Covid-19 and the impact on gender equality

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By Dr Helen Norman,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change

Covid-19 is the worst public health crisis for a generation that it is fast becoming an economic crisis with gendered impacts. Although men make up three quarters of coronavirus critical care patients, women are at greater risk of contagion due to their higher concentration in frontline work. Of the ‘key workers’ identified by the UK government as essential to the provision of services during the pandemic, 60% are women.

The labour market

Women are more exposed to the risk of redundancy and low pay because of their precarious position on the labour market. Not only do women make up the majority of the UK’s low paid earners, they also comprise a higher proportion of those in part-time employment (74%), part-time self-employment (59%), temporary employment (54%) and on zero-hours contracts (54%). Women and low paid earners have also been some of the hardest hit by the shutdown of businesses. Women are around a third more likely to work in a sector that has now shut down with one in six (17%) female employees working in such sectors compared to one in seven (13%) of their male counterparts.

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Care and domestic work

Women already do twice as much unpaid work at home so are more likely to assume the burden of additional caring responsibilities that has resulted from the closure of schools and nurseries. This is perpetuated by a persistent gender pay gap, which creates a financial logic for the second earner within a couple (usually the women) to reduce or exit paid work, as well as prevalent norms and beliefs about gender roles. Lone parents (90% of whom are women) are likely to find it even more difficult to reconcile work and care, particularly as access to informal networks of friends and family is restricted.
How has the government responded?

A ‘furlough’ salary retention scheme was introduced on 11 March, which will help some but not all – such as the self-employed. It is not possible to request furlough on a part-time basis – an option that would help both parents (within a two-parent household) to divide paid and unpaid work more equally. Where there is a choice, it makes more financial sense for the lower earner (i.e. usually the woman in a two-parent, opposite sex household) to request furlough so that the higher earner (i.e. usually the man) can continue to work. This has the potential to damage women’s earnings and career progression. The furlough scheme also risks pushing many lone parents and low paid earners into poverty because of the further reduction in pay. 45% of lone parents already live in poverty in the UK.

There is no right to be furloughed – both employer and employee have to agree. The recent surge in claims to Universal Credit may suggest that some employers are opting to make people redundant rather than furlough them, or they are reducing hours (and therefore income), which may force people who are in work to make a claim. From 16 March to the end of April, over 1.8 million people applied to Universal Credit – six times the usual claimant rate. This data is not sex disaggregated but women are more reliant on social security payments because of their disproportionate share of unpaid care and precarious position on the labour market.

What are the next steps?

It is important to consider the different economic positions of women and men in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the specific challenges that women face such as higher rates of poverty, the disproportionate load of unpaid domestic work and care and the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse.

The Women’s Budget Group rightly calls for a gender-sensitive approach to the crisis that also gives consideration to other marginalised groups such as the disabled and those already suffering race and ethnicity-based inequalities. It is positive that the Women and Equalities Committee have called an inquiry into the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 and the measures to tackle it are having on women and other marginalised groups. However, a more radical reassessment of how ‘low skilled’ work is defined and valued is needed, alongside a review of the systemic undervaluation of so-called ‘women’s work’ – such as cleaning and caring – which are critical jobs that continue to be undervalued and under paid.

The Coronavirus crisis exposes further the fault lines in the proposed post-Brexit Points Based System of immigration. But will it lead to a re-think?

Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Zyama Ciupijus, Jo Cutter, Chris Forde, CERIC

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The coronavirus crisis has ignited debate over ‘essential’, ‘skilled’ and ‘high public value’, and has brought into sharp focus the contradictions in the government’s post-Brexit points-based migration system. In this blog, and a more detailed briefing, we ask whether the current crisis will compel policy makers in the UK to rethink the narrow economic and salary threshold criteria that have been proposed to determine the eligibility of migrants to undertake work in the UK.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having profound effects on work and employment across the world. 4 out of 5 workers, out of a total workforce of 3.3 billion globally, have had their workplaces partially or totally closed as a result of the crisis.

The impact of coronavirus on global mobility and migration flows is also profound. The pandemic has led to an urgent re-assessment of the regulation of migration, with more than 200 countries implementing coronavirus-related restrictions on border entries, including on those migrating for economic reasons.

In the UK, the COVID-19 crisis has brought into even sharper focus the crisis of labour mobility that was triggered by the UK Exit from the European Union. Should the UK government should seek to extend the transition period beyond December 31st 2020, in order to avoid inflicting a double pain for UK economy from the coronavirus crisis and Brexit? More fundamentally, will the coronavirus pandemic force a re-think of the way that governments intervene to regulate migration, given changing perceptions of essential and high public value roles?

