Category Archives: Social Exclusion

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.

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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.

 

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.

Diane Reay’s “Miseducation”: a personal reflection (by Jo Ingold)

miseducation picMiseducation Inequality, education and the working classes by Diane Reay brings together threads from a wealth of Reay’s research on working-class experiences of education, as well as her own personal journey from working-classness to Professor at an elite institution. Reading Miseducation was enlightening for me on many levels, as well as being a bit of a sense-making process, both professionally and personally. I’ll admit right from the start that I’ve largely avoided talking about class in my academic work, largely because it has been too personal. So, (much like Miseducation itself) what follows is a reflection of Reay’s Miseducation that combines the academic and the personal.

Reay takes as her starting point Jackson and Marsden’s seminal 1966 book Education and the Working Class. A key difference between when Jackson and Marsden wrote their famous work and now is that back in the 1960s 60% of the population identified as working-class. Now this is only 40%. But Reay finds that a shocking level of class inequality still persists in the English education system. In particular, she highlights the significant increase in testing and the narrowing of the curriculum in schools (aspects of which I am only too aware now as a parent). Secondly, she points to the policy shift towards academies and free schools, which have increased selectivity, largely leaving working-class kids behind. A 2013 OECD report that Reay cites early in the book (p.50) concluded that schools in England are the most socially segregated in the developed world, especially for poor and migrant families.

In secondary school I was one of the working-class kids Reay talks about, who was ‘relegated’ to the bottom set (p.77). My local primary school (incidentally where my father had also gone to school) was what we would probably now call a ‘sink school’. My mother fought successfully to get me into a ‘better’ school in the ‘posher’ part of town. But when I got to high school I was put in the bottom set with not a single kid from my primary school, but with kids from our (poorer) part of town. This isn’t just about me having an overinflated sense of my own capabilities. Years after I left high school, my final year primary teacher told me that she’d tried to get me into a higher set, but didn’t win the argument with the school. At the time, my parents complained to the headteacher that I was finding the school work in the bottom set unchallenging. They were told that nothing could be done until after the end of the first year exams when, if I proved myself, I would be moved up. At the end of the year I was indeed moved up. But by then friendship groups had been established and I had effectively lost a year of secondary schooling.

Another rather strange and revealing example of how class impacts on working-class kids became apparent to me only a few years ago when I got hold of my medical notes. In these, I discovered (from Pre-Data Protection Act) that a clinician who I saw aged 15 had put in my notes that I had ‘aspirations that were likely beyond my academic abilities’. This was a clinician, not even a teacher! The importance of including this is to say that these are the kinds of assumptions and judgements made about working-class kids that Reay talks about, who start off life with the odds firmly stacked against them by many in positions of power.

Another key driver of inequalities for working class kids that Reay highlights are the class divisions in university education. In particular, she points to the exacerbation of a two-tier system of ‘elite’ and ‘inferior’ institutions largely as a result of recent funding changes. She argues that ‘Elitist processes masquerading as meritocracy are just as evident in the English education system as they were 50 years ago in the 1960s; but the primary engines of this pseudo meritocracy are no longer the grammar schools but the elite universities’ (p.178). Another, more pernicious, factor that Reay identifies is that failure is now seen as the fault of the working-class individual, rather than anything more systemic (p.180).

In relation to universities, Reay also powerfully talks about the cultural and social capital that you lack as an individual when you’re working-class and trying to gain entry to a university. No one in my family was familiar with the university environment. But I was lucky: I was helped by a few professionals for whom my mum cleaned. I was also awarded an assisted government place to attend an independent 6th Form. Without these, I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to apply to a Russell group university. Back in high school my mother paid for extra maths tutoring for me outside of school. But when (on the tutor’s advice) I told my head of maths that I’d like to do the higher paper to try to get an A grade (rather than the maximum C I could get by doing the lower paper) she told me that I could, but qualified it with: ‘you can always resit next year’. This stands out for me as a good example of the lowered expectations and constrained ambition that I felt during my compulsory education.

One of the most powerful aspects of the book for me was where Reay talks about how the working-classes find themselves having left one class (working) and yet not feeling like a true member of another (the ‘bolting on of middle classness’) (p.104). Reay suggests that social mobility for the working classes represents ‘a fragile balance between realising potential and maintaining a sense of authenticity’, resulting in individuals being uncomfortably ‘caught between two worlds’ (p.108). Lynsey Hanley also talks powerfully about this from her own experience in Respectable. This process of social mobility can be wounding, resulting in a ‘disconnect’ for individuals and a feeling of being ‘adrift’ from social and family ties. The political discourse of social mobility as an unquestionable good, Reay argues, doesn’t really get to grips with this aspect.

