers.
The transformation of working practices, encapsulated by the concepts of “Japanisation” and lean production, have been extensively critiqued by labour process theorists as expressions of hegemonic despotism in which new configurations of control and consent are played out (Stewart et al, 2004; Elger and Smith, 1994). At an ideological level, with a view to generating a consensus over the “one best way” to organise contemporary production, proponents of new management techniques have presented both the necessity and desirability of change. Firms have no choice but to emulate the most productive forms of production in a global market. However, according to this narrative, workers have everything to gain since in addition to employment security, the elimination of outmoded and uncompetitive barriers to competitive productivity would also lead to an enhanced, less monotonous and less alienating work experience. The organisational and technical transformations were destined to overhaul relations between employer and employers through the promotion of a “shared destiny” (Oliver and Wilkinson, 1992:85, cited in Stewart, 1998) based on the acceptance of company values and goals to enhance productivity and efficiency on the one hand, and a labour process in which the skills of the flexible and polyvalent modern worker would be acknowledged through decentralised and participatory organisational structures and on the other. The “mutual gains” (Womack et al, 1990) produced by the reorganisation of shop-floor practices would modify labour relations to the extent that coercion would be all but eliminated and consent would prevail.
These claims were vigorously contested by labour process theorists engaged in in-depth case studies which recorded and analyseed how new management techniques were experienced in workplaces. Work by Delbridge et al (1992), Garrahan and Stewart (1992), Stewart, (1998), Yates et al, (1998), Danford (1998), Beaud and Pialoux (2002), Durand (2004) Hatzfeld (2004) and Bouquin (2006) all draw attention to the negative consequences of contemporary working practices for workers on the shopfloor. Intensification of work (Delbridge et al, 1992; Garrahan and Stewart, 1992), increased surveillance and tighter control (Hatzfeld, 2004) and scant evidence of employee empowerment (Danford, 1998) suggest that the rhetoric of the new world of work corresponds little to reality. Discussion of the empirical data revolved around issues of control, consent, compliance and resistance, with some authors emphasising control and a closing of options to resist (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992; Durand, 2004), and others revealing a more complicated picture of contradiction and conflict (Danford, 1998; Yates et al, 1998).
The literature points to the wide variation in responses to the implementation of lean production in the automobile sector, and the impact of different levels of context (institutional, cultural and local). In brownfield sites, where longstanding traditional workplace practices formalised through collective bargaining and limited forms of worker control over the process of production were supplanted by new forms of workplace relations, conflict was a predictable outcome (Danford, 1998). In this instance the presence of strong and resistant unions generated opposition to workplace change, confirming the role of local workplace dynamics in mediating the process and outcome of workplace change. In addition, the weak labour protection laws allowed the management to undermine resistance by sacking key union activists, thus creating a climate of fear in which older staff and new “green” temporary recruits would most likely acquiesce to management demands.
This contrasts with another example, this time from Sweden, which was also characterised by strong union presence, and in which the outcome was more akin to the autonomous and participative working practices which lean production purports to bring about (Danford, 1998,). Since the production regime in which a plant is embedded is the combined outcome of the various dimensions of the political apparatus of production as well as the internal micro-dynamics of workplace relations, processes of restructuring, and the outcome of those process, are likely to vary considerably (Elger and Smith, 94; Yates et al., 1998). Firms draw upon different resources, depending upon the specific configurations of these combined factors, to support their management strategies, be they human resource driven communication and team briefings (Stewart and Garrahan, 1995), unions who can either advance the position of workers (Berggren, 1993) or engage in collaborative activities in which they simply act as transmission belt for the management (Danford, 2000). Conflict over the implementation of new management techniques may also lead to a more negotiated repositioning of the power within the workplace as unions, fearful of their position, engage with management objectives (Stewart et al, 2004:63). This may even entail workers retaining important elements of control that they have traditionally enjoyed (Stewart and Martinez-Lucio, 1998).