The Points-Based System: outdated and unfit for purpose?

The analyse the Points-Based System in more detail in our longer briefing paper. The main features are that all applicants will require a sponsor before moving to the UK, a job offer at the required skill level (RQF 3 and above) and a required level of English language, each of which generates a number of points. Other characteristics, including the salary level of the job, and whether the job is on the Shortage Occupation List can be ‘traded’ to reach the required points threshold to qualify a work permit.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there had already been widespread criticism of this new system by unions and employer bodies. The underlying approach of seeking to attract ‘the brightest and the best’ was seen as outdated and likely to lead to acute labour shortages in particular sectors. There had been widespread calls for a lowering of the salary and skills thresholds that were in the proposals.

The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the fault lines in this points-based system. Occupations that are recognised as essential in the COVID-19 crisis, and where migrants are heavily concentrated – in healthcare, healthcare, transportation, food processing and delivery – include many roles that are defined at low-skill and value in the proposed post-Brexit points Based system of migration. The proposed new system regulating migrants’ entry in the UK does not include a channel for such “low skilled” workers, only allowing entry in exceptional circumstances where workers are classified by the Migration Advisory Committee under a shortage occupation list.

Mass Brexodus?

The capacity to retain EU workers in these sectors will depend on the effective functioning of the EU settlement scheme. Yet, many EU citizens in the UK have already made alternative choices: to go back home or leave the UK for another EU member state where they can still enjoy free movement. The most recent ONS data for the year ending September 2019 shows EU net migration falling sharply by 64,000 and the number of EU citizens arriving for work at its lowest since June 2016.

Some of the sectors with the most urgent and pressing needs for labour to respond to the coronavirus pandemic are those that have been those most affected by this ‘Brexodus’. In healthcare, where unfilled vacancies are at record levels, there have been sharp declines in the numbers of nurses and midwives registered from the EU over 2017 and 2018. In agricultural food picking, there have been widely reported labour shortages during the coronavirus crisis. The same sector has suffered large falls in numbers of EU migrant workers since the Brexit referendum.

Some jobs classified as essential in the COVID-19 crisis are already defined as having high skilled and/or of high social value in the government’s mapping of the ‘value’ of occupations under the proposed points-based system. This includes teaching professional and nurses, for example.

But many jobs are not seen as essential under this mapping. 55 per cent of EU migrants work in occupations that are categorised by the government as ‘low-skilled’ under the proposed migration regime, and thus would not be eligible for the skilled workers’ route to secure a work permit. Included here are many caring, construction transport, food processing and packaging jobs. This has already led to calls for a rethink of the points-based system. Just last week, Liz Kendall, the new shadow social care minister wrote to the Health Secretary, requesting a fast-track visa regime to be created for care workers.”

Conclusion: Towards a future social value of migrants

Will the COVID-19 crisis lead to a re-think by policy makers in their approach to post-Brexit migration regulation? Will perceptions of the value of particular occupations and migrant workers in the UK move beyond narrow economic modelling, salary threshold and shortage occupation criteria, and how might this be achieved?

The current crisis may offer a new terrain for migrant workers themselves to show their ‘value’, not only to the economy but for society at large and to bargain for better conditions, beyond statutory and employer-controlled salary thresholds.

It seems to us that in the field of migrant labour the pandemic opens up a number of opposing scenarios. On the one hand there are utilitarian and draconian approaches focused on state self- sufficiency and restrictions on movement of labour. On the other hand there may be approaches which better recognise the inevitable interconnectedness of our lives, mobilities, care and survival in a world that cannot travel back from globalisation.

This blog is based on an ongoing wider programme of research undertaken within CERIC on migration. If you would like to comment on the issues covered in this report, or be involved in future events around migration, please contact:

Dr Gabriella Alberti
Email: g.alberti@leeds.ac.uk

Human Resource Management & Covid-19: Some Uncomfortable Truths

Written by Mark Butterick

The statement ‘people are our greatest asset’ is widely used by many employers. For some this represents a genuine belief from the top of the organisation. For many others, however, this kind of rhetoric can feel like pseudo-socialist guff that actually has limited -if any- meaning.

The recent and ongoing Covid-19 crisis has inadvertently provided a unique opportunity to consider leadership behaviours and the effectiveness or otherwise of contemporary Human Resource Management (HRM) practices. Covid-19 has shined a bright light upon many organisations, their approaches to HRM best practice and whether employees really are treated by their employers as ‘the greatest asset’ that they are said to be.