My own personal experience of social mobility is of a huge gulf between myself and my wider family and community that came about because I went to university and that will likely never be resolved. ‘Why would you want to go to University?’ they asked. The fact that I went to University and moved away underscored another aspect of this fracture highlighted by Reay: what social mobility says about those who are left behind. Reay rightly asks what the point is in striving for equality with more-privileged others if the process creates inequalities between you and the people you love’? (pp 114-5). In the epilogue she cites the powerful words of Bourdieu: ‘to be able to live in a world that is not mine I must try to understand both things: what it means to have an academic mind…and at the same time what was lost in acquiring it’ (pp 197-8).

Finally, a further critical aspect for me that Reay talks about is how as academics we can become ensnared in ‘dominant representations’ of the working classes and that it is important not to ‘romanticise’ the experience of working-classness (p.198). Instead, she highlights the diversity of ‘working-classness’. This helped me to make sense of my own class background. My experience of growing up working class was largely about being fearful and ashamed. Constant stress about having enough money to live on, of having utilities cut off and having to lie about this to friends to save face. My mum was shocked when I asked to have free school meals as she didn’t want me to look ‘outwardly poor’ to others. My parents didn’t claim Family Credit for largely the same reason (although this left us even poorer). My parents were not part of the politically enlightened, ‘radical’ working class that was Reay’s background, but were more the ‘aspirant’ working-class talked about in Jackson and Marsden’s classic work. However, their aspirations were really for me, rather than for themselves. For them, education was the gateway to a much better life for me than the one they experienced. My dad was a time-served joiner, but could only find work on building sites throughout his life. He wasn’t a member of a union (except when there was a closed shop) and, in common with his family and peers, he voted Conservative. My mum largely worked in shops and as a cleaner and waitress. Both struggled from one low-paying insecure job to another (my mum regularly had at least two jobs), with poor health as a result.

The ‘classedness’ of my education was largely a part of my life that, for good or ill, I didn’t really notice at the time: what Reay refers to as ‘the living out of class on both conscious and unconscious levels’ (p.155). Reay says she’s still upset that, for the majority of people that both she and Jackson and Marsden interviewed, their working-class backgrounds were something they wanted to forget (p.8). This resonated deeply with me. But it is critical not to forget. In Miseducation Reay strikes exactly the right chord, successfully managing to achieve her aim of ‘cutting across the grain’ of what she has become professionally (p.198) to be reflexive about her own experiences. Reay’s Miseducation is a timely exposė of how current government policies, the education ‘system’ but, critically, social values and attitudes to ‘inequality, welfare and difference’ (p.174) are still failing, and as a result limiting the potential of so many.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy and is a member of CERIC.

Miseducation by Diane Reay is published by Policy Press’ 21st Century Standpoints series, in association with the British Sociological Association

Alexandra Seehaus (Visiting Fellow, CERIC) reviews Oliver Nachtwey’s book, currently only available in German.

Alex Seehaus

Alex Seehaus, Visiting Fellow, CERIC

Oliver Nachtwey’s “The descent society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age”

Running up a downwards escalator

The election results to the German Parliament on Sunday 24th made a far right nationalist party (Alternative für Deutschland “Alternative for Germany” ) the third biggest party in the Lower House of Parliament. While among the electorate there are nationalist, racists, and neo-nazis, a huge number of people declared they voted for them out of protest against the existing government. Many of those engaging in a protest vote were members of the middle classes with middle incomes, who are afraid to lose their status and class position, due to the increase of migrants and refugees and an increased insecurity. To place this in context and understand some of this background to this turn of events, it is worthwhile to read Oliver Nachtwey’s book which explores changed mobility patterns in German society.

Oliver Nachtwey has offered a staggering account of this phenomenon in Germany, which has made it into the top selling lists of the online bookshop Amazon Germany and was recently awarded with the Hans-Matthöfer-prize for heterodox economic and sociological writing.