Consequently, though discourses of “disempowerment”, “deskilling” and “degradation of work”, as opposed to “autonomy” and “upskilling”, are common in labour process literature, negative experiences are not necessarily an “inevitable function of capitalist social relations” (Danford, 1998), in keeping with the theoretical insistence on the ability (and necessity) of labour to intervene in workplace relations. Managers too acknowledge the numerous ways in which labour can intervene on its own behalf in the labour process, hence the need for ideological appeals to the benefits of Japanisation and lean production as a devise for reforming employment relations and undermining union power (Graham, 1998:12; Danford 1998). In the case of the South Wales plant described by Danford (1998), workplace restructuring was an opportunity to reverse a history of troublesome labour relations.
Examples of workplace contestation illustrate the “compromised and contradictory nature of new management forms which can grow out of and build upon pre-existing work relations” (Stewart et al, 2004:261). Therefore greenfield sites are more likely to present an environment conducive to the forms of management control which form the ideological basis of contemporary management (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992) and reduce the risk of labour-management conflict which could undermine the key ideological message of participation and empowerment. Smith and Elger’s (1998) study of autocomponent plants in a new town in the UK illustrates how a greenfield site coupled with a local socio-economic context favourable to a low-wage workforce mediated the configuration of control and consent. Lack of local employment opportunities and the absence of a traditional local labour movement can provide a backdrop for consent, facilitating the generation of “new regime[s] of subordination” premised on the marginalisation of trade unions (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992). However, new management philosophies expressed organisational practices such as company uniforms, banning of unions, and the designation of workers as members of the companies, alongside core principles of lean production (team work, quality circles and continuous improvement), imposed on a young “green” workforce is not a guarantee that management problems will be resolved (Smith and Elger, 1998).
Underlying these attempts to comprehend the different ways in which the new “post-fordist” ideology of management is translated into the concrete experience of the labour process, is a recognition that mechanisms to elicit consent to management goals are playing out against a background increasing employment insecurity (Kalleberg, 2000), with a reduction in the numbers and proportions of core workers through the combined processes of mass lay-offs (Elger, 95:86) and the increasing use of temporary workers (Elger and Smith, 1994; Bouquin, 2006), which presents manufacturers with an environment conducive to their strategic goals of restructuring.
However, the evolution of workplace practices and labour-capital relations of control, consent and resistance is unlikely to be one of a simple trajectory towards the marginalisation of labour faced with new forms of management coercion. To conceive of changes in management technique and the repositioning of power relations in the workplace in this way would be to return to the undialectical shortcomings of early labour process theory. The shopfloor is a dynamic space, one in which both management and workers react to opportunities to push forward their individual and collective agendas and interests. Thus, teamworking in some contexts can present workers with opportunities to develop new areas for trade union representation (Bacon and Storey, 1996, cited in Stewart and Lucio, 1998). On the other hand, the long-term outcome may be that management goals and values prevail over those of workers as changes in workplace relations alter future prospects for the input of workers.
The implementation of total quality management may also have contradictory effects on workplace practices. Diffused structures of quality control, such as quality circles, are generally viewed as a mechanism through which hegemonic despotism operates whereby direct control is replaced with constant monitoring by peers and team leader and presented as an imperative in the context of new customer supplier relationships (Sewell and Wilkinson, 92; Edwards, et al, 98). Edwards et al (1998) interprets the acceptance of quality principles as an expression of the “disciplined worker”. Alternatively, participation in quality control may reflect a deep-seated impulse to overcome the alienating effects of capitalist labour through an active engagement with the production process, in order to enhance the experience of work in a contemporary version of “games” and “making out”.
Whilst it is not unreasonable to suggest that this is an example of workers being complicit in changes that intensify work effort and introduce new forms of “cultural control” in the workplace (Stewart et al, 2004), it also points to the complex and contradictory ways in which workers engage in activities which, within the constraints of the wage-labour relationship and drawing upon their internal resources, enable them to construct their own workplace identities (Burawoy, 1979; Padavic, 2005:112) as a way of enhancing their experience of work. In the absence of a successful challenge to management driven processes of change, workers will undoubtedly draw upon their individual resources which may range from active engagement described above to hidden individual acts of resistance or “misbehaviour” (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999).
Agency workers in the automobile sector: the missing subject?
