Casual Labour, Agency Work & Unemployment

‘Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty; work, work, in order that becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production.’ Paul Lafargue, The Right To Be Lazy (written in prison, 1883).


In December, 2013, after a period of unemployment I got a temporary Christmas job at a parcel depot. To make things more manageable I began to research all the different ways that the casual worker is alienated and how time and value is experienced. For this study Marx’s early work on alienated labour (1844), the Grundrisse, his later Value, Price & Profit (1865) and, of course, Capital (1867), proved strikingly relevant and this essay draws extensively, though not exclusively, on his work. But why would an anarchist draw on the work of Marx? Because traditionally anarchists have focussed on doing rather than telling others how it should be done and their amount of theoretical work is slight compared to Marx and his acolytes who have refined his work over the last 150 years, particularly his work pre-1848 Communist Manifesto period. We have had to separate the theoretical work from the particular social revolution Marx agitated for, and which we feel is now unlikely to materialise however much we may hope, in order to focus on casual labour, agency work and unemployment.

The reduction of people down to abstracted labour units, how much we can exchange our time, our skills and experience for wages, and the inevitability of having to trade labour power in order to survive is something that dominates our social, sexual and political lives and  encroaches on what we can salvage of our leisure time. ‘Free time’ as we shall see, is far from free. This essay traces a trajectory from casual labour via agency work and back to unemployment. In the first section we look at the nature of work and for this we draw extensively on Marx, particularly in identifying how labour relations have remained the same despite radical technological innovations and cosmetic appearances. We then go on to discuss alienation in relation to casual workers, time, social and labour relations, the role of agency and agencies, wages, value and, inevitably, unemployment.

‘Work: What Is It Good For?’

The company ‘cannot always predict the exact staffing levels it will require on a day-to- day basis … ‘This is not an employment contract and does not confer any employment rights on you… .[and] makes no promise or guarantee of a minimum level of work … It ‘shall not confer any legal rights on and, in particular, should not be regarded as establishing an entitlement to regular work.’ (From the Christmas Casual Contract)

In December, 2013, the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company depot were taking on casual workers and it would have been a dry and Lenten Christmas all round if gainful employ, albeit temporary, had not been secured. At the training session in the ‘reception suite’ a list of  casual workers’ names was read out and, unsurprisingly, about 1/3rd had failed to show. The depot processes packages and there are 4 types: A, B, C and D all of which are fairly interchangeable and no one seemed to be able to differentiate between them. The 30 seconds training session explained that ‘the A’s go into the A dumpster, B’s into this one etc’ although the noise from the shopfloor was so intense no one was actually sure. We were put on to a conveyor belt to process them but after 15 minutes they’d had to stop it 3 times through our ineptitude and so we were put elsewhere to fuck that up as well. All the different sections at the depot seemed connected like a giant mechanical octopus – if the octopus had absolutely no sense of co-ordination whatsoever.

The only thing worse than the existence of work is that we have to do it. It is hard to do and hard not to do. It is true that we can enjoy our work but this is determined by what the work actually is (does it use our skills and experience satisfactorily?), why we are doing it (can’t get anything else) and what the money is like (never enough). This is a question of agency: the more choice we have in doing something, the more likely it is that we can enjoy it. Agency, using free will as far as realistically possible, determines our response to any situation: if it is a case of either take this meaningless job or absolute penury then this is less an exercise in free will and more a justified cause for bitterness and resentment. We feel like we should have the right to choose what kind of work we do but often face a limited variety of jobs. A choice involves a quantative and qualitative difference between possibilities, i.e., deciding to either go swimming, stay in bed or pursuing some other interest; variety is either this can of beans or the other one. Most of us simply do not have the choice over what job we take on and there are geographical reasons, skill sets, experience, age and gender issues involved. Full time, part time, permanent, agency and casual workers, underemployment, short term and zero hour contracts, the rise in internships, DWP and ATOS forcing people to take any job at the risk of poverty, outdated skills and irrelevant experience, useless courses, retraining with no job at the end of it, inevitable spells of unemployment, involuntary or otherwise, ‘gardening leave,’ breaks between contracts, lay offs and permanent closures. It is fairly obvious that the conditions of work in the UK, and by extension the EU, has changed drastically. Employment contracts favour the employer rather than the employee. It is also obvious that more and more work involves the mediation of commodities rather than their actual production.

New types of jobs have appeared as others have vanished. Work has become more depersonalised with call centres, teleworking and the internet removing us physically from the people we are dealing with. In supermarkets there is rarely any social relationship between the person shopping and the person stacking shelves or sitting at the till. A large percentage of workers do not make anything: whether M&S, BHS or NHS we either mediate that made by others or help reproduce the labour force via a public sector that attempts to maintain the health, education and general welfare of the population. We work for people we do not know, with people we may not like, doing tasks that do not interest us. Work thus becomes an exercise in alienation.

