The limits of the “platform economy”: why haven’t platforms taken over live music?

by Charles Umney (University of Leeds), Dario Azzellini (Cornell University) and Ian Greer (Cornell University)

NB: This blog summarises our research project “Limits of the platform economy: digitalization and makretization in live music”, funded by the Hans Boeckler Foundation

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It is often assumed that the “platform economy” is in the ascendancy, and is taking over more and more economic sectors. Because of this, much research on the matter has focused on characterising and evaluating this change: what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of this kind of work compared to more “traditional” jobs? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about it? Hence, most current research has looked at the experience of workers in industries which are already highly “platformised” (such as ride sharing, food delivery, or clickwork).

But given that the platform economy still involves only a small percentage of workers worldwide, it seems that some sectors must be more susceptible to platform takeover than others. Indeed, put this way, this sounds like a statement of the obvious. So it is surprising that so little research has examined which characteristics make a given labour market more or less hostile terrain for platform capitalists. Our study of live music in the UK and Germany suggests some answers to these questions.

Superficially, live music seems like the kind of sector that might be ripe for platformisation. High-profile early platforms intervened directly in the music industry, reshaping the relationship between musicians and their audiences (for example Napster or Myspace). Moreover, live music fits closely with the idea of the “experience economy” which features heavily in many platforms’ self-promotion. See, for instance, Sofar Sounds, which considers itself a dedicated live music platform and has collaborated with AirBnB and Uber to provide live music “experiences” in private individuals’ homes.

However, our research shows that live music is proving resistant to the platform model. We conducted a systematic review of live music intermediaries in our two countries, developing a comprehensive database of any enterprise which a) has a significant online presence, and b) aims to link up buyers and sellers in the live music labour market.

The sites we found included those helping musicians connect with other musicians; helping musicians connect with potential venues; or helping customers (such as individuals organising a private party or corporate event) to find musicians. We supplemented this with a number of interviews with key informants in both countries.

In the over 160 sites in our database, very few adopted a model consistent with the typical “platform”, and those that came closest to this tended to have a marginal presence, with little reason to believe they could become a major source of work for live musicians.

Why is this? First, we will summarise the kinds of enterprises we did find, and consider how and why they fell short of “platformisation”.

Types of (partial) digitalisation in live music

We divided our sample into clusters, identifying differing levels of digitalisation. In general, we found that, the more digitalised sites were, the more their function moved from that of a representative acting on the musician’s behalf (as with a “traditional” live music agent) towards providing a venue for amassing data and matching buyers and sellers.

The largest group, comprising almost half of our sample, were the websites of traditional music agents. Here, the online activity is merely one means of contacting an agency which likely does much of its business offline. Traditional agents typically represent a comparatively small number of acts, and are relatively selective about who is featured on their books. They may have a monopoly over specific acts, and being represented by an agent may constitute a significant career break for artists.

Traditional agents’ websites usually served as a means of advertising their bands and providing a means of contact. They do not tend to offer any kind of comparison-facilitating function (for instance, they rarely enable users to sort by price or “quality”, however defined). If a client wants to hire an act, they must then make off-site contact and the agent likely acts as the musician’s representative in negotiations. They may also actively prospect for work for their artists, and provide them with career development support.

Next, we identified a category which hybridises elements of the traditional agent model with characteristics of a digital platform. We called these the “digitalized agencies”. There were fewer of them, but they typically featured much larger numbers of acts. They normally catered to “function” work- i.e. where artists act as service providers, performing as hired entertainment or background music at private parties or corporate events.

These were different from the traditional agents in two main ways. First, they normally had much more open and accessible sign-up procedures (typically, acts had to fill in an online enquiry form including video or other media clips). Selectivity is generally lower. This explains the much larger lists of acts they tend to feature.

Second, the sites were more “customer-focused”, in that they marketed themselves primarily as a venue for customers to browse through and compare their acts: a price comparison site rather than an artist representative. Thus, they tended to provide more data: prices were often displayed up-front and could be used to order search results. And in some cases, acts could also be sorted according to rankings such as user-generated star ratings or other measures of “popularity”. These, however, tended to be rudimentary and sparsely-used, with few acts have more than a handful of user-submitted ratings.

Despite this greater digitalization, these sites still differed sharply from a genuine platform (even if some described themselves as one). The comparative data they amassed was highly limited. And most importantly, they retained significant human interlocution in organising transactions. Transactions were never fully automated: instead, the customer’s choice of an act was only a starting point, after which came further interpersonal negotiation, facilitated by a manager at the agency, to agree final arrangements with the band (which could be complex, given the unique circumstances of each gig which can affect the final price).

Finally, we identified a small group of sites which came closest to the platform model. Sites in this category usually marketed themselves towards musicians looking to build a profile as creative performers under their own name. Musicians and clients (such as clubs and concert halls, or even individuals looking to use their house as a music venue) could create profiles and post requests, to which others could attach their own profiles, leading to direct contact between account holders.

These sites were the most readily accessible, enabling instant signup with no managerial vetting. As such they tended to be by far the largest group in terms of numbers of acts featured.

They were also usually more sophisticated in the data they amassed for providing comparisons. They often sought to sync with other social media platforms, in some cases giving users “scores” by amalgamating activity across their other accounts- Twitter, Youtube, Soundcloud, and the like.

They also sometimes provided automated forms of labour discipline: for instance, one site featured automatic disconnection from the platform if a musician withdrew from an agreed engagement on three occasions.

However, we judged these “live music platforms” to have very limited reach. Often, the vast majority of act profiles appeared dormant, and evidently only functioned very sporadically as sources of work for their users. Many of the gigs advertised were poor quality ones, in which artists were expected to play for free or for very low pay. At this stage they appear patently unable to seriously support a professional musician’s career.