Presenteeism & Succession Planning

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Let’s start at the top. As the UK Prime Minister stood applauding the NHS on the steps of 11 Downing Street on Thursday 2nd April he was clearly unwell. He had tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday 27th March but stubbornly continued to work rather than rest. By Sunday 5th April Mr Johnson had been admitted into hospital. By Monday 6th April he was in intensive care and clearly very ill. Throughout this period the Prime Minister was unwilling to relinquish power even when he should have been resting. For a time he even tried to conduct business as usual from his hospital bed. Was this exceptional “Churchillian” leadership deserving of admiration. Or did Mr Johnson provide a personal endorsement of the ‘working lots of hours shows greater commitment’ culture that plagues so many workplaces?

In addition there was no obvious deputy to assume Mr Johnson’s duties when he was no longer able to hold virtual court from his hospital bed. The UK was therefore left, for a while at least, in a highly precarious situation. The country faced the very real prospect of losing its Prime Minister during the most serious national crisis in 75 years. A situation that was greatly aggravated by the lack of a clearly defined number two to take over the reigns of power. The seriousness of all this was clear to many. Why was Mr Johnson unable to take a step back when he became so obviously unwell? And why did he not confirm who his second in command would be sooner?

Good leadership necessitates an understanding of a leader’s limitations. It also requires the leader to fully understand and accept these limitations. Good succession planning requires strength, depth and resilience at all levels of an organisational structure. In terms of these two key areas of HRM practice the UK government exposed itself and the country to a potentially catastrophic and entirely avoidable level of risk. The underlying reasons for this will no doubt be debated in the future. But a combination of bad decision making, poor HRM practice and ego clearly played their parts.

The Value of Work

In the social media age that we all now live, the value that society places upon work has become increasingly distorted. Covid-19 brought this distortion sharply into focus. The England footballer Harry Kane reportedly earns £200,000 a week. A Band 5 Staff Nurse on the other hand can currently earn £24,214 to £30,112 a year. At the higher end of this a Band 5 Staff Nurse therefore earns in a full year what Harry Kane earns in a day. By any reasonable measure this is absurd.

Some will rightly say that this is not an appropriate direct comparator and perhaps it isn’t. But the kudos rightly given to healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 crisis has challenged the value society places upon the work that people do. Not only in relation to healthcare workers either. The same also applies to those who empty our bins, postal workers and the often zero hour workers who deliver our parcels, groceries and takeaways amongst many others. It now seems clear -maybe even obvious- that the relentless race to the bottom in relation to labour costs and the widespread lack of value placed upon so many employees now requires urgent reconsideration. A recalibration exercise is long overdue. But whether this will deliver tangible holistic changes in the longer term remains to be seen.

Homeworking is not a Silver Bullet

Picture the scene. It’s Monday morning and you are sitting in your car on the motorway. Every other car has one other person in it and the traffic is barely moving. You know all the pinch points along your commute and the timing cycle of every set of traffic lights that slow your journey. Your heart rate increases continually as the time you start working approaches. You pray that a broken down car or an accident won’t block a carriageway and make you late. Then came Covid-19. The 09:00 meeting that the technology-averse (often older and male) senior managers in your organisation insist on having in person is now taking place online. Not by choice, but because it’s the only option now available. The meeting takes place. The same or similar outcomes are achieved.

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Given this triumph of technology (all of which has been around for many years) will we now see significant amounts of work activity moving online? I doubt it. Whilst there is definitely a place, and indeed need, for more online working its limitations have been highlighted during the lockdown. Human beings are social creatures. We need to have human interaction. Softer interactions can be just as important -and sometimes more important- than hard outputs.

This said, with a fair wind, we now have an obvious opportunity to end the nine to five working day culture and foolish, counterproductive and polluting rush hour chaos this brings. All this can be achieved simply by using tried and tested technology more effectively. It has to happen. But the notion of the majority of workers simply getting up, working from home and then going back to bed before doing it all again is totally unrealistic. Many workers have always gone and always will have to go to “a place or places” to do “a thing or things”. No amount of technology will alter this significantly.

In addition, the goodwill currently being shown by many workers toward their employers has obvious limits. A limit that is fast approaching for some. Many workers are currently using their own equipment (PCs, internet connections, facilities etc). Employers will encounter significant challenges if they choose to migrate to a more home based operating model. Work/life balance considerations, training and development needs, setup costs, health and safety and data integrity are just a few HRM issues that require careful consideration. But there is clearly now an opportunity for more home working and there will be obvious productivity and environmental benefits that could and should flow from this.