The literature cited above illustrates the complex societal and workplace interactions which give rise to different configurations of control, consent and resistance at work. By documenting how the new forms of production politics that have emerged in the automobile sector have altered the parameters of loyalty and hegemony, the literature has identified new sources of workplace behaviour. It is surprising that few of these studies have identify how agency workers fit into contemporary debates of labour process in the sector, beyond descriptions of conditions of work in relation to core workers (Danford, 1998; Beaud and Pialoux, 1999; Hatzfeld, 2004; Bouquin, 2006). Yet the increasing presence of agency work in the automobile sector presents researchers with a valuable, alternative context in which to examine how the transition from the hegemonic regime to hegemonic despotism has variegated effects on different parts of the workforce and is likely to lead to yet a further bundle of combinations of consent and resistance.
To some extent, the main contribution of a study of agency workers to labour process resides in the way in which the experience of agency work in the sector appears to correspond to Braverman’s conception of work within modern capitalism: subject to direct, despotic control, degradation of work and deskilling due to the precarious and dependent nature of low-skilled agency work. This is borne out by the work of Beaud and Pialoux (1999) in an early study of Peugeot, Sochaux, which describes the experiences of temporary agency workers at the plant as considerably harsher than those of permanent employees: given the hardest jobs, less empowered to question management or even team leader decisions, and more likely to be moved to more arduous posts as a result.
Bouquin (2006) presents empirical evidence similar to that of Beaud and Pialloux (1999), but goes further in locating sources of management control in the aspirations of workers on agency contracts to obtain a permanent contract, thus suggesting a positive, albeit constrained, response to their contractual situation. Bouquin (2006) describes this as a powerful management tool in the 1990’s in the French auto-sector where production workers were recruited exclusively through the medium of a temporary agency contract (Gorgeu, Mathieu and Pialoux, 1998 cited in Bouquin, 2006:1555).
Yet on the whole, there appears to be an assumption that agency workers are less likely to be subject to the complex contradictory interplay of control, consent and resistance. Their experience of work in a contemporary automobile factory corresponds more to the market despotism and evokes Braverman’s (1979) dystopian view of late capitalist production in which deskilling and degradation of work open to the road a final subordination of labour.
Yet this conclusion is unsatisfactory from the point of view of labour process theory. To suggest that there is no room for a wider variety of behavioural outcomes, such as voluntary consent or opposition and resistance, is an inadequate response. Whilst the space for resistance on the one hand, and active consent to, and engagement with, management goals on the other, is likely to be restricted, it is a space nonetheless.
Duality of control
It is necessary therefore to assess how agency work modifies the dynamics of control and consent. This has been addressed in literature which has drawn attention to the difficulty in transferring general explanations of behaviour in the workplace to agency work (Gottfried, 1992; Smith, 1998; Sallaz, 2004; Nichols et al, 2004). Whilst issues of direct control as a function of employment vulnerability inevitably inform discussions of agency work, the unique status of agency work also gives rise to other issues which frame the experience of work.
Gottfried’s (1992) concept of a dualistic system of control is an important step in developing of theory of control and consent which takes account of the triangular relationship that distinguishes agency work from other forms of wage labour. Gottfried (1992) identifies the mechanisms for control arising from two distinct structures of management. The agency worker is subject, in the first instance, to the self-disciplinary pressure arising from the continuous need to gain access to work via the medium of the agency. Once access is (temporarily) gained, control takes place at the point of production. The agency worker, therefore, is required to acquiesce simultaneously to the direct work supervision in the place of work, and the agency in order to secure future opportunities. This apparent intensification of despotic aspects of control, however, does not mean that consent is not a part of the repertoire of experience of work for agency workers, though the sources of consent may differ (Gottfried, 1992; Smith, 1998; Deguili and Kollmeyer, 2007)). Labour market vulnerability may play a significantly role in explaining why marginalised workers acquiesce to working conditions that are inferior to those of permanent co-workers (Gottfried, 1992), even within the context of the limited choices associated with an agency contract, ideological sources of worker commitment may still be relevant.