Indeed, through our interviews, we found that more established platforms were seeking to make changes to their business models, notably trying to partner with traditional agents as a means of accessing new market segments. This suggests severe limits to the mileage of the platform business model in live music.

Why haven’t platforms taken over in live music?

We believe there are three main reasons why the platform model has weak traction in live music.

First, because of the subjective and qualitative way in which value is assessed. Looking through the sites we identified, it was striking how little-used and rudimentary the comparative metrics for establishing “quality” were. Many act profiles only had a handful of star ratings, nearly all of which were five star, rendering them largely useless as a basis for comparison. Instead, users were more often encouraged to view a wide range of video or audio clips provided, which did enable comparisons but hardly the of automated, rapidfire kind enabled by platforms.

Secondly, because the field of live music is so fragmented. Different kinds of work (“function” versus “creative”, and then the varied different “scenes” and segments within these broad groupings) have different ways of working. Buyers in them look for fundamentally different things. Norms around pricing and standards are completely different. Thus, while musicians themselves may happily work in many different contexts, they would normally use different avenues to obtain different kinds of work, rather than a “one stop” platform serving all market segments.

Third, because the transaction itself contains so many contingencies that have to be renegotiated. For instance, travel, accommodation if necessary, repertoire, food provision, equipment: all of these may involve specific requirements on each gig, to the extent that qualitative personal oversight of transactions is seen as essential by all parties involved.

Does this matter for music work?

While platforms had not taken over, the kinds of digitalization we did observe has some important consequences for live musicians’ working conditions.

First, digitalization makes intermediaries less likely to function as a musician’s representative, and more likely to provide a customer-centric venue for comparison. This creates new risks for music workers. Agencies are less likely to invest time and resources into promoting their acts, and more likely to require that artists produce these things themselves (for instance by assembling Electronic Press Kits which are uploaded to a band’s profile). There are up-front costs for artists to gain market access, with often a relatively weak chance of significant new work opportunities as a result.

Another dilemma this poses for musicians is those occasions where they are required to state their starting fee upfront, to be sifted through by potential customers. This means musicians have to commit to a rough fee before hearing the details of a particular engagement (though there is limited scope for negotiation before finalising the gig).

A more representative intermediary such as a traditional agent, would instead take responsibility for negotiating potentially higher fees depending on the perceived means of the buyer. Musicians are thus “frozen” into specific prices which have to be set with the lower end of the market in mind.

Second, the model magnifies price competition by creating a new forum where potentially thousands of acts can be rapidly compared. The vast “reserve army” of musicians is marshalled into a new and expanded “shop window”, and at the click of a mouse they can be sorted from least to most expensive or vice versa. Unsurprisingly, we found cases of extreme low fees on certain sites, including one where a four-piece band was offering a starting price of £100 for work in London (the average per-member fee of £25 compares to a Musicians’ Union-recommended going rate of over £150).

Finally, however, it was striking to note that many of these sites combined the wider reach of digitalization, with a continuation of highly opaque and “offline” methods of profit-extraction. For instance, some sites may take a suggested budget from a customer enquiry, and search through acts on their roster to find one who will work for the lowest fee. They may not reveal the customer’s actual budget to the band, and in this way they can accumulate huge commissions that might be as much as, or more, than artists themselves receive. Expanded digital reach does not necessarily mean greater transparency.

Limits to the platform economy?

These websties, in the vast majority of cases, are not platforms. Indeed, a detailed look at live music shows how some of the inherent characteristics of the sector militate against platformisation.

This means we need to reconsider the assumption that platform-type organisational forms are on an inexorable upward trend. While this may be true in some industries, we suggest there are other sectors- where the nature of services is complex and contingent, where markets are fragmented, and where judgements of value are highly subjective- which are likely to prove inhospitable for this kind of organisational form.

Nonetheless, the organisations we examined were increasingly creatures of partial digitalization, a sort of “missing link” between an offline service market and a platform. In many cases, this presented consequences for workers that resemble those already identified with genuine platforms.

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Why the young in Germany do not mobilize against precarity

by Vera Trappmann

Vera Trappmann

Employment in precarious conditions in Germany as in many other countries is above all young, feminine and migratory. More than half of German under-24-year-olds have only a short-term work contract; of the under-35-year-olds this is still 30 percent; half of all temporary workers are under age 35; 23 percent are employees in the low-wage sector; 26% of 18-24-year-olds live under the poverty line. As if that were not enough, one-fourth of those in educational transitional programs, 10% are neither in work nor in training, (so-called NEETs,) and 6% of young people leave school without any qualification. However, interestingly, the young precarious workers do not really mobilize against precarity, at least not massively. Even under conditions of sectoral relaxed labour markets, young precarious workers tend not to engage in conflict with their employers or participate in protest but rather remain passive, sympathetic supporters of trade unions and wait until their earning situation is no longer precarious before they mobilize (Thiel and Eversberg 2017).

In the following I will try to explain this puzzle by looking at subjective factors that lead to or hamper mobilization. The focus on subjective factors does not dismiss the role of context and norms (Menz and Nies 2016), it is just a dimension that has been neglected so far. I will use Hirschman’s (1970) scheme of exit, voice and loyalty as potential reactions towards precarity and explain in turn what leads to individual strategies of loyalty, voice or rather exit. We can distinguish push and pull factors on the individual biographical level for each phenomenon. The analysis draws on results of the PREWORK project[1] where we conducted 60 biographic interviews with precariously living young adults under age 35.

