lunedì , 24 Giugno 2024

The factory of differences. Work force, mobility and class struggle across the European borders



La fabbrica delle differenzeWe publish an improved version of one of the introductory speeches of the workshop «Transformations of labor and transnational strike: new factory regime, precarization and changing composition of labor» organized by Worker’s Initiative (Poland), TIE (Germany), Angry Workers (UK), Precarious di∫connections (Italy) during the meeting for the Transnational social strike held in Poznan at the beginning of October.


For at least the last two decades factory-work in Europe has seemingly disappeared. When it started to reappear, it seemingly has been relegated in Eastern Europe. However, the economic crisis in 2008 has shown how much the manufacturing system, with its legacy of more or less outsourced services, still constitutes a crucial element of the working conditions in Europe. We are speaking of a factory that underwent several transformations from a technological and organisational point of view and, more importantly, one that is daily connected with other labour realities in Europe and in the world. The factory today is the place of the interconnection of several stories of labour that occur at thousands kilometres from each other and with which we are constantly in touch. For this reason, the factory represents the point of intersection of diverse forms of work organization, but also of different precarities.

Let’s imagine a young Eastern European worker after finishing the secondary school. What can he or she do? He/she can look for a job, maybe trying to find something related to his/her studies. Probably it will be difficult. Maybe he/she has some friends emigrated abroad or working in some factories. We can think that he/she will try to work in the country of origin, to find one of the many unskilled jobs in one of the many factories belonging to foreign or local capital. Eastern European countries have been sometimes compared to the maquiladoras in Northern Mexico, because in the last 25 years multinational corporations, in particular the European ones have used this area in order to relocate parts of the production, because there it is possible to find low wages and no trade unions. As a matter of fact, a part of the manufacturing production in Europe is moving from West to East, in particular in the electronics, automotive, clothing and shoes sectors. This doesn’t mean that the Eastern European countries did not have manufactures before, but it means that there has been a strong transformation inside the factories where the Western management style has been implemented. Thanks to the investments of multinational corporations, countries like Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania have become more and more important along the so called value chains. In this process, not only Western enterprises, but also big Asian multinationals went East with the aim of moving closer to the marketplaces where their commodities are sold. The geography of production is now organized in different areas depending on the kind of commodities that are produced and on the lead and sub-contracting firms.

The transformation of the global production system is becoming more and more intrusive in the private sphere. Productive flexibility demands for a workforce available at need, and this affects very deeply the temporality of life and social relationships outside the factory. The time of reproduction and the so called leisure time are subject to the rhythm of global production. Also for this reason the workforce finds it hard to organise itself, in a time when a big part of the organisation of labour develops outside the workplaces. From a technological point of view, it is obviously more plausible to find better machinery in Germany than in Romania, but often the workers’ experience does not change too much. To learn a job in manufacturing, in logistics, in construction and in other services takes often a few days. Of course the acquisition of skills requires more time, but many workers move from one place to another without great difficulties. In the manufacturing sector and in many services the tasks performed are relatively similar when Western and Eastern Europe are compared and operations are broken down into micro-movements, while quality levels are constantly monitored by computers. This type of manufacturing calls for a kind of labour that can keep up such a frenetic pace. The computer systems used, as well as the camera’s control, show that managers can constantly check and monitor production and often identify in real time any error or sabotage that may occur. The techniques and operational procedures employed are fairly standardized, but they are implemented differently in the various factories and workplaces depending on the local context.

Every factory contains a different combination of the workforce with a specific hierarchy of race, gender, nationality. The segmentation of the labour market produce a precise hierarchisation based on these elements of division. Not all workers are workers in the same way: someone is a skilled worker (maybe directly hired), someone else is a refugee-worker. Every workplace has its own hierarchies. Therefore, the myth of the factory as a place able to erase all the differences, if ever realistic, has definitively fade. The productive structure of every multinational corporation is based on different factories deployed in various places of the world which have to confront with different kinds of local societies, each one with proper characteristics inside and outside the factories. In general terms, we are facing a clear stratification of labour that is not based simply on the division between the West and the East. Every single node of a multinational corporation can manage different hiring practices and different patterns of organization of labour-relations inside the workplaces. The most relevant differences concern wages, production incentives, the timetable and the composition of the workforce. But working in the Western countries does not mean that wages are always higher, also because frauds are spread. In some cases it is impossible to cash in the wages because the employer disappears or, as for the cooperative enterprises, the worker must pay the membership fee. When we speak of the difference between wages in Italy and Romania, for example, we have to consider that for a Romanian that comes to Italy it is probably harder to get an Italian wage, because he or she will be often caught in this kind of frauds.

Employers use many instruments to divide the workforce: nationality, sexual differences, monetary bonuses, labour contracts. The composition of workforce is in fact often shaped through a rough study of different characteristics and based on stereotypes. So different nationalities are put against each other and racism is fostered. As it happens in many plants (Foxconn is an example) native workers are driven against migrants, but then this polarization also takes other shapes because migrants are not all in the same position and do not necessarily share the same condition at all levels. Racism is also present among migrants themselves and most of the time it’s not about cultural differences in itself, but of the form they assume inside the workplaces. The idea that inside workplaces there is an integration of migrant workers hides the fact that this entails a subordination to the factory hierarchies, i.e. to the logic of the ethnicization of labour. Migrants in the factories are presumed to be integrated when they stay in the place that societies arrange for them. Sometimes the division is gendered, because women are considered by the employers less antagonistic than men. Women, in fact, are often employed in the worst sections of the factory, in a system that is based on specific forms of patriarchy. Notwithstanding this, women are often able to produce the strongest forms of conflict, in Europe as in the rest of the world. While the representation of the working class is still very masculine, the chains of production are more and more feminine. Another instrument to manage workforce are the bonuses paid on the basis of job performances and productivity. It is a system of piece-work that spreads throughout Europe. Lastly, but perhaps more importantly, workers are often divided by labour contracts or through the sub-contracting system.

