Agency Work …

Agency is the freedom to operate according to one’s own judgement. We like to think we are free agents at ease to make our own decisions. The amount of agency we can exercise is determined by circumstance and what is possible within it. Repercussions on our lifestyles and those of others limit what we can actually do. There is another form of agency that is antithetical to the idea of free will: when working for an employment agency, the workers’ agency is seriously compromised. An agency worker explained that he never knew for sure if he was going to work each day because the agency usually called him an hour before the shift started. As he lives locally this was not too difficult commuting wise but it meant that organising a social life became untenable. This job supplemented his other one as a fork lift driver which was another agency job and he had to keep both going just to cover his mortgage. The work for both was never certain so a lot of stress was involved.

What are the ways in which the agency worker is not a free agent? When the agency worker is looking for work: he will usually take whatever he can get; he has a limited range of jobs if the agency only deals with certain types of work (catering, admin, cleaning); he cannot be choosy about time or shift; he has to be available any time; he cannot choose where and when the agency sends him to work and he often has to commute more thus losing leisure time and money; he cannot decide how long the work will last (unless he quits prematurely which is going to jeopardise his future relations with the agency); different shifts affect what we do before and after work: we can hardly go drinking at lunchtime then go on the afternoon shift and after the shift the pubs are closing – if there are any pubs near the workplace and it is not in a ‘retail park.’ All shift work bring its own idiosyncrasies. If the agency worker is spending long hours working, commuting and recuperating then there is little energy left to spend on applications for a better job. The fragile situation denies him the chance to make plans for the day or over the next week and even less so for the long term as financial security cannot be guaranteed. Because the work is uncertain this costs agency workers in other ways: a weekly ticket is a significant saving on a tiny budget but the agency worker has to gamble whether it is worth buying one as he may not get to use it every day; if he doesn’t, he has to buy daily ones, but if he ends up working every day then this affects his weekly budget. This may seems trivial but if you are working two jobs and are still struggling to get through the week then it becomes a big deal and a further cause of stress.

The company pays the agency X

The agency pays the worker X – 20%

The agency worker is relieved to get another day’s work

The agency is happy because it takes a slice for doing very little (like a pimp)

The company is happy: there are no extra costs like sick pay, holiday pay or pensions; and they can sack the worker without any reason or confrontation: they merely have to ring the agency saying the worker will not be required. They also know there will be many other agency workers only too eager to take his place. At the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company the agency workers gets over £12 per hour whilst the casual worker gets half of this (and often more work as he does not know the dodges). The casual worker is separated from the agency worker because he is getting paid twice as much for doing the same amount of work. This lack of equity is a further alienation between workers. The full time workers are aware that the agency worker who is being paid less than them could eventually replace them. Between the casual worker, agency worker and the full time worker there is a significant economic divide. The one small compensation for the casual worker is that, although the job may be tedious, at least it is only for a short amount of time and the next job may either be better or the one we actually want. The agency worker may be kept on but they never know for how long or when they will finally be out of there; there is little chance of them being taken on full time (too expensive); and many don’t have any union representation so are in a vulnerable situation politically and financially. Although casual workers are at the bottom end of the company payroll, agency workers are hardly in an enviable position.


‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ Marx, Capital.

The worker sells his labour power as a commodity. The company buys his labour for a wage. The wage is needed for necessities – rent, food, bills, clothes – but it is rarely enough to meet the most basic of wants, let alone pleasures. A wage is worked out according to how simple a given task is and how much experience, knowledge and skill it requires. The simpler the job, the more people can do it so the lower the wages. The more specialised knowledge is involved, the higher the wage (and during a recession when specialised jobs go, the specialised worker can always apply down for jobs whilst those at the bottom of the labour pile cannot apply up). The wages are advertised at the hourly rate: the employer has worked out what this will be in relation to other poorly paid jobs. As casual workers our unskilled labour is employed for minimum wage: the only requirement is a working knowledge of scissors. As our contracts are all zero-hour contracts, nothing is promised definitely, there are no incremental increases, promotions or bonuses, so the only thing anyone can hope for is a bit of overtime to supplement the poor wages. The lack of skill required plus the small amount paid at the end of the week confirms to the worker how replaceable he is: the company does not value him as an individual and the only thing he cares about the company is that it keeps paying him.