Voice, Exit and Loyalty as strategies towards precarity

Voice

Voice is understood here as the mobilization of workers. Other than classic literature on mobilization I will not look at organisational factors (Kelly 1998) but at individual biographical motifs.  First, and very uniquely, mobilization in our sample occurred only among those who have high cultural capital (higher academic degrees), and second who ascribe to their occupation a high priority. They had a strong occupational identity with intrinsic work motivation, such as in knowledge workers, researchers, artists or medical doctors. If the occupation has no high priority in life, there is no mobilization.

Furthermore, third, a precondition for activation seemed to be a consciousness of injustice, or the experience of injustice in the course of one’s biography, and particularly social injustice. The critique of concrete working conditions in a profession then led to engagement in the field of work and especially mobilization. Fourth, we found that a highly developed feeling of self-efficacy is vital for mobilization. By self-efficacy we follow Bandura’s (1997) understanding as being the conviction that one can achieve through one’s own behaviour certain results, while the dimension “environmental control” distinguishes whether events are influenced through individual actions (agency [i.e. indirectly]) or rather through external circumstances such as luck, destiny, or other powerful persons and the like. He distinguishes four types of self-efficacy— based on the self-perceived level of self-efficacy and possibility for controlling the environment — that lead either to social engagement and protest, to apathy and resignation, or to an over-conformity to the environment.

Fifth, in all mobilized respondents there occurred a conflictive separation from parents. It appeared almost as if the widespread modern approach to upbringing leads to an a-politization, and that the rejection of parents’ lifestyles promotes political engagement.

Pull-factors played also a huge role, it were a strong recruitational field of societally critical student groups, subcultures, personal role models and a range of available ideologies and appealing narratives that sound demanding but not impossible.

If we look at Noah as an example. He is 28, broke off his studies and took up a carpenter’s apprenticeship. His trade he considers almost an artistic activity, and it provides him with a strong occupational identity. For Noah, it is less the concrete working conditions in a firm that are important, and more the general working conditions in the capitalist system, that he rejects. Therefore, he joined a cooperative in which the incomes of the members are pooled and divided among all, so that all members are less dependent on individual orders and less on the ability and necessity to work constantly. For Noah the process of separation from his parents had a strong influence on his engagement in the politics of work. As his parents separated in a painful custody battle, Noah fled into in the punk scene and lived on the street. At age 18, he travelled for almost two years by bicycle through Europe and during this time] read leftist literature. His experience of the failure of the small-family model drove him to seek togetherness in alternative, collective structures. He lives in leftist-oriented communal housing project and engages himself in an anarchist union movement. His activity in the politics of work is for him a strong expression of his estrangement from the failed life-model of his parents.

Loyalty

The contrary case – no critique of conditions, but rather adaptation to them — presumes, one could say, is the absence of all these factors, though we can in fact elaborate a few own factors that foster loyalty. Above all this is an effect of the normalization of precarity: it is no longer perceived as something bad. Rather, it is considered something temporary; a difficult situation that can, when the youth phase has passed, or with a substantial educational investment, resolve itself. Here a strong belief in meritocracy is of consequence. If I invest enough, the system will reward me. Here is also the reason why, with equally high self-efficacy as in the “voice” type, no collective action ensues, but instead the logic of individual maximation prevails, with precarity remedied individually. At the same time, here the individual resources of actors are already significantly taken up by the management of the challenging, stressful youth phase. Too many things are waiting at the same time, above all the social pressure to “find yourself”. That is accompanied by the so-called neoliberal, unauthentic Self which, in the words of the economist Wrenn (2015), totally inflates the perception of one’s own ability to act, and in particular the control over the environment and tries to make the individual believe that all changes to the environment should be possible on the basis of individual agency and individual responsibility for everything. The unauthentic Self cannot recognize structures anymore. Adaptation or perhaps rather blockade; to undertake something in some direction; these motivations originate in great measure from precariousness. As Butler (2009) does, one can speak here of the physical and emotional vulnerability of all life, against which individuals try to immunize themselves. Many of our blocked subjects still suffer today from effects of childbirth, childhood neglect, the experience of violence, or chronic health problems. The experience of chronic illness or social mobbing may lead to loneliness and isolation. It is possible however that individuals in this type of situation may over the course of their biography decide on voice mechanisms if their precarity persists even beyond youth.

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Anna is an interesting case in Loyalty. Anna is 30, has two Master’s degrees, several internships behind her, international work and academic experience and up to now has had still no work contract lasting more than 6 months. As an adopted child in an upper middle-class family, she enjoyed generous support during her education and is financially secured against sudden need by her parents as well as by her long-standing boyfriend and now husband. Despite this, the long job-application phase after her studies she has spent in a state of depression. Anna is still searching for a suitable occupational profile for herself. Although she suffers from insecurity and her current work situation in a public administrative position and complains of the short-term contracts, she holds fast to the idea that through sufficient effort she will at some future time find a secure position.

Exit

The third variant, exit, means here above all the retreat into the private, or, if within employment, a switch of sector, a change from formal work to informal or even illegal work or resignation from employment. The escape motif ranges from taking a sabbatical, regular pauses, leaving on a trip or bike by bus, or all the way to founding a permanent commune in Spain.

Among biographical factors in taking the exit option we identify the lack of recognition. But also, young adults who are trying to find their initial place in the occupational world and fail, may then rather give up especially if the work is disagreeable and makes them sick, and then also choose the exit option. And when an alternative income is available, one can also rather afford to choose exit. The welfare state makes possible for some young women an early motherhood that, also after a separation from the partner, is financially secured if only on a low level, and thereby the mother role may replace the employment or occupational orientation.