Both agencies and user firms can tap into future aspirations of permanent work in order to elicit consent from agency workers. Temporary employment agencies have been shown to engage in the construction of discourses which correspond to the aspirations of agency workers to secure permanent employment (Gottfried, 1992; Deguili and Kollmeyer, 2007). The path to secure employment depends on the ability of the agency worker to present him/herself as a “reliable contingent” (Peck and Theodore, 2001), resulting in what Smith (1998) refers to as “deep self-discipline”. In contrast to the sources of self-discipline for core workers which are located with the production process through the “responsible autonomy” of teamwork and quality management, self-discipline for agency workers lies in their need to continually present themselves as candidates for recruitment.
Yet, surface appearances which indicate active consent may conceal deeper feelings of discontent, particularly when reality does not correspond to aspirations. Smith’s (1998) study of agency workers in a computer components manufacturing company revealed how whilst agency workers expressed a positive, conscientious attitude to work, they were also mindful to keep “resentments to themselves” (Smith, 1998:421). In addition to “muted resentment” which has been identified as as feature of vulnerability in the workplace (Thompson, 1983), agency workers may also be unclear as to where the source of their resentment lies (agency, user-firm, permanent employees).
Agency work and production regimes
The unique employment status of the agency worker is, therefore, complicated by the “duality of control” which is a function of the triangular relationship, leads to a different configuration of workplace (and agency) interactions. Yet despite the acknowledgement of the significance of employment regulation in moderating workplace dynamics, a tendency to a one-sided emphasis on the micro-dynamics of workplace interactions between management and labour has led to insufficient attention being paid to the specific role of employment status (Nichols et al, 2004), which is increasingly problematic in the context of the erosion of the standard employment contract (Booth et al, 2000; Kalleberg, 2000).
Subsequently, the distinct contractual arrangements which are a feature of agency work have been identified as a basis on which to discuss the theoretical implications of agency work to Burawoy’s production regimes framework, considered appropriate since Burawoy’s framework allows for a incorporation of “the institutions that regulate and shape struggles in the workplace” (Burawoy, 1985:123) as well as the political and ideological affects of the production regime in which labour process takes place (Smith and Ngai, 2007). The interpretations of, and reactions to, the combination of direct control and consent at work is mediated not only by workplace organisational and technical forms identified in the literature but also by “the manner in which legal categories define choices for action” (Sternberg, 2003). The specific legal category that defines the triangular relationship of agency work presents, therefore, a different dimension of analysis.
As Nichols et al. (2004) point out, Burawoy is “sensitive to a range of social relations” such as material support (the ability of labour to reproduce itself outside of the wage-labour relationship) and the employment contract. The permanent employment contract was a key element of the political apparatus of production regulating the rights of the worker in relation to capital and establishing the long term relationship between employee and employer, which was one of the foundations of the hegemonic regime. Hegemonic despotism emerged in the context of increased employment insecurity, however, this was used to further tie the interests of core workers ensuring the survival of the firm (Burawoy, 79; Stewart et al, 2004; Sallaz, 2004). The growth of numerical flexibility (Standing, 1997; Kalleberg, 2000), may therefore suggest a modification of the production regime either in terms of a reconfiguration of the combination of hegemony and despotism or as an expression of a new type of regime.
Hegemonic despotism and the agency worker
The descriptions of the operation of hegemonic despotism in the automobile sector are not easily transferable to agency workers in the sector. Whilst workers with permanent employment contracts are more likely to link their job security to the survival of the firm, this is a less likely scenario for agency workers, for whom insecurity is omnipresent regardless of the profitability or viability of the firm for whom they work. All the more so given that the firm’s survival strategy in period of crisis is likely to involve the shedding of the peripheral workforce.
Similarly it is doubtful that organisational practices associated with lean production identified as characteristic hegemonic domination within hegemonic despotism (team working, de-centralised control, and identification with company goals) will elicit the same response from a section of the workforce which has a time delimited association with the firm (Deguili and Kollmeyer, 2007).