What is produced at the depot? Nothing. Our labour and activity is reproduced but for the benefit of someone else. We process commodities that are made elsewhere, that are sold by a vendor via the internet and we have no idea what they are or who they are for. We are hands through which things pass in some anonymous deal. So rather than producing any specific thing our labour time is spent shifting unknown stuff – like the truck drivers who pick up the parcels and drop them at the depot and the sorters who point the parcels in the general direction of the delivery guys who take them to your door. This is division of labour: workers become one part of a larger, more complex process that they need not understand in order to complete their tasks, whether drivers, sorters, tippers, age clerks or shirking casuals.

Amazon is the main supplier that keeps the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company alive, along with a few other catalogue companies. Obviously, folk shop more and more online for their stuff, which is bad for shop workers, but it still needs to be sorted and delivered which is all done manually. The growth in online selling, parcel handling and delivery has seen a concomitant diminishing of store front shops. Trolleys full of stuff in stiff cardboard packages arrive at the depot jammed into mail sacks that generate a small Chernobyl of static. The sacks are supposed to weigh 11kg but this is often not the case so we are shifting more than we are paid for.

At the end of the afternoon shift the casual worker is either told to come in tomorrow or they have to ask – which means they will call if we are needed. The worker is put into an immediate state of agitation as it is hard to predict whether they will get any work and they need the money. This puts pressure on the worker, his partner or family who need the money to live on; hours can be spent in a futile ‘will they/won’t they’ internal dialogue; and the following day is spent waiting for the call to materialise. Or not. The casual worker waits and wonders if they are not being called because their work is sloppy. He can wonder if other casual workers are being called whilst he is being shunned. Waiting makes distraction difficult: it is hard to focus on much else when awaiting the outcome of an important decision. He cannot do much with the day in case too much energy is expended before going to work. Whilst waiting for the phone call, plans for the day or evening cannot be made, there are certain pleasures that cannot be engaged in (and we work so we can earn ourselves at least a little pleasure). If you miss the call you can’t 1471 it as the extension isn’t recognised and you can lose a day, if not more. So you wait for the phone to ring …

There is a psychological block: the idea of starting to do something involving and pleasurable (baking, bathing, cycling …) before the shift starts only to have to snap it off half way through and go to work seems somehow pointless. This is another way in which work encroaches on everyday life and the work day seems to expand further into our time. Waiting reduces agency: we are subject to the will of others. Another frustrating aspect of waiting occurs at work. The daily workload is divided between so many workers who should take a certain amount of time to complete it but if the workers finish the work early and there is nothing else to do, they still have to wait until signing out time before they can go. Whether the company has simply miscalculated and cannot supply enough work or the workforce is too efficient and gets the job done, is of no consequence: the workers are  reminded that although they may work hard, they are still employees. We stand in tired, bored bunches, waiting to go whilst the company gains absolutely nothing: they are producing nothing as there is nothing to produce. So, in material terms, it makes no difference whether they are there or not except that the company – which  made the decision abstractly and long ago – does not want them to leave early. So we wait.


‘Time is the room of human development. A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than beast of burden.’ Marx from Wages, Price & Profit.

In the same way that alienation affects the casual worker in multiple ways, so too does time. Time is a commodity: we exchange our labour at an hourly rate. The eventual timespan to be spent at the job can be either unclear or limited. The tasks we have to perform are often time-controlled. If we need time off, we lose money. We sign in and sign out at strictly defined times. If we are late, we lose money. We spend time commuting to and from the job. We often work overtime to compensate for inadequate wages. When working, we look forward to time off. And after work our leisure time is compromised by tiredness. We exchange our time with the employer for wages and our time is a commodity that increases and decreases in price depending on the job