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Cynthia is a good example for a highly qualified person who due to lack of recognition chooses exit. She is 35 at the time of the interview and like Anna she has both a German and international Master’s degree and had already collected a multitude of positions in her work history, in precarious jobs in different areas (at university, gastronomy, logistics). The option of doctoral studies, research and teaching she rejects because in her experience, university working conditions are unhealthy (overwork, stress, lack of security and recognition). As co-researcher in a research project in which she was employed for two years on renewable research-assistant contracts, she received — despite her responsible job — no sufficient pay, job security, social security or the possibility of co-determination in the organizational unit.

Though Cynthia saw in this work at least in part an opportunity for her own self-realization, this ultimately did not turn out so for her, so that she gradually withdrew from the labour market and [finally] emigrated to Spain to live in a commune.

Any scope for change?

We have shown here to what extent, irrespective of labour market, sector, or welfare state institutions, the mobilization of workers depends on biographical resources. If biographical factors play a huge role, then it is legitimate to ask if and how can biographical conditions be changed to make young workers more critical towards precarity? The answer is mainly through changes in the conditions of social context. The management of the effects of a traumatic childhood is best left to therapists, but the framework conditions for the politicization of work can however be adjusted by diverse societal actors, certainly unions, but also media, politics, NGOs and researchers.

In Germany, the protest of the precarious youth in comparison to other countries developed late. Possibly the protest will continue. Strikes by deliveroo drivers (i.e. riders, couriers), and collective wage increases for student part-timers could be an indication. It should however succeed to create communication spaces in which collective identities are formed that can exercise social criticism. In consideration of the scarce effect that can be had on biographical push-factors in the short term, only pull-factors remain as an arena for action, above all the attraction of ideology; here it should succeed to underscore the fact that social inequality is not an economic necessity or the result of different individual investments, but rather the result of political struggles in the arena of work. (Bourdieu 1998)

[1] www.prework.eu

 

References

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy in changing societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Bourdieu, P. (1998) Gegenfeuer. Wortmeldungen im Dienste des Widerstands gegen die neoliberale Invasion. Frankfurt: Büchergilde Gutenberg.

Butler, J. (2009) Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London, New York: Verso

Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kelly, J.E. (1998) Rethinking industrial relations mobilisation, collectivism and long waves. New York: Routledge.

Menz, W./ Nies, S. (2016) Gerechtigkeit und Rationalität – Motive interessenpolitischer Aktivierung. WSI Mitteilungen, (7), 530.

Thiel, M./Eversberg, D. (2017) Normalisierte Prekarität und kollektive Solidarität. Eine junge Beschäftigtengeneration entdeckt die Interessenvertretung wieder, in: Berliner Debatte Initial, (3), 58.

Wrenn, M. V. (2015). Agency and neoliberalism. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 39(5), 1231.

 

“Revolting Prostitutes” Book Launch

Book coverOn the 8th of November, CERIC hosted a panel discussion as a book launch event for the highly anticipated book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Mac and Smith are sex worker rights activists with SWARM and SCOT-PEP, and their book is a deeply researched yet highly accessible analysis of current sex work debates. Juno Mac is also known for her TED talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.

Revolting Prostitutes discusses current debates on sex work, national and international sex worker self-organisation, and how sex worker rights fit within an intersectional critique of inequality in society. Challenging both sides of the sex work debates in the UK (those who see sex work as a vocation and those who believe sex work is inherently violence against women), Mac and Smith argue that sex work is inherently violent not because of the sex involved, but because it is work.

CERIC is one of the leading research institutes in the UK when it comes to expertise on sex work as a topic of labour and work. The organiser and panel chair Lilith Brouwers is a CERIC postgraduate researcher into employment relations in sex work in England. Joining Juno Mac and Molly Smith on the panel was Nadine Gloss, CERIC postgraduate researcher into sex worker self-organisation and representation in Germany.

After an introduction of all panel members, Mac and Smith explained about the importance of seeing sex work as an issue of labour, and the influence this has had on their book. With an analysis of sex work as a form of labour, academics and activists can use a rights framework for their work, strengthening the demands sex worker organisations make of institutions like governments, police, NGOs and employers.

Nadine Gloss discussed the main obstacles she found in researching sex worker organisation: gaining access to and trust from sex workers and sex worker-led organisations. With any labour ethnographic research comes the challenge of finding participants willing to be observed within their organisation, but understandably sex workers are more wary than most of researchers misrepresenting their work.

Another point of discussion was the differences panel members had noticed between sex worker organising in the UK and in Germany. While sex worker led organisations in Germany aim to present sex work as a free choice – in response to discourses which present sex workers as victims – UK sex worker rights organisations identify closer to working class movements which do not present work as inherently positive. This identification specifically as workers also builds solidarity between other social movements such as the migrant rights, prison abolitionist, and LGBT+ rights movements.

After questions from attendants of the event, Mac and Smith were kind enough to sign copies of their book during the wine reception following the panel.

Book Launch

Studying Finnish labour law: reflections from a research visit to Leeds

by Liisa Lähteenmäki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (University of Turku)

Liisa Lahteenmaki presenting at CERIC Seminar

Liisa Lahteenmaki talks about labour law and political discourses in Finland.

I had great pleasure to be a visiting researcher at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) in September-October 2018. I found CERIC to be an inspiring, multi-disciplinary research environment hosting a wide array of projects dealing with contemporary key employment issues, such as platform employment, employees’ health and welfare, and regulation of transnational labour markets. I also had the opportunity to give a CERIC research seminar about my current research project, which examines the changes made to the Finnish labour and employment legislation during the last 20 years.