Nowadays, Europe is crisscrossed by simultaneous processes of migration (and sometimes of return), and relocation of production. The production processes and working conditions generate a continuous labour turnover and a push to mobility, trying in this way also to manage the conflict. Labour turnover has a double meaning: on the one hand, it is a process managed by employers fearing forms of work organization that can be employed when the workforce is very numerous; on the other hand, it is a workers’ power, even if an individual one. Freedom of movement in Europe is an expression of the workers’ power, even when the movement is from a precarious job to another.

The international economic crisis is accelerating the construction of a European labour market in which many countries can now rely on a workforce composition variously articulated. With its 28 member States, the European Union can now be regarded as a large labour market. According to the data provided by the European Commission, in 2013 there were about 26 millions of migrants inside the EU-28 (in a working-age between 15 and 64 years old); of these 10.3 million were EU citizens. These phenomena have taken on a mass dimension, as it is shown, on the one hand, by the migrations of people from Romania, Poland or Lithuania (but also, in recent year, from Italy, Spain and Portugal) and, on the other hand, by the productive investments in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Romania. But it is important to stress that mobility is not only forced by objective conditions. We can observe the formation of a low-wage multinational workforce whose strategies of mobility challenge employers’ expectations concerning the availability of labour and trade union’s prospects of treating unskilled migrants as ‘shock absorbers’. Perhaps the young worker of our story after some months will look for a better job elsewhere, and move abroad. Even if he or she usually doesn’t find a very different job, there is at least the opportunity to find a better wage. Work experiences in different contexts allow workers to accumulate a deep knowledge of labour migration, to develop cross-country job-search strategies and to compare the wages, working conditions and management practices they experienced in various countries. Migrant workers’ decision to stay or to leave depends on the availability of different employment opportunities, both in their countries of origin and across Europe.

As we know, the European Union enlargement allows free movement of workers. Despite a variable filtering for non-EU migrants and the recent limitations imposed to the EU citizens, this liberalization – though partial – is producing a strong mobility among workers that are aware of the opportunities offered by the EU-wide labour market. A significant part of the East-European workforce, especially the younger, has taken seriously those opportunities moving in this area through recruitment agencies, family networks and friendships or even individually, searching for better jobs. The aim of this movement is to broaden one’s chances of economic and social mobility. Migrant workers perceive their job as temporary. The weak attachment to work is also due to workers’ life trajectories and mobility strategies.

Usually this active use of mobility is perceived as a threat by some trade unions: because of lower wages and employment standards, the employers prefer to hire migrants, thus causing job displacements and increasing the unemployment levels of the local workforce. Nevertheless, the objective result is that these movements put into question the traditional organisation of the union and possibly the same idea of union. The question is whether the traditional union model is up to the mobile and informal labour – that is migrant labour. If the union only organises the workers in the long run and it is not therefore able to organise workers that are constantly moving in the European space, the problem of «unionizing» is then how to connect time and space of labour, while capital forcibly and constantly tries to separate them.

Many migrant workers are familiar with the trade union activities but the interests of migrants and trade unions often clash: unions’ concerns are framed primarily by a national focus, while migrants’ temporary perspective enacts individual exit strategies that are functional to the achievement of migratory projects that often span several countries. Trade union’s lack of interest in the condition of migrants hired by job-agencies, for instance, is due to the fact that the most stable and the native workers, who are often the main subject represented by the unions, benefit from temporary workers as the latter absorb the impact of the fluctuating demand of labour. In front of this challenging movement of Eastern European young labour force, which is composed of men and women in almost equal measure and crisscrosses Europe with an increasing experience of different working conditions and business control, unions and parties seem to be nothing but clumsy elephants.

 At this stage the role of the State is obviously quite different from the past, but we must not underestimate it, because it is essential in the continuous multiplication of laws that affect working conditions, levels of viability and profitability for businesses, but also the control of the conflict. While an undeniable process of homogenization is occurring on a legislative level, each European State sets its own constraints regarding, for example, the labour market or foreign investment or wage levels. Even though the demand of a minimum wage is an old idea, claiming it on the European level can be an important tool for the reorganization of this mobile labour force.

 The question of the convergence of some elements of the working conditions is today a crucial one in order to avoid that the interconnection of the work stories inside the transnational factory remains a simple sociological description. For this reason, claiming a European minimum wage could allow us to overcome the individual dimensions of precarity while enhancing mobility from one place to another. European minimum wage would allow limiting not only the threat of dislocation of production, but also the power of union bureaucracies. In Italy as in the rest of Europe, they are in most of the cases against it because it takes away a piece of the wage from their bargaining power. The question however is to understand that a European minimum wage will be possible as the outcome of a class struggle able to limit the constant devaluation of the work force which capital aspires to impose. In this way the factory of differences could launch on a European scale a political sign of global meaning.

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