This raises questions regarding the sources of workplace behaviour in the context of agency work. If it is unlikely that sources of consent identified above apply to agency workers in the automobile sector, and similarly agency workers lack the same opportunity to engage in opposition to their conditions of work, does the contractual status of agency work represent a (partial) return to market despotism within a sector most identified with hegemonic despotism. And if so, how does this correspond to management techniques seeking to mobilise the productive capacities of the workforce through a discourse of empowerment and participation? Even if management disregards some purported benefits of “Japanisation” and focuses on the core principles of lean production which alongside labour efficiency emphasises a skilled, well-trained and motivated workforce (Stewart, 98:219), this still sits uneasily in a sector which has been recruiting increasing numbers of agency workers.
The research referred to above (Gottfried, 1992, Smith, 1998) can provide a useful starting point for reflecting on these issues, but may not be wholly applicable to the automobile sector. For example, Degiuli and Kollmeyer (2007) theorise different sources of consent and hegemonic control for agency workers by identifying three practices which combine external sources of hegemonic control with those internal to workplace. First, temporary work agencies engage in practices intended to normalise labour flexibility through agency work. Secondly, agency work is rebranded to correspond to aspirations of agency workers for permanent work (Gottfried, 1992; Smith, 98), so that work placements are perceived as trial periods that can open up future possibilities. Finally, acquiescence in the face of bad working conditions is rooted in the restoration of market despotism.
Attempts to normalise the flexibilisation of labour can evoke a number of responses ranging from acceptance and resignation to opposition, depending upon culturally specific assumptions regarding the employment relationships, as well as sectoral norms. Responses will also differ between core workers and agency workers. The demographic characteristics of the latter are also likely to influence the acceptance of flexible employment, with young workers in particular being more accepting of agency contracts as a rite of passage into the world of work (see, for example, Beaud and Pillaoux, 1999).
Agency workers in the sector, do appear to engage in strategies, to secure permanent employment (Bouquin, 2006). Although, where the termination of an agency contract becomes an increasingly more likely outcome than a permanent contract, perceived benefits associated with “playing the game” are undermined.6 On the other hand, resistance to lay-offs is undermined by the “duality of control”, since agency workers will be required to present themselves once more to the temporary employment agency in order to access future employment. Responses to contract terminations are likely to differ radically from the responses of permanent staff to loss of work. Notwithstanding aspirations for permanent employment, it is probably that a temporary contract will alter expectations and “sense of entitlement” to ongoing and continuous employment, since the non-renewal of assignments is an ever present aspect of agency work. However, this a speculative account of the workplace outcomes of agency work – albeit a plausible one that does draw upon empirical research. The reality of the experience of agency work and the workplace interactions that are a function of the status of agency worker will undoubtedly be more complex and nuanced, involving moments of opposition or “misbehaviour”, and even organised collective resistance.
Nonetheless at first sight, the experience of agency work in the sector, does not appear to correspond to Burawoy’s hegemonic despotism, whereby consent is premised on a some degree of coordination of interests, rather than direct control or compliance derived from economic necessity. There is a corresponding lack of similitude with the working lives of permanent workers. From another angle, the presence agency workers on the production can be view with reference to hegemonic despotism, as permanent workers accept the contingent workforces as a necessary encroachment on the standard employment relationship in order to ensure the viability of the plant (Nichols et al, 2004; Sallaz, 2004). Discourses which conjure up the survivability of the firm can thus appear to align the interests of core workers with management so that workers concede to a marginalised workforce if management discourse is “credible” – agency labour will increase the firms chance of survival – and “consequential” – core workers depend upon the survival of the company for to maintain living standards (Sallaz, 2004). The resulting “labour dualism” within a plant-specific workforce may be indicative of the development of “hybrid” production regimes, whereby different sections of the workforce are subject to different types of production regimes (Zhang, 2006)7. This implies a more complex system of production regimes than that presented by Burawoy and subsequent authors.
The possibility of the co-existence of two types of production regime is present in Burawoy’s (1985) Politics of Production. Burawoy refers to the despotic control exercised on illegal immigrants within Californian agrobusiness as an example of the political apparatus of production creating the space for more direct and despotic control over a section of the workforce (Burawoy, 85:127). In this case, citizenship rights being the basis upon which the state denies protection from unrestrained or “super” exploitation.