Since 2003, Finland has witnessed a period of conservative or right-wing governments, the country being led by either the Centre party or the National Coalition. Historically, protective and empowering labour and employment legislation was forged by social democratic governments, and the period from the 1970s throughout the 1980s is carved into the collective memory of the nation as the years of stable progress in employment rights, labour protections and social welfare. This development was abruptly broken by the 1990s recession as the repercussions mainly meant degradation of welfare, wages, education, health services and stable employment.

Since the 1990s, neoliberal policies and market enhancing ideologies have swept Finland similarly to any other country, rendering the currency and ideals of labour protection and social welfare under attack. The triumphs of the welfare state were suddenly conceptualized as problems, even obstacles to economic growth. These turns have inevitably had effects on law-making.

Besides being interested in the trends and changes in labour and employment legislation per se, my research discusses the interplay between legislation, the reality of the labour markets, and other employment relevant phenomena in the Finnish society. I am particularly interested in the practice of law-making bases on the ideals of unbiased information and broad participation while the outcome, the actual law, is seen as a result of disinterested and rational decision making. Furthermore, I am interested in examining the interplay of legislation imposed and passed in ‘separate’ fields of society that are nevertheless always unavoidably interconnected: Legislation regulating migration, economy or human rights have percussions in the labour markets and vice versa, and this tends to be  ignored in discussions about changing employment and welfare.

Law itself upholds practices of sectoral decision making by, for example, restricting assessments of influence to sometimes generic issues (e.g. influences on the economy and administrative burdens), and by repeating the idea of law as an endogenous system, with its own internal rules and discourses. Laws regulating employment nevertheless always influence a multitude of other domains in everyday life: family and habitation, migration, and education, just to mention a few. Also, events taking place in ‘real life’ – that is, migration, families and lifestyle choices people make – do affect labour market outcomes. In this vein, my research examines what the possible repercussions of labour legislation are beyond the obvious, and how this ‘two-way traffic’ should be better taken into account when planning and justifying new labour legislation.

From the starting point of the idea of social protection as a critical concept, I will be evaluating the changes in the Contracts of Employment Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Unemployment Benefits Act. My research will ask whether we are still following the original paradigm and ideals of labour law (protecting the weaker party of the employment relationship) and Nordic welfare state (equality and leveling down of social and economic differences) when making changes to labour legislation. Borrowing from Lappi-Seppälä (2007) and Pratt (2008), I will use the idea of Scandinavian Exceptionalism in mapping the trends of labour legislation through some of the most critical years in the Finnish economy: From the unparalleled economic depression of the 1990s to the joining to the EU, the miracle of Nokia, the closures of the paper mills, and the rise of the gaming industry (e.g. Supercell and Rovio) in the 2000s. While Lappi-Seppälä and Pratt refer to the penal policies and the low levels of imprisonment in the Nordic countries, I will use the term in reference to the employment policies which have traditionally emphasized both the social democratic model of tripartite negotiations and the recognition of the unions, as well as the idea of social protection over maximum profits and insecure employment.

It truly was encouraging to be part of this community for a while. I would like to express my gratitude especially to CERIC Member Dr. Jo Ingold for taking an active part in organizing my visit. I hope that my visit in CERIC and Leeds University will lead to inspiring cooperation as my aim is to broaden my research to include international comparisons. It would indeed be an honour to work together again with CERIC colleagues.

CERIC Doctoral Conference 2018

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Emma Partlow

By Emma Partlow, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology (University of Birmingham)

I was honoured to have been invited to present my research at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) Doctoral Conference on the 20th June at Leeds University Business School. As a doctoral student from the University of Birmingham, it was a pleasure to network within a room full of people who articulated original and innovative research in such an engaging manner.

The conference encompassed a wide-range of disciplines, including: Social Policy, Languages and Cultural Studies, Psychology, Performance and Cultural Industries and of course, Business and Management in its many forms. It was exciting to see how a diverse range of talks could marry together under the banner of Inequalities in the Workplace. These talks encompassed everything from: sexual harassment in the workplace, strategic human resource management, apprenticeships, inequalities in skills developments during recessions, collective labour conflicts in China, case study on the Nigerian Electricity Distribution Sector, sex work, organisational stress management, pay gaps and inequality, labour insecurity, marginalisation of theatre lighting designers, power in modern management, and the employment experiences of people with Multiple Sclerosis. Not forgetting the key note talk from Professor Chris Forde who kicked off the day so eloquently with the ‘Inequalities of Work in the 21st Century – The Rise of the Gig Economy’.

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Participants of the Doctoral Conference

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my research project looking at the impact of equalities legislation on disabled people in the workplace, which critically analyses the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the policy context of the Government’s White Paper Improving Lives. The audience were receptive to my theoretical framing, which sees me draw upon the concept of bio-power and subtle coercion in the form of Libertarian Paternalism.

Doctoral students eloquently presented their work and the day flew by with methodological discussions, engaging debate and suggestions within an entirely supportive and ‘safe’ space. It has to be said that this was one of the most supportive academic spaces I have had the pleasure to participate in. The development of spaces where doctoral students can engage in supportive discussion about their work is important and something we must actively continue to arrange.  I am sure I am not alone when I say that questions, comments and suggestions received in this manner are invaluable and can go a long way in supporting a thought-process or the development of ideas.

I would like to thank CERIC and Leeds University Business School for their generosity and hospitality. Not only did they host this doctoral conference and provided refreshments and lunch but prizes were provided for the prize winners and I am honoured to have been chosen as one of these prize winners. The prizes were put forward to help with the cost of attending conferences of choice; I think this is an excellent incentive to encourage people to share their work, regardless of the stage they are at within their doctoral journey.