Alienation & Casual Work 

‘The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, takes on its own existence, but that it exists outside of him, independently, and alien to him.’ Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

The job is straight manual labour and the problem is that you can’t fake it. When working in an office in London I spent hours wandering round with an empty file looking concerned in order to avoid working. That was when I wasn’t reading on the toilet or taking a cigarette break even though I’d quit (I had to keep saying, ‘I’ve just put 1 out, I’ll have another in a minute’). Whatever the job, alienation is a concern. Firstly, the worker is alienated from what he produces. In ‘Alienated Labour’ Marx describes the process thus: the product is external to the worker and he neither owns it nor owns the tools he has made it with; the value of the product is extracted physically as labour from the worker and the workers’ actual value decreases with every product he produces; that is, the product devalues the producer physically over time or as the beard says: ‘The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an even cheaper commodity the more commodities he makes.’ Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts.

The more products he makes the less valuable they become as a commodity’s price is based on its relative scarcity. The worker exchanges his labour power for wages and so his time becomes a commodity that he can sell but never buy back: his time becomes something external to him, taken away. He makes the product to satisfy the needs of others but not himself; he sells his time to satisfy needs external to the work place, to live. It is only outside of work, Marx wrote, that the worker feels himself:

‘Life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the tavern, in bed. The twelve hours labour on the other hand has no meaning … [except] as earnings, which bring him to the table, the tavern, into bed.’ Marx, Wage Labour & Capital.

Which is debatable.

So how does alienation affect the casual worker? The casual worker is not only alienated from the product and the tools that produce it but also from the company because of his short term transient relationship. He has no long term interest in his co-workers, the product or the company. He is alienated from the owner because of his lowly status; the management because of his subservient relationship; and the full time workers because of his casual status. There are several further ways in which the casual worker is alienated apart from the product and the company: he is alienated from the usual benefits granted long term workers; from any political struggle in the workplace; and frequently from other casual workers when factory conditions and social parameters mean that communication is minimal or restricted. Casual workers are alienated from any product that they may help reproduce or mediate: production or mediation may require few skills and none of the special skills the worker may have; the work does not engage them in any meaningful way; and if they are on a production line or part of a processing plant they only know 1 part of the process (division of labour) so have little relation to the finished commodity and, ultimately, the consumer of their labour. The casual worker is replaceable and requires or gets little training: they merely need to turn up.

In Capital, Marx wrote ‘that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the utmost, it does away with the many sided play of muscles and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity.’ But what would he know? That old hippy didn’t do a stroke in his life. 150 years later little has changed: the repetitious undemanding nature of unskilled casual work means that people get tired or bored quickly and leave, preferring to take their chances with the bureaucracy of the DWP or the hope of another job rather than the tedium of this workplace. The casual worker is alienated from the workplace because their stay may only be brief so they have no stake in the job and by extension the success of a company which is unlikely to take them on full time. If the worker is subcontracted by an agency and has been there a while this still doesn’t give much security and therefore little incentive to work hard either. The lack of certainty with a company that hardly knows they exist puts the casual worker in a fragile position. The short-term nature of much casual employment means being alienated from the benefits that come with full time work: an inability to make long term financial plans, few means to secure a pension or start a family, get a mortgage or even organise a holiday without pay. Such are the rewards for the casual worker. The casual worker is alienated from any struggle between the union of the regular workers and the employer as they ‘belong’ to neither. If the casual worker is a member of another union they may find themselves in a situation where they either have to cross a picket line, which is a further alienation from both ones ideals and other unionised workers, or lose a day’s pay they can ill afford, neither of which are remotely desirable. Alienated relationship amongst the workforce are further extended between casual labour and full time or long term part time workers: the latter feel they have a stake in the company, could have been gradually promoted over time or see it as a convenient job they like near home whilst the casual worker has no chance of promotion, often has to travel further to get there, is paid less and so feels they have little in common with the permanent workforce. Full time and long term part-time workers can be identified physically: they may have uniforms but their confidence, body language, multiple friendships and knowledge and experience of the workplace sets them apart visibly from the short term casual workers. Work methods may also differ: casual workers are told they are working too slowly, too quickly or too shabbily and are often initially unaware of protocol on the shop floor.