For Marx ‘the commodity that I have sold you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that it creates value, and a value greater than its own.’ (Marx in Capital). When casual workers are contracted to the job they are told that they will be working for a certain rate but the time may not be definite. The tasks which many casual workers carry out are time controlled and they are expected to fulfil their quota, if not improve on it, within a certain number of minutes. The tasks are tedious and the wages low which hardly ‘incentivises’ the worker. Because the casual worker is only working on one part of the entire process the system in which they are working is mystified. The casual worker faces stringent work practices that have been long established. The casual workers queue to sign in and sign out, write their names and time of arrival whilst supervised by the line managers. If the casual worker is more than a few minutes late their wages will be reduced accordingly, no matter how legitimate the reason and they are not allowed to make up time later. This is doubly infuriating if the casual worker has to rely on public transport which can be frequently late – and we cannot calculate how much time is spent stressed by this. Commuting is neither time spent profitably at work nor at leisure but takes up considerable hours of the day as well as using a percentage of our wages. The time spent commuting is neutral time; we cannot realise it as leisure time and we are not paid for the journey or subsidised for tickets. Casual workers often have to travel further to the job than full time and part time workers. The job consumes more and more of the casual workers’ time. The casual worker is offered overtime the attraction of which is compensation for inadequate wages with a temporarily increased rate of pay. However tempting the offer may appear to be, we may not be physically able to last that long; there may be no public transport to get us back home after; and we may simply be reluctant to spend any more time at the job than is necessary as we are already there for long periods and the work consumes enough time through commuting and recuperation. When working, we look forward to time off, and the idea of losing more of that precious time, even if it is feasible, is hardly attractive. After work our leisure time is compromised by exhaustion and quotidian hassle and necessity. What is left over after that is ‘our time.’ We need to work in order for ‘our time’ to be realised in as full a manner as possible. The more we work, the more tired we get, and even though we may be richer in financial terms, we are poorer in terms of that time being realised in a satisfactory way, i.e., too tired to enjoy our time away from work. Of course, not all pleasurable pastimes cost money: walking, time with our lovers or conversation with friends are beyond pricing – although considerably enhanced by food, drink or comfortable surroundings, all of which cost money.

‘A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than beast of burden.’ Marx from Wages, Price & Profit.

Bergson wrote about the experience of time and referred to the idea of duration. He was interested in how time is experienced rather than how it was measured on a clock Most of us realise that the more we are enjoying ourselves, the quicker time goes by, but when bored, time goes by much slower. Consider the experience of time during sex compared to the same amount of time spent waiting at the bus stop (or indeed having sex at the bus stop). Time is experienced more slowly when there is nothing to distract us: we have to pay attention in case the bus goes by, or we may be cold and agitated by the lateness of the bus; and there is nothing to do but stand there. This lack of events or distraction makes the wait at the bus stop seem long as we are constantly aware of time passing slowly (and are aware that the bus should be running on time but isn’t). The same amount of minutes can be endured differently and pleasurably because of the events that occur within it. We can say then that the duration of any given time period is relative to the complexity of activities carried out during it.

Casual workers perform simple, repetitious tasks and begin to operate automatically, without thinking. Because there is no need of protracted concentration we grow distracted and begin to dwell on how unstimulating the job is and how slowly time appears to be passing (made worse by clock watching). So, the casual worker’s awareness of how boring the job is intensifies the negative experience of the job and makes it even more boring. Not only are we bored, we are aware of how bored we are and how time is passing slowly.

There is a myth that ‘time is money’ but time is not money, time is time and money is money: you can always earn more, borrow more, steal more, unlike time

‘We know that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labour expended upon and materialised in it, by the working-time necessary, under given social conditions, for its production.’ Marx, Capital .

As a casual worker the only thing required is our labour power – any particular skills and experience will not be drawn on – and it is the only thing of value we can exchange with the employer. Marx broke value down into several different categories. Labour power is a commodity; the job requires nothing but muscle; anyone can do it; the value of labour power is minimum wage. Value is added through relative scarcity and unskilled labour is not in short supply which is why it is cheap. The employer buys our labour power off us and therefore owns it. Our labour power may have multiple possibilities but for the casual labourer it is used only in one way by the employer.

‘Money implies the separation between the value of things and their substance.’ Marx, Grundrisse.