Nachtwey sees the social promise that has kept the German society together over the last seventy years as lost. There is no longer an ‘ascent society’ in Germany, but it has instead been replaced by one of descent. The divide between rich and poor has increased and the dynamics of social mobility have changed, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Instead of climbing up the ladder to the top, people are now making a constant effort in order not to descend, simply to hold their position. Given the fact that a majority of the public still seems persuaded by the idea of meritocracy and the belief in collective upward mobility, such developments contradict common expectations. As hard work and ongoing growth were supposed to guarantee constant status improvement, it’s mere absence causes disappointment for employees and is perceived as social descent.
Descent is a problem for society as a whole. It affects not only those whose situation is getting worse, but also causes stagnation and widespread fear. According to Nachtwey such situation is characterised by polarisation and precarity, resulting in an erosion of social integration. What he sees arising in its place is a new social question about the emergence of ‘working poor’ and unequal distribution of wealth and chances for social mobility, which threatens democracy and provokes protest.

The book not only offers a precise analysis of social inequality and struggles within democratic capitalism. Its intellectual strength lies in the way in which aspects – which often remain separate – are brought together. This includes observations on post-democracy, findings on underclasses and precarious working conditions, pressure on middle classes, as well as thesis on stagnating capitalism and low growth expectations.
Nachtwey’s analysis builds on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who depicts the upward mobility in the prospering welfare state of post-war Germany as collective elevator effect. According to Nachtwey, this metaphor has become obsolete, as people no longer move up together. The ‘steady ascent’ has ended with the deterioration of standard employment, flexibilisation, and the dismantling of social security, which went hand-in-hand with former life structures, careers and vocational paths. Instead, the collective and individual dimensions of ascent and descent have come apart. In Nachtwey’s metaphor everyone stands by oneself on the escalator stairs. Those on the top are still moving up, but for a big number of people in the middle and the bottom the direction has changed. They instead attempt to run up a descending escalator. While such an image might be considered somewhat bold, since empirical data shows that individual descent has not become a mass phenomenon and ascent is still possible, it captures the increasing distance between top and bottom as well as the important trend of precarisation collectively faced by a growing number of employees in Germany.

According to Nachtwey, people in Germany have lost trust in the notion of stability. Despite the fact that lower classes, those with less education, older as well as young people, and those with migrant status, struggle in the current labour market situation, middle class people also feel threatened by the potential and actual loss of jobs and social status. The erosion of social integration is therefore not only caused by actual descent, but also collective fear of it, which impedes solidarity. Whether concerning the conflict between employees and unemployed, permanent and temporary staff; residents and migrants; or discrimination between age groups, society has become polarised. And unfortunately this is what we see coming true with the recent elections.

Nachtwey is aware of the potential resentments and reactionary tendencies within the politics and movements addressing the deteriorating situation of the working population, such as those supporting the far right out of ‘protest’. While he points out the dangers of right wing populism, he also has some hope. In identifying the current tendencies as a tension between capitalism and democracy, there is potential for this not only to fuel regressive forms of critique and protest, but also to offer potential to progress towards a more solidaric modern age. It will, however, require progressive forces to engage energetically in efforts to turn the hostile public and political atmosphere around and to channel such tendencies away from right wing populism and towards a more distributory, fair and equitable political landscape.

Alternatives to punitive workfare systems: evidence from the Parisian suburbs

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Dr Charles Umney, University of Leeds

Charles Umney, Ian Greer and Lisa Schulte reflect on their research into differential approaches to addressing social exclusion in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris.

Across Europe mainstream recipes for combatting poverty and social exclusion have failed. A recent Eurostat report put it this way:

The EU has not made any progress towards achieving its ‘Europe 2020’ social inclusion target, adopted in 2010, of lifting at least 20 million people from poverty and social exclusion by 2020.

This has happened as governments – British, German, and Nordic alike – have cut cash benefits and support services while rolling out strict job-search requirements and withdrawal of social benefits for noncompliance: all measures which were supposed to, in the UK government’s language, ‘make work pay’. Evidence mounts, however, that the people who are actually made to pay by these kinds of policies are the vulnerable groups they push into destitution.

‘Work-first’ social policy reflects an international consensus that is influenced by US-style workfare. It emphasises a more coercive and punitive approach to welfare recipients, the use of for-profit contractors to deliver welfare-to-work services, and market-based funding systems emphasising payment-by-results and more standardised service models. But as we have found from our field research in Seine-Saint-Denis, the relatively deprived banlieues North-East of Paris, there are holdouts against this drift toward workfare.

