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Precarity: New forms of exploitation, new forms of resistance at Beyond ESF

Voluntary Slave | 15.10.2004 09:14 | European Social Forum | Social Struggles | London

The imposition of and resistance to precarious forms of work is one of the themes of Beyond ESF (, a self-organised space being held to co-incide with the European Social Forum. Two very different workshops ('YOMANGO...because you can't buy happiness' and 'Dole resistance, unwaged activism and precarious work')yesterday showed how the concept of 'precarity' presents us with practical novelties in the structures which exploit us, and how innovative forms of resistance can help us struggle on this new terrain.

In 'Dole resistance, unwaged activism and precarious work', organised by Edinburgh Claimants Union and WOMBLES, participants from accross Europe considered how precarious forms of work, and the aplication of the methods of precarity to the welfare system, present new challenges to those who resist or are excluded from waged labour.

From Bradford, we heard how changes to the 'New Deal' unemployment scheme meant that claimants faced ever greater control and surveillance of their activities. After 6 months on the dole, claimants now have to sign up to programmes run by private companies, supposedly intended to help them find work. In many cases, there is little or no actual work or training provided, and in any case, the purpose is to force claimants to spend between 3 (with 'work placement') and 5 (with 'training') days a week in an area where they cam be monitered continuously. Further, the companies running these schemes receive a bonus for each person they get off the dole, no matter what happens to that person. Therefore, any claimant who stays on the scheme for any length of time is seen as blocking the company's revenue stream, and so is removed by the quickest method - usually by asserting that the claimant is not trying hard enough to find work, leading to their benefits being cut off.

A new scheme called 'Step Up' is being trialled in Bradford, in which claimants are forced to take a 'job', the wages of which are paid by the Jobcentre. These 'jobs' cannot be avoided by, for example, making oneself difficult at interviews (mentioning trade unions, health and safety, etc.) because there is no recruitment process for them - claimant and 'job' are matched by postcode.

In terms of the government's stated objectives, that is, reducing poverty and long-term unemployment, these schemes make no sense. They cost the government money while private companies get free employees, and the jobs in question (which are always unskilled and with no prospects for development) are necessarily causal and short-term. However, these schemes do succeed in bringing claimants within the control of the wage-labour system wven when they are not actually employed in any productive sense. Here we can see that precarious labour is not about flexibility for workers, but about giving capital an ever more direct command over our lives.

Reports from around Europe show that the British experience is being repeated elsewhere. In Greece and Portugal, claimants whose previous job lasted les than 18 months (which means all young and precarious workers) are not classified as unemployed, but instead as unqualified for work, and so instead of receiving benefits, they are forced to attend training which prepares them for low-paid, insecure work. In Germany and Belgium, the previous system of unemployment insurance (which guarantees claimants a proportion of their previous wage) is being dismanles; as with the Job Seeker's Allowance inthe UK, unemployment benefit is now being merged with social welfare, meaning that claimants receive an amount which, while supposedly determined at the minimum necessary to live on, has been reduced each year for many years, and so is in fact much less than even the minimum.

This attempt to create a new social welfare sstem has been met with resistance in Germany. In a revival of the 'Monday protests' (regular protests each Monday), which lead to the collapse of the DDR (former East Germany), Germans are no longer just demanding the political and civil rights denied by actually existing socialism, but are demanding economic and social rights incompatible with contemporary capitalism. There are calls for actions against Unemployment Offices in Germany to coincide with the implementation of the new unemployment laws on January 3rd 2005.

We heard from Edinburgh Claimants Union about more day-to-day resistance to the control of the welfare system. Set up as one of many claimants unions in the early 90s, ECU is one of few to have remained active today. They have done this by adopting innocatinve tactics which put presure on Jobcentre staff to treat claimants with respect. One tactic is the 'Three Strikes and You're Out' scheme, in which a welfare officer who harrasses claimants or takes unjust actions on three occassions is visited by a mass march of claimants who deliver a 'formal written warning' and photograph the offending officer, putting up posters alerting claimants to this officer all around the Jobcentre. These actions build solidarity among claimants and help them feel confident to make individual acts of resistance to the conditions of work/non-work imposed on them.

More innovative tactics blurring the distinction between individual/private and collective/public action were presented by international brand YOMANGO ( in a workshop called 'Because you can't buy happiness'. Starting in Barcelona but now spreading around the world, YOMANGO encourage the free circulation of goods and desires by liberating property from multinational stores. These acts allow us to reclaim our flexibility and create a new kind of security from the precarity of contemporary wage-labour. Although we may not always have jobs or money, we know we can always acquire what we need and desire by liberating objects for free. YOMANGO aims to politicise and make collective and visible this kind of everyday, individual and hidden resistance to capitalism, carried out by many people who would often not consider themselves anti-capitalist or political at all.

As one of the speakers from YOMANGO said, 'YOMANGO is not an activist act, it is a day-to-day live act, a disobedient act.' Visible YOMANGO actions, such as the YOMANGO tango in which dancers user tango moves to liberate Champagne from supermarkets, or the YOMANGO dinners in which liberated food is served up for free, act as 'commercials', advertising the YOMANGO lifestyle to everyone who can practice it in their day-to-day life. The brand is then further collectively developed by contributors to YOMANGO's open-publishing website. Keep your eyes open for YOMANGO around London during the days of the ESF, as they plan to bring YOMANGO dinners to the UK.

Precarity is a strategy to organise our lives ever more minutely in capital's interests rather than according to our own desires. But the decline of traditional forms of security also frees us to resist in new ways. These workshops showed why we need new tactics to deal with a new situation, and what some of these tactics might look like. There will be more discussion of precarity at Beyond ESF today from 15:00 - 18:00 with groups from across Europe presenting 'Precarity Ping-Pong', and on Saturday from 16:00 - 18:30 with the First Assembly of Europe's Precariat. Beyond ESF is taking place at Middlesex University Campus in Tottenham.

Voluntary Slave