Labour produces commodities by making them, digging them up, offering a service etc. Commodities exist in a complex value system. Any commodity has a use value, how useful it is, so it would seem that a spade has more use value than a spoon. A spade is very useful in landscape gardening but less so in the coffee shop. So context determines the relative value of something as well – like a bottle of water in a desert compared to a bottle of water in the supermarket. The value of the spoon may be much more than the spade if it is made of solid silver and even more so if it is 250 years old and once belonged to Samuel Johnson. This valuation is not of the thing but what the thing represents – rarity, expense, culture, status, surplus cash etc. This is commodity fetishism: the imposition of an abstract value onto a real object that supersedes its use or exchange value.

On the shopfloor, the labour power (time & effort) it takes to produce something influences its exchange value: 1 spoon should take 10 minutes to produce. Marx called this concrete labour. The scarcity, or availability, of the raw materials also influences its value: steel or silver spoons are priced differently. The worker is reasonably expected to produce 6 spoons per hour but if he makes 10 the excess is what Marx called surplus value. Whether he makes 6 or 10, the worker is paid the same. He is also paid the same if the company sells the spoons for an increased price. It is in the companies interest to demand that workers produce 10 spoons in the time allotted for 6 and to encourage quicker production which increases the profit for the owner. The point is not to make the labour more conducive to the worker but to make the worker more profitable to the capitalist. The relative complexity and skill required to produce a commodity also influences exchange value: a machine made shirt is cheaper to produce than a bespoke one. Clothing is also valued by its style, brand and exclusivity. The social value of clothing is enforced by advertising and perpetuated unwittingly by consumers but clothes are only fashionable for so long and then they end up in TK Maxx.

So, the value of a commodity is comprised of:

Use value (how useful is it?)

The time and skill it takes to make it (concrete value)

The relative scarcity of its raw materials (Silver? Paper?)

The context in which it exists (desert or supermarket)

What it represents (cultural value)

The status it confers (wealth, fashion)

The worker’s ‘use value’ is his labour power

His exchange value is how much he can earn by turning his labour into wages

For this wage he is reasonably expected to produce X amount per hour

This is necessary labour, how  much time is spent completing the task

His ‘surplus value’ is that which he produces over and above the X per hour, which he is  compelled to do by the company, i.e., X + 20%

The profit (20%) or surplus value is created from the surplus labour that is squeezed from the worker or, as the beard wrote:

‘Over and above the six hours required to replace his wages, or the value of his labouring power, he will, therefore, have to work six other hours, which I shall call hours of surplus labour, which surplus labour will realise itself in surplus value and a surplus produce.’ Marx, Wages, Price & Profit

There is also an abstract value that he puts on his own work: does he enjoy it? It is possible; does he value the friendship of his co-workers? perhaps; does the job give him status amongst his peers?; does he like the challenges the work presents? The problem is not that work is unendurable but that it is what we have to do, to do what we want.

‘The value of labour-power is determined by the value of the necessaries of life habitually required by the average labourer.’ Marx, Capital.

The company calculates that it can handle so many parcels and will need so many workers to handle them. As with unemployment there are seasonal increases of parcels (Christmas) so to handle the increase in parcels the company needs to increase the amount of labour, hence casual workers. The majority of the wages earned are needed to maintain the worker. The worker reproduces his labour power at home every day, eating, sleeping, recuperating and with some leisure. His wages, then, enable him to reproduce himself in order to reproduce the profit of the company (and, in the longer term, reproduce the workforce through children – something which probably won’t work as a chat up line – ‘would you care to aid international capital by reproducing the future workforce?’ ‘No’). If the company’s profits increase, his wages stay the same. If he produce surplus value, his wages stay the same. If he produce the minimum amount necessary, his wages stay the same. If he fails to produce the amount necessary, his stay may be a short one. The goal of the company is not just to move parcels but to move as many as possible and make more money. The time study of each individual task is not to make the job easier on the worker, but to make more money. Despite company songs, softball games, weekend outings or fake social events, it is only in the interest of the company to maximise their profit…

About malatesta32

Malatesta aka M. Testa, undercover anti-fascist blogger, has analyzed the changing fortunes of the British far right for nearly a decade. He has given lectures on anti-fascism, published articles in Anarchist Studies and Freedom magazine and wrote Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years Of Resistance (AK Press 2015) which the Morning Star called a '‘Potent Primer On Europe’s Anti-Fascist Struggle … a useful source of information about the fight against fascism.’
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