Conversations between casual workers at the depot have been either bewildering ones about what we are supposed to be doing or include the question ‘what do you usually do?’ The ‘real job’ uses the workers skills and experience, they have a personal impact on the work and it may be something they have invested time and energy significantly and satisfactorily into. What we want to do, what we are good at, or what we usually do, may not be so easily accessible on the contemporary job market, hence casual work. Casual work can be interesting because of the variety of people and their stories but there are two noticeable factors that tend to inhibit socialisation. Firstly, people have a tendency to stick with their peers or other members of their community: there are obvious social and cultural explanations for this separation but there are only short breaks and limited opportunity for casual workers to meet after work to relax or mingle with co-workers, either casual or permanent – and after-work pub socialising is always dependent on what shift you are on. Age, psychological and physical difficulties act as a further separation and it becomes obvious quite quickly which workers have difficulty socialising in general. Secondly, there can be environmental difficulties in communicating: the noise of machinery is so constant that it is hard to follow what anyone else is saying, especially if they have a strong accent. The noise of the machinery and the pace of work makes it difficult to talk and as most casual workers are done in a couple of weeks or you never know if they’re going to turn up tomorrow, at times it’s hardly worth the bother. It is difficult to form friendships based on anything beyond the job although we should not forget that for some people work is their only chance to socialise especially if they have family responsibilities or face religious strictures.

Casuals speak with co-workers and pass the time because, although they are alienated in any number of ways, they still operate in the same place and have spatial relationships with the depot and other workers. With casual work temporary alliances can be formed based on mutual disinterest or feelings of resentment (and the one thing that unites all workers is moaning about the job). When the job is over, many casual workers find they lose contact with each other quickly and what may have been an interesting friendship is dissolved. This is not to say that friends cannot be made at work: of course they can but there is a difference between the type of friend made at work because of the job, that folk are there on sufferance and share a mutual antipathy, and friends that are made despite the job that continue outside work. The only reason most people work is to make money and as with any other situation where people are there for a single purpose – jail, armed forces, hospital – these alliances, however temporary help pass time as painlessly as possible.

‘Through alienated labour, therefore, man not only produces his relation to the object, and to the process of production, as alien and hostile men; he also produces the relation of other men to his production and his product, and the relation between himself and other men.’ Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

For the casual worker, the alienated relationships to the product, the company and the permanent workforce affects their relationships with other casual workers. People are seen as full-time workers, part-time workers, agency workers and casuals. The full and part-time workers have no relationship with casual labour and they have different skill sets, better wages and are permanent employees. What is the relationship between the casual worker and the line-managers and those above? As far as the latter is concerned, absolutely none. With the line managers it can be slightly better: the line manager’s job is to get casual workers to turn up then get the job done as quickly as possible. Casual workers are aware of their lowly status and gauge it in relation to other casual workers and so a further alienation grows between them: young and the old; the men and the women; the less able and the agile; the slackers and the over-zealous. Although each task is part of a process, each task becomes a separated activity, devoid of any relationship with the task before or after and devoid of any collective relationship between the workforce. The casual worker reproduces a set of simple actions that are one part of a longer process and these tasks are an alienation from the overall process, the product and the consumer. The alienated relationship that the production line casual worker has with the product is reproduced and carries over into their relationships with each other. At times, if the work is extremely busy, people have a very clear idea of what to do and how long it will take to do it but these periods are unpredictable and a certain amount of time is spent standing around. Underemployment becomes a problem: the over-eager encroach on the work of others and leave fellow casual workers with little to do, which is demarcation. Casual workers begin to see these scraps of jobs as ‘theirs’ and others who are there to help them become a burdensome benefit. We cling to these repetitious tasks as it gives us purpose but also end up competing with, and further alienating ourselves from, each other. It is one thing to be estranged from full-time workers but quite another for a casual worker to be estranged from someone in exactly the same position

There can be further hostility generated by differing approaches to work: some casual workers are intent on being seen ‘doing a good job’ whilst others are less motivated and are there through lack of alternatives. If there is any chance of them becoming full-time employees then casual workers become alienated from each other as they are now in direct competition. The other folk on the shopfloor may look more comfortable and productive than casual workers but they have their own worries that casual workers are not privy to.

Has alienation at work changed since Marx and Engels were writing? Briefly, IT has drastically changed some working practices but this is far from a totality: we may be teleworking through Skype, conference calls or internet discussion forums, de-physicalised abstracted voices on mobiles, emails and text messages yet alienated relationships can be reproduced in a new context (i.e., in technological environments) whilst remain essentially the same. In call centres, the worker is alienated from the customer even through the relative intimacy of the telephone: the caller/worker is at best an irritant, at worst verbally abused; the person being called is merely another number charged with the small possibility of a sale and maybe a bonus and so the teleworker is as alienated as the most menial casual worker. Of course, there are still manual workers on building sites, driving trains, health care workers and council workers but Marxists think that these workers are equally alienated and are there to reproduce the conditions for labour power to be maintained. The alienation between unskilled workers and that which they produce, the consumer, other workers and management has not changed much either: the relationship between factory owner, management and workers remain the same and we still sell our labour power and take orders from management in exchange for rarely adequate wages. For casual workers, there is only our shared adversity and low pay, united if only through our collective alienations.


About malatesta32

Malatesta, undercover anti-fascist blogger, has analyzed the changing fortunes of the British far right since 2009. He has written for the anarchist magazine Freedom and the book, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years Of Resistance (AK Press 2015).
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