Trust and Confidence

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In many organisations a doughnut model is operated by employers. A relatively small core of permanent employees at the centre of the doughnut is supplemented by an ever growing outer ring of contingent employees. An outer ring populated by temporary, contractor, freelancer and zero hour workers. After decades of outsourcing, subcontracting and the widespread peripheralisation of employment activity the so-called “gig economy” in the UK had grown to over 5 million by the time the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Anyone who works in the gig economy develops an inherent ability to pivot and change. They have to be resilient in what can be a Darwinian professional existence. Gig economy workers hope for the best but often expect the worst. This precarious world of insecure employment just got unimaginably worse due to Covid-19. With the likelihood of even peak and trough employment (often with many troughs and relatively few peaks) now snuffed out for many. When combined with other extraneous variables Covid-19 has effectively created a perfect storm for those working in the gig economy.

But what of the favoured few at the center of the organisational doughnut? Some of whom have often fought tooth and nail for permanent contracts of employment. Including the face fits yes men and women who don’t rock the boat and always claim to love their employers come-what-may. Has Covid-19 resulted in their employers repaying this loyalty and obedience? Apparently not.

A staggering 25% of employers plan to make permanent redundancies as a direct result of Covid-19. In addition almost half of companies plan to place employees in the “furlough” scheme. Many of these employees probably won’t return when the dust settles and normality eventually returns. Somewhat bizarrely the question of whether a company can use the furlough scheme to pay their employees isn’t means tested for employers. Unlike state benefits such as Universal Credit, which many employees -particularly those in the gig economy- are now finding at best unfathomable and, for many, inaccessible. For many employees falling out of what, until a few weeks ago, many may have considered to be “safe employment” the pace of recent events will come as a major shock. Attempts to access the benefits system will invariably prove to be emotionally damaging and exasperating. Many will question whether the system into which they have paid national insurance for many years is fit for purpose.

At the heart of a contract of employment is an implied obligation of mutual trust and confidence. As many of the projected 3.5 million employees currently heading toward Universal Credit are now finding out, however, millions of employers had neither the resilience nor a reciprocal commitment to them when the going got tough. For many employees the elastic band of trust and confidence was broken by their employers almost immediately when Covid-19 took hold.

Many employers have had no choice about this. But there will inevitably be employers who make tactical redundancies and adopt unethical HRM practices to deal with perceived problems and legacy issues. For some rogue employers the dark clouds of Covid-19 will have a silver lining. The impact of some employers adopting such approaches will be that the centre of some organisational doughnuts will become even smaller. The gig economy will get even bigger and levels of trust and confidence will inevitably deteriorate further. The low trust, low productivity puzzle that nobody seems willing or able to tackle will appear to be even more of an enigma.

Yesterday’s Greatest Asset?

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Dr. APJ Abdul Karam famously stated ‘love your job but not your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you’. None of us could have accurately predicted the devastating impact of Covid-19. Or the speed at which this catastrophe has unfolded. But many thousands of employees are now indeed realising that the love of their employers suddenly ran out. The greatest asset, it transpires for many, is no longer in fact the greatest asset. Many workers will understandably -albeit belatedly- be asking if they ever were truly valued as their employers had previously claimed.

Major change is the only certainty that most workers now face. The ability or otherwise to adapt to the huge changes and disruption that lie ahead will have profound consequences for all. Two key choices now present themselves. An acceleration of the race to the bottom HRM practices of the past. Or a root and branch appraisal of and change to how we value and treat people. Nothing can ever be the same again though and those of us in the worldwide HR community will all hope that this proves to be for the right reasons.

Equal Pay @50: Making equal and fair pay a reality

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In December 2019, CERIC convened an event: ‘Equal Pay @50: Making Equal and Fair Pay a reality‘ in partnership with global law firm DLA Piper and the national charity The Equality Trust. A fantastic range of speakers included the regional secretary of the TUC, a CEO of a leading care service provider, the deputy leader of Leeds City Council, a leading employment QC (lawyer) and contributions from our very own team at CERIC. Professor Jenny Tomlinson shared her thoughts on the lack of progress in the area of equal pay; Professor Jane Holgate chaired the opening and closing sessions, while Dr Gabriella Alberti spoke about the experience of unequal pay in the public sector and acknowledged the University’s own existing gender pay gap.

What was amazing was the level of consensus from HR professionals, trade unionists, business and civic leaders, lawyers and academics that something must be done––and soon.