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From left to right: joint 1st prize winner for best paper presentation Maisie Roberts (CERIC), Dr Jo Ingold, joint 1st prize winner  Marina Boulos (CERIC), joint winner for the best poster presentation Sophie Morrell (Bradford) and 2nd prize winner for best paper presentation Emma Partlow (Birmingham)

The success of this doctoral conference has inspired me to adopt the theme of ‘Inequalities and Work’ to host a conference at the University of Birmingham so please do watch this space! It would be my pleasure to welcome some familiar and friendly faces to Birmingham and to hear how your work has developed since this event.

Brexit, EU labour migration & worker rights: the story so far

Immigration and restricting EU migrant rights to freedom of movement were core issues in the lead up to the referendum vote, yet agreement on the detail of a new UK immigration policy continues to be a way off, leaving employers, workers and their families in limbo. Researchers based in the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at LUBS working on labour migration, mobility and changing patterns of work, have been working with different interest groups (business, unions and civil society) in a unique way to enhance understanding of how these groups are coping with the uncertain impacts of the Brexit vote. This exploratory research provides insight into the ongoing challenges of trying to anticipate, respond to and shape migration policy for and on behalf of their members in an uncertain context. This blog sets out the background and how the CERIC team’s research agenda is being shaped by bringing different interest groups together on this emotive and evolving topic.

Current context

After the BREXIT vote in June 2016, UK and EU negotiators signaled that reaching agreement on the rights of EU and UK citizens already living in another member state was a priority. Yet, it was only on 8th of December 2017 that UK and EU negotiators published a joint report outlining principles on the treatment of EEA nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU and on 21st June 2018, that the UK government announced details of the ‘settled status[1]’ scheme. Campaign groups point to many ‘unsettled’ questions about this process and the new forms of regulation of EU labour mobility post-Brexit. An immigration bill was announced in January 2017 but was subsequently put on hold until wider Brexit negotiations are progressed. The UK government has indicated EU freedom of movement will end, but migration policy continues to be shaped by the wider negotiations with the EU and ongoing internal political processes and policy analysis. The Home Secretary instructed the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)[2] to report by September 2018 on the impact of EEA workers on the UK labour market and the Home Affairs Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Post-Brexit Migration Policy.[3] Thus, there continues to be both formal and informal spaces for dialogue between different groups of social actors seeking to shape these outcomes.

While these deliberative processes are ongoing, net migration has slowed considerably since the referendum vote. According to the ONS[4], the largest drop in net migration to the UK to occur in decades was experienced in the period June 2016 to June 2017 falling from 336,000 to 230,000: three quarters of this fall was due to the drop in migration from the EU. More recent statistics show that migration from the EU has continued to fall. The ONS reports notes that ‘the numbers of EU citizens coming to the UK looking for work decreased by 58,000 over the year to September 2017, particularly driven by the fall in numbers of citizens from EU15 and EU8[5] countries (24,000 and 18,000 respectively). For the latter, this is the lowest number recorded since accession. Recent polls[6] suggest that the UK general public’s perception of immigration has softened since the Brexit referendum, yet the ONS migration data are indicative of the material effects felt by workers, and by extension employers, of the ongoing uncertainty of how the UK will regulate EU labour mobility post-Brexit.

Employers, legal advisors, trade unions, civil society and faith groups and local, national and international authorities all have concerns around the implications of Brexit for their various constituents and are variously involved in the political debates noted above. The positions and actions of these different interest groups, therefore, have important implications for the changing socio-economic relationship between the UK and the European Union and for the UK’s own social model. Some of these groups seek to be a counterweighing power to social, political and media forces seeking a ‘hard’ Brexit outcome and stricter regulation of EU labour migration to the UK. These groups are also critical in shaping the environment that affects the everyday experience of those that exercised their right to free movement between the UK and the EU. CERIC’s research has been on exploring actions and reactions of these groups within this extraordinary period of uncertainty by asking a set of inter-related questions: How do different social actors imagine the migration landscape post-Brexit? What challenges and consequences of Brexit do they anticipate for labour mobility? How are they formulating policy positions and trying to shape the debate around the new post-Brexit immigration system?

 

Brexit roundtable

CERIC BREXIT and labour mobility roundtable
September 2017

By critically exploring the competing visions of what the UK’s new social model might look like and bringing together the voices of different interest groups we are generating new data and promoting dialogue as part of our commitment to developing research that is co-produced: giving different stakeholders a voice in shaping the key research questions and design[7]. The framing of these questions aims to not only understand and amplify these diverse voices but also to bring different actors together to discuss complex questions. To realise this aim CERIC researchers have undertaken scoping interviews and both hosting and participating in roundtable events exploring common concerns and areas of difference with respect to the question of labour mobility around four connected and overlapping themes, employment and legal frameworks; social protection; regulating labour mobility and migration policy. For example, in September 2017, CERIC held a roundtable with employer groups including the Chamber of Commerce and Sector Skills bodies, civil society organisations campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and trade unions. Members of the CERIC team have also participated in roundtable events hosted by other partners including the Chamber of Commerce and regional migrant support networks and undertaken wider interviews with employment lawyers, faith and community organisations. The following summarises the themes emerging from these discussions and we conclude by setting out the implications for our research agenda.