The ideal-type production regimes identified by Burawoy are generic models. Whilst they are determined independently of the labour process, the specific form they take can vary according to specific labour processes, product markets, national contexts and sectors. In addition, whilst particular periods of capitalism give rise to “prototypical” factory regimes, features typical of other productions regimes do not completely disappear. The transition from the despotic regime to the hegemonic regime did not mark a definitive break with practices associated with the despotic regime (Burawoy, 1985:127).
Whilst workers share a common feature in that they have are obliged to sell their labour power, the conditions in which they are obliged to do this are not the same. In addition to variable conditions between national production regimes identified by Burawoy, workers within countries are also subject to variable employment outcomes, as different degrees of constraints from wider institutional and cultural contexts shape their labour market and workplace interactions, and their degree of state support and protection aspects of market despotism. Therefore, even in those key sectors of the economy identified as ideal types corresponding to Burawoy’s categorisations of production regimes, the growing significance of agency workers may reveal the need to re-evaluate the evolution of production regimes.
By comparing the working lives of agency workers in two countries whose automobile sectors have employed significant numbers of agency workers, the proposed research hopes to contribute to the recent literature on the relevance of agency work to production regime theories. Cross-national research is a valuable means of unravelling the complex interaction between political apparatuses of production and workplace dynamics, since a comparison of similarities and differences can facilitate the identification of those contingent historical processes which have given rise to specific forms of production regimes, whilst acknowledging the “commonality” of national capitalist systems (Peck and Theodore, 2007: 733).
An added dimension to this research, located as it is in two European countries, is the role of the European Union, which adds a further dimension to a theoretical framework which assumes a national basis for the political apparatus of production (Burawoy, 1985:128). The development of the European Union as a supra-national “political apparatus of production” is an additional source of both deregulation of European labour and social protection (formally) for workers engaged in flexible contingent work, encapsulated in the concept of “flexicurity” which has been added to the discursive armour of the European Union.
By situating the local workplace experience of agency work in these wider institutional context and making connections with the contingencies of national and local histories, this research hopes to contribute to an understanding of the processes which shape contemporary workplaces. The introduction of large numbers of agency workers in the sector, a trend likely to continue, despite recent dismissals of agency workers on a large scale, indicates a significant transformation in way to the labour and capital interact in the sector, and is therefore likely to be particularly illuminating.
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1 In the UK and France automobile sectors, unions have campaigned around the the issue of agencies is the automobile sector ( http://www.unitetheunion.com/sectors/motor_components.aspx; Le Monde, 05.04.07). In the UK, Parliament has debated the issue (Hansard, 2007).
2 The high profile example of BMW at Cowley in the UK in February 2009 revealed the extent of agency work at the plant, when the company laid off 850 agency workers at a moments notice.
3 In his defence (and critique) of Hochschild’s theory of emotional labour, Brook (2009) insists on the centrality of alienation as an incontournable and essential aspect of the labour-capital relationship, as labour is transformed to an activity external to the worker. Alienation extends beyond the workplace to encompass our relations with fellow humans and with nature, so that the “daily struggle to secure a dignified sense of self” (Brook, 2009:29 ) whilst indicative of the active resistance of workers to the commodification of their labour, cannot be understood as a means of overcoming the alienating experience of work.
4 Burawoy (1985) also identified two other elements of the political apparatus of production: competition and technology. However, he considered these elements to be subordinate to the role of state in reproducing labour power and regulating the wage-capital relationship. (Burawoy, 1985:148)
5 Bouquin (2006) describes the growth of agency work in the French automobile sector in the second half of the 1990s ranging from 10 to 12 % of the total workforce and constituting as much as a quarter of the workforce in some plants.
6 In February 2009 at the BMW plant in Cowley in the UK, agency workers responded angrily to news of the termination of their contracts. Videos posted on the internet showed angry scenes of agency workers confronting union leader whom they perceived to be complicit with management in their treatment.
7 Zhang’s (2006) research on China’s automobile sector identifies a combination of hegemony and strong state intervention associated with Burawoy’s hegemonic regime, alongside the features of market despotism which regulate the workplace relations and experience of of young temporary workers, brought in from rural communities.