On 29 May 2020 it will have been unlawful, for 50 years, to pay women and men differently for work of equal value yet, there’s a persistent and stubborn problem of unequal pay. Some of this is because women are more likely to work part time (and part time roles tend to be lower paid) and some of it is because women face barriers to being appointed and promoted into more senior positions, but a significant part of the problem is that employers still use pay structures that allow discriminatory pay to exist.

A special mention must also go to out colleague in the law school, Professor Iyiola Solanke, who highlighted the issue of the intersection between gender and ethnic pay gaps.

A working group has now been established to see what are the next steps in challenging unlawful unequal pay. And finally, we cannot thank DLA Piper enough, the professionalism of their staff, and the quality of their contributions was only matched by the great facilities.

Status quo: good for rockin’ all over the world, not so good for education

By Jo Burgess, Postgraduate Researchers, Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC), Work and Employment Relations, Management

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Who said life was fair? No-one.

Although politicians are keen in their efforts to acknowledge inequality, the problem is owned by society and society is a slippery and vague concept. As a society we should strive for equality: me, you and everyone we know, but we are largely onlookers to the reproduction of social advantage and disadvantage before us. In our society advantages and disadvantages are maintained by a variety of means: economic, cultural and social which ensures that social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. The focal point of both the cause and solution to inequality is education. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians, it puts me in mind of one who thought education so good he called its name three times. Not much has changed, however, and we find ourselves in our technologically enabled, emotionally literate, post-this and that age, as twenty-first century people with an education system defined by its ability to perpetuate the limitations and freedoms of social class. In other words, those spoken by Justine Greening, ‘The reality is that in modern Britain where you start still too often decides where you finish’ (DfE: 2017). The view of education as an engine for social mobility has dominated discussion since the post-war period but has failed to result in meaningful reform, this is particularly evident in vocational education and training where the status quo is maintained in terms of gender and social class.

Our attitudes and values regarding education need a radical rethink. A starting point would be to examine the dominance of middle-class values which shape curriculum, assessment and teaching; perpetuating social advantage in ways that are both visible and obscure. As a result of continued focus on academic qualifications entry to University has grown and created new problems that of the over-qualified and under-utilised increasingly occupying jobs previously held by those less academically qualified. In a labour market with little or no increased capacity for higher level employment the redistribution of low skilled work to swathes of graduates will result in a reinforcement of social inequality, and a generation of debt burdened graduates in unsatisfying work. The higher education premium has become more stratified giving advantage to Russell Group graduates, and the intended meritocracy and ‘knowledge economy’ are as socially divisive and class conscious. If we are to achieve greater levels of social mobility and equality, we must start viewing academic and vocational learning as having equal value.

The Further Education sector in the UK occupies an unusual place in the education system, simultaneously peripheral and vital. Skills education policy over several decades can be characterised by the cycle of continual change, resultant instability and loss of identity and purpose. The ghettoisation of academic and vocational learning facilitates disadvantage by reinforcing class boundaries. Everyone thinks vocational education is a good idea, but as Alison Wolf (2002) observed ‘for other people’s children.’ Vocational education needs financial investment, of course, but also time, effort and intellectual investment. Learning skill and competency in the 21st Century should not be the same as the 1960s, we have different labour market requirements. Young people, and importantly their parents, need to consider not just their career but the indications of future employment.

Reform in education is long overdue, the government’s T-level qualifications due to be phased in from 2020 is less reform than recycling and presents significant challenges for the FE sector which has been hit hard by austerity. A radical change to our education system would involve long term strategies (much more than the cycle of one parliament) which address perception and value in a direct and pragmatic way. Less follow your dreams and more ‘where’s the job?’ in our career planning. Critically, barriers need to be removed so that social class does not define educational routes and I am thinking as much of the middle-class aversion to vocational education as the challenges presented to working class university entrants. Despite the consistent improvement of educational attainment for young women over decades, within vocational education and training gender stereotypes dominate occupational choice which has impact on future earnings, career trajectory and life chances but also maintains sectoral inequalities. Policy is unimaginative and maintains status quo.

My research explores the reasons for persistently high levels of gender segregation in vocational education and how the intersection of social class and gender impact upon the careers of young women. The purpose of this is to define barriers to change and consider improvements. In aiming to influence policies and practices which could contribute to gender balance in vocational education this may have incremental effects on the future gender make-up of the labour market. Young people deserve to have opportunities which enable security and purpose. Life isn’t fair, but education should be.

References:

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? London: Penguin

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.

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.

Veras Voice graphics

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.

Graphics2

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.

Graphics3

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.