We examined insertion (‘integration’) services. This term denotes specific social services targeted at vulnerable groups (such as recovering drug addicts, single parents, young people from ‘sensitive urban areas’), with the aim not just of finding them a job, but also for helping to meet their wider needs such as secure housing or accessing welfare entitlements. In Seine-Saint-Denis – our fieldwork site – these services were delivered by a complex network of specialised small organisations, for-profit enterprises and charities. They offered traditional kinds of social work and had added employment-related training and employer-engagement schemes, aimed at specific groups of clients. Public funders stabilised this network through a preference for funding incumbent organisations on the ground, rather than creating an open market with commercial work-first provision. We interviewed front-line staff in various organisations charged with delivering welfare-to-work services (public, private or non-profit) as well as the funding organisations with whom they worked, examining up-close the business of delivering insertion services and the street-level consequences of policy change.

Provision of services for the unemployed by private for-profit organisations are controversial in France. But attempts have been made to expand the role of large for-profit enterprises: Multinational firms such as Australian-based Ingeus and Yorkshire-based A4e have sought to establish commercial provision, and also larger nonprofits such as Groupe SOS have emerged as vocal critics of the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos in French social services. In the new President, Emmanuel Macron, such organisations will likely find a highly sympathetic ear. Indeed, Macron’s party, En Marche!, has promised to:

encourage cooperation and mergers which will allow businesses in the Economie Sociale et Solidaire [i.e. nonprofits] to insert themselves into the value chain, to change scale to “better” respond to social and environmental needs, and to respond to the requirements of public orders, notably in terms of volume.

Our findings indicate that such a change of scale might be a disservice to those who need support the most.

While Pôle emploi (the French equivalent of Job Centre Plus) has adopted some of these characteristics, the employment services targeted specifically at disadvantaged populations continue to operate very differently. These services are usually provided by smaller non-profits which do not have the power or inclination to sanction service users. Front-line staff tend to approach their work with the ethos of social work, and service users’ progression through different organisations is handled by long-established informal contacts between associations rather than competitive contracting between government and firms.

In Seine-Saint-Denis we asked: why do these kinds of systems for these kinds of service users remain strong in France, while they have been integrated into workfare-type systems in many other countries?

One part of the explanation is that the people involved in delivering these services – i.e. those charged with overseeing the implementation of public policy at ‘street level’  — see obvious advantages to the insertion approach. It means that local services evolve in tandem with local needs, and interventions are adapted to problems that they observe on the ground, rather than being purely determined by the priorities of national policymakers. Staff in insertion providers can provide a more tailored and in-depth service to individual service users. Under these circumstances a much less coercive and sanctions-centric approach to service users becomes possible and the undesirable consequences of for-profit provision are mitigated, such as ‘creaming and parking’, where front-line staff systematically focus effort on the least needy.

The resilience of this landscape can be seen in the attempts to impose greater private provision through initiatives such as the Sarkozy-era contrat d’autonomie. For-profit organisations have found it difficult to enter this terrain. To recruit service users, they needed to penetrate the pre-existing network of providers, but there was often suspicion that an organisation with a profit motive will not share the ethos of the insertion network.

In Britain, such resistance has been overcome through authoritarian and centralising means: central government extending its authority over local welfare-to-work networks, marginalising existing networks and forcing through the entry of large multinational for-profit organisations. The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and regional Learning and Skills Councils, along with severe cuts to local authority budgets reinforced this centralisation trend. As a result, services for the unemployed are increasingly the domain either of Jobcentres or large firms, with local customised services on the decline.

In France, by contrast, local control has been maintained, protecting insertion providers. The Pôle emploi – which is responsible for enforcing job-search requirements for the unemployed – is only one player among many in local networks of funders, planners, and providers that carry out insertion. In some regions, it is local government rather than the Pôle emploi that pays the minimum out-of-work benefit. This administrative fragmentation enhances local control, thereby reducing the state’s capacity to implement harsh workfare policies.

It remains to be seen how insertion will fare under Macron, who has a clear preference for neoliberal international policy orthodoxies. But greater private provision and a more sanctions-centred approach would be both difficult and counterproductive. To forcibly marginalise non-profit insertion networks the French state would have to reverse its long-term shift towards decentralization, and this disruption would jettison what is good about insertion and replace it with a model which has, in other countries, inflicted large amounts of misery on vulnerable people. If Macron is serious about ‘reforming’ French welfare-to-work systems in this direction, the result is likely to be a lot of pain for negligible gain. However, it would be a neat parallel of the wider package of austerity measures that have been imposed across European economies more generally in the last decade.

For the wider world, insertion offers an under-appreciated alternative to the largely failed project of marketised workfare systems. They also provide a reminder that public policies are to a large extent made at the street level, and that any policy to punish the poor will need to go hand-in-hand with the extensive state-led reordering of public services and the marginalisation of professional staff on the front line.