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Work in the "Information Society"

The end of "normal working conditions" is a consequence of capital strategies. The "worker-entrepeneur" may be old wine in new wineskins, primitive capitalism traded as a new business philosophy.
Work in the "Information Society"

By Christoph Muerdter

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.derfunke.at/theorie/infosoci.]

What will work of the future look like? Does a great liberating power issue from the digital world of work giving the chance of genuine come-of-age existence to workers or do ideological power interests follow these optimistic hopes to divert the great increasing social conflict between capital and labor to trivial scenes?

Neoliberalism and Precarious Employment

The intensification of international competition has effects on labor markets and on the position of employees. Changes in the labor market, employment and industrial relations are not consequences of the spread of information- and communication technologies but rather of the actions of businesses, labor market parties and governments which have mainly represented capital interests in the last decades. This policy committed to shareholder value reinforces the pressure on the wage system and the welfare state and has led to a clear deterioration of employment, working- and living conditions of workers. The result of this policy is the expansion of precarious employment and a polarization of social work. Phenomena like limited and short-term or temporary working conditions, involuntary part-time work, low-wage work, home work, tele-work, work on call, shift work, work without social security, work under "self-employment" and pseudo-independence increase. Often no adequate security of livelihoods or protective rights against business interests is guaranteed for employees.

The End of "Normal Working Conditions" as a Consequence of Capital Strategies

"Normal working conditions" erode in the course of changing forms of work. "By normal working conditions", we understand a dependent employment created and organized by an employer. This employment follows conditions regulated by collective agreements and labor- and social laws. Full-time work includes social security against sickness, unemployment and old age and indefinite terms. Working hours is an important dimension of normal working conditions." (Johann Welsch)

Regulation of working conditions is an historical achievement compared with times when workers were personally dependent on the arbitrariness of employers. Although normal working conditions was a model for paid work, a large part of the population was always outside this framework. Women, day-laborers, seasonal workers, work contractors and other groups were excluded from the social protection of normal working conditions.

Normal working conditions continued to the 1970s. This picture has reversed in the last twenty years. "If one differentiates according to forms of working hours, one can say for the year 1995 that only 17% of dependent employees did paid work in the scope of the normal working standard. In 1987, this share was 27%. Between 1989 and 1995 the portion of employees who worked in atypical or flexible forms of working time - including part-time, flex-time, regular overtime, regular Saturday-, Sunday- and/or regular shift- and night work - rose from 73 to 83%." (Johann Welsch)

This development is not a natural process occurring in the world of work. "Normal working conditions do not dissolve by themselves. They are dissolved as a targeted personal-political rationalization instrument (... ). Individualization, pluralization of lifestyles, changes of values and attitudes, increasing paid work of women and increased sovereignty over one's work did not push this erosion of normal working conditions. Rather the engines of this development are the changed entrepeneurial and internal strategies. These are decisive, not the desires of employees for more individual configuration and flexibility of working conditions." (Mario Helfert, Gudrun Trautwein-Kalms)

Development of Flexible Forms of Paid Work

In 1994 the number of part-time employees in west Germany amounted to merely 0.5 million and rose to 4.5 million. In this time period, the number of dependent employees increased to 5.5 million persons. Three of four new jobs are part-time jobs. In 1995, 18 percent of dependent employees in Germany were part-time positions, nearly every fifth person. Part-time work is strongly marked among women.

The extent of short-term or temporary work climbed ten fold from 1975 to 1993. In 1995 there were around 176,000 temporary workers. Altogether the atypical forms of paid work (short-term and part-time workers) amounted to 25 percent with an increasing tendency. The largest employer of the US is a temporary work firm (Manpower) with 560,000 employees. Temporary work firms are also booming in Germany. 1.9 million workers were newly employed in Germany from 1988 to 1995.

Other atypical working conditions are defined with the help of organizational or legal criteria. Tele-work and the different forms of independence and pseudo-independence are included here. These forms of paid work have a great role in the information sector. Tele-work is directly based on the use of new technologies and makes possible temporal, local and organizational flexibility of work processes. Unlike the US and Britain, tele-work is not widespread in Germany...

Different forms of independence and pseudo-independence result from the progressive restructuring and decentralization of businesses seeking to minimize economic risks and costs. Outsourcing and informal contracts between businesses and workers (mostly in skilled work areas) have increased importance. For example the "self-employed", "dependent" independent persons or "new independent persons" work as independent programmers, in independent service operations and repair services in information areas, multi-media services and business-oriented services.

The number of independent persons has grown from 2.8 million to nearly 3.5 million from 1991 to 1998, 10 percent of the paid workers. More than 1 million "dependent" independent persons are included here. They are distinguished from other workers by their legal status but not from dependent employees regarding their work and social position. While formally-legally independent, they are actually dependent on an employer. Former employers give work on commission to their former employees and thus save social security costs. Each individual employee then determines his or her work place and work hours. He or she focuses on further vocational qualification on the market with income dependent on reaching goals set by the employer.

The "Worker-Entrepeneur" - Old Wine in New Wineskins?

In the sociological literature, this form of "new independence" is described as "worker-entrepeneur" (G. Gunter Voss and Hans J. Pongratz) who acts as a self-organized and self-controlled employer... The term "worker-entrepeneur" expresses very well the contradictoriness in an apparent approach of the interests of employees, independent persons and businesses. However it should be used cautiously. Pongratz and Voss interpret the term critically as a "social type for globalized neocapitalism". The danger exists that the real contradictions become concealed in the public discussion with terms like "self-entrepeneur", "self-company" and others which popularize the present individualization cult. At the end we have the marketed or commercialized person and a social philosophy as old as capitalism itself where "everyone is the creator of his happiness". This is actualized in the neoliberal jargon, "Everyone controlling his/her own life." As the business advisor Reinhard K. Sprenger said, "everyone must understand himself as a bond or security paper" (Tagesspiegel, Dec 28, 1999).

How a person will do his/her work, what risks will be taken and how long he/she will work are left to the worker-entrepeneur. Responsible for the profitability and competitiveness of his profit-center, h/she has new options and creative possibilities. On the other hand, "the market conditions of selling the commodity labor with all their risks and dangers are enforced much more directly" (G. Gunter Voss and Hans J. Pongratz).

Glissmann and Peters describe the underlying management concept as "indirect control". The employee decides independently on orientation