 

The significance of labour mobility and freedom of movement

The different groups taking part in the research had contrasting positions in advance of the referendum vote. For example, most, but not all, trade unions advocated for ‘remain’ and were generally in favour of continuation of the free movement of workers. Business organisations took a more neutral stance due, in part, to business members being both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ supporters, reflecting that some sectors such as hospitality, construction and the public sector are much more likely to be adversely affected by restrictions in the movement of EU workers, whereas other parts of their constituency were less likely to employ migrant workers. Unsurprisingly, those campaigning for the rights of EU citizens were in favour of remaining in the EU. Overall there was limited reflection given by employer or worker representatives on the merits or challenges presented by the existing policy of freedom of movement. Much more emphasis was placed on what might come next. There was an acceptance (albeit for some, a very reluctant acceptance) that there will be restrictions placed on future migration from the EU.

The discussion developed more broadly to cover future scenarios for the UK economy informed, in the main, by existing understanding of what had led to pre-Brexit levels of EU worker migration to the UK. These drivers were seen by business and worker representatives as inextricably linked to economic considerations such as UK and EU labour markets, pay and wages, skills supply and demand, levels of employment (and under-employment) and UK trade and investment decisions. Yet, the civil society groups that were campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK reminded us that, while key drivers for migration is often work and employment, there also many social factors that shape labour mobility such as the quest for family re-union or education. In this regard a worrying report by colleagues at the University of Birmingham has been published recently[8], highlighting the legal limbo in which many EU families will find themselves in the field of family re-union. These observations made it problematic to talk about migration policy in isolation and illustrates the need for future migration policy to be developed with reference to wider policy considerations.  Rather than re-thinking the regulation of migration in isolation, remarks from the participants reflect that post-Brexit migration policy needs to be developed in the context of wider economic and social considerations.  This accords for example with the objectives of the current MAC commission on the employment of EEA workers which seeks to ‘aligning the UK immigration system with a modern industrial strategy (p20),’ yet many other aspects of related policy also need to be considered in terms the affect worker rights, labour standards, social and welfare rights.

Visions for EU labour migration under different Brexit scenarios

Different visions of future migration policy were expressed by the various stakeholder groups. Employer organisations taking part in the CERIC research were, over-time, less ardently free market oriented than might have been expected.  Initial positions stated by employer organisations in the months immediately after the referendum strongly expressed the desire for open migration regimes to meet the needs of employers seeking sourcing both high and lower skilled workers[9].  Over time, the tone expressed by some employer groups had shifted slightly to the acceptance of a migration system that may be more restrictive due to the need to be mindful of ‘politically acceptable’ outcomes. FlipchartHowever, umbrella organisations such as the CBI and Chamber have continued to push government for greater certainty on the rights of their EU workers, on hiring from EU countries during the negotiation period and to avoid overly bureaucratic processes for post-Brexit hires. One employer group, the CITB, were hopeful that a case could be made for special conditions to more easily allow recruitment from the EU to address ‘strategically important’ skills shortages. Others, such as the British Hospitality Association (BHA) have suggested a sector-based quota system for hospitality, considering that predicted annual recruitment need is over 100,000 people, assuming zero labour turnover amongst British born workers.[10]  The likely restrictions associated to the terms of residency for workers under these quota systems need however to be considered as part of the wider social implications that migration reform has on migrants’ rights and those of their families.

debateThe TUC and union participants in the CERIC roundtable were more clearly advocating for free movement and for the importance of free trade and the single market as an important mechanism in establishing a ‘level playing field’ making particular reference to the value of the Social Chapter[11] and its benefits for both ‘good’ businesses and for workers. Underpinning this position was a common assumption that withdrawal from the EU would lead to employment protections being weakened, threatening a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of worker rights and employment practices that also adversely affect those ‘good’ employers. There have been public assurances from the Government that workers’ rights will be maintained and even strengthened but many, including trade unionists, remain skeptical that this will be the case.

Current activity

The current activity of different interest groups could be grouped into three categories: developing more intelligence on labour mobility issues affecting members; developing support and guidance for constituents and looking to shape the political debate. The employer bodies participating in CERIC discussions were trying to improve data and analysis on the use of migrant labour amongst their membership to help assess the potential impact on the future workforce. They were also developing understanding of the potential for and limitations of employers using alternative strategies to make up for any loss of EU worker recruitment[12] through for example more training and development of indigenous workers or investment in new technologies. Yet the employer groups noted that gaps remained in their understanding of patterns of migrant labour demand or the longer term historical drivers that had shaped labour migration in specific sectors and regions. Many unions and employers were using legal services to keep themselves up to date with the negotiations between the UK and the EU, advising EU migrants among their members on how to apply for permanent residence under the current regulation. For example, the BHA is providing materials to help ensure that workers can exercise their rights to certification of permanent residency where applicable. This work also aims to have a positive effect in terms of boosting goodwill with EU workers towards hospitality sector employers. Trade unions were also directly engaging with EU migrant workers and community networks to provide advice to those concerned about their rights during the transition period.

Influencing the debate

CERIC’s initial research involved participants from international, national and regional organisations in order to explore the nature of dialogue at, and between, different levels.  At the international level, UK civil society groups have been campaigning to develop alliances with those leading campaigns promoting the interests of UK citizens in Europe and engaging directly with the EU negotiators to stress that EU labour mobility should be an intrinsic part of integration undertaken by the people of Europe themselves rather than a purely economic matter deriving from the rules of the single market. At the national level, all groups are making representations to government through formal and informal channels including to the relevant parliamentary scrutiny committees of DEXEU and Economic Affairs and the Home Office appointed commission on EEA migration being undertaken by the MAC. Regional groups, perhaps inevitably, made reference to the possibility of regional flexibilities in any migration system, notably to meet particularly localised skills needs. This focus is shaped by broader political tensions around the devolution of powers to the UK nations and regions of the UK including the devolution of budgets around skills training and infrastructure. This view was given focus by an early report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which contained six proposed options for the new immigration policy one of which included the suggestion of sub-state solutions to migration policy[13].

Conflicting and Common issues

Our roundtable discussions included some robust (yet cordial) difference of opinion around:  visions of future policy and the impact of new migration regulations on employers and citizens. In particular we noticed different understandings of what “regulation” means. Employer bodies associated migration policies with the possible risk of increased bureaucracy, notably at the point of recruitment. In contrast, trade union representatives regarded regulation positively in the form of protections of standards for workers. Unions stressed that proposals requiring workers to have employer sponsors could make migrant workers more dependent upon those employers, limiting their voice. An obvious paradox emerges in that employers were highlighting the cost of compliance and unions the cost of non-compliance or regulation that enables the potential for greater exploitation of workers, thereby lowering labour standards.

In terms of common threads, there were four areas where there was a convergence of views: firstly, the need to assure security for those EU workers already in the UK and their families; secondly, that student numbers should not be included in migration statistics; and, thirdly, that there was need for greater dialogue between different groups of stakeholders to build a better consensus on the way forward, not just toward Brexit, but after the exit date and beyond. Finally, it was also notable that there was a common view amongst stakeholders that investment in local, indigenous, labour was seen as a possible alternative strategy that could mitigate against the need for migrant labour. This runs counter to an alternative perspective: the  skills and training of indigenous workers could be seen as positively related to the use of migrant labour. This is a theme that the interim MAC report of March 2018 noted,[14] providing illustrations of how the recruitment of skilled European workers contributed to improved training levels. The final report by MAC on EEA workers, due in September 2018, will look specifically at the impact of the employment of EEA workers on the UK resident population, including the impact on training.

Next steps

It remains to be seen how UK government and EU negotiators will re-shape labour migration regulation to adequately address the demands of civic, business and labour organisations in the UK while giving regard to the outcome of the referendum vote. This continues to take place within an uncertain and volatile political environment.  The early stage research undertaken by CERIC researchers has provided insights into the ongoing challenges and activity of different groups trying to anticipate and shape policy appropriately for and on behalf of their members. Key themes emerged for the future directions for research. This includes the need to improve understanding of the regional and sectoral dimensions of the ‘EU workforce’, how patterns of migrant employment have developed and the roles that different institutional actors have played in facilitating these trends and finally, how migration policy will evolve in relation to related (socio-) economic policy such as the UK Industrial Strategy.

This requires taking more historical and sociologically informed perspectives to help move the debate forward. A deeper analysis will help different interest groups anticipate the implications of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ BREXIT scenarios. The co-production approach has illustrated the willingness of different parties to strengthen and deepen the level of debate, enhance understanding of different positions and provide opportunities to influence debate at the local, national and international levels. Participants recognised the value of exploring policy proposals through joint analysis of tensions and common ground to help unpack the content of proposed policy develop understanding of potential impacts on the rights and responsibilities of different groups helping to move the debate beyond current political narratives focused primarily on annual immigration targets. CERIC researchers will continue to bring these voices together, highlighting points of tensions as well as commonalities, contributing to the development of research informed public debate and policy that will shape the social model of a post-Brexit Britain that will, whatever the outcome of specific migration policy, to continue to be inextricably linked to that of its European neighbours.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families/applying-for-settled-status

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/impact-of-eea-and-non-eea-workers-in-uk-labour-market-responses

[3] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/inquiry4/

[4] Office for National statistics. Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: February 2018 Available at:  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2018#fewer-eu-migrants-coming-to-the-uk-for-work

[5] EU15 country members prior to the 2004 enlargement; EU8 those joining in the 2004 enlargement

[6] YouGov Top Issues Trackers (2017-2018); Ipsos-MORI Issues Index (May2018)

[7] For a discussion of co-production in social science research see for example https://www.n8research.org.uk/view/5163/Final-Report-Co-Production-2016-01-20.pdf

[8] https://eurochildren.info/2018/03/28/a-generation-of-children-of-eu-parents-to-be-lost-in-the-intricacies-of-brexit-research-reveals/

[9] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/policy-maker/policy-reports-and-publications/business-brexit-priorities.html

[10] http://www.bha.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/BHA-Brexit-Consultation-11116.pdf

[11] https://www.coe.int/en/web/turin-european-social-charter

[12] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/Business%20Brexit%20Checklist%20BCC.pdf

[13] https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/an-immigration-strategy-for-the-uk

[14] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/694494/eea-workers-uk-labour-market-interim-update.pdf

CERIC members publish Work, Employment and Society Special Issue

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Early career researchers, Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Kate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney have published a Special Issue of the high-ranking journal Work, Employment and Society.

The issue “In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers” contains pieces spanning geographic contexts from China to Chile and Britain to Brussels. The issue follows the 2016 Work, Employment and Society conference which was organised and hosted by Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds. Authors from Finland, Hong Kong, Germany, Denmark, Peru and the UK have contributed excellent pieces on workers including taxi-drivers, couriers, managers, mine and public-sector workers. In the round, they offer a close interrogation of the notion of precarity and the insecurity it produces, bringing in issues relating to worker struggle, the standard employment relationship and supply chain.

In their introduction, the CERIC editors take to task the concept of ‘precarity’, arguing instead that a focus on ‘processes of precarisation’ may be more analytically helpful for understanding the range of contexts in which the term is applied. They also point to the need to think about work and labour in the broadest terms, emphasizing a ‘need to address precariousness in the realm of social reproduction and post-wage politics’ as well as more formal studies of employment.

The Special Issue is on Open Access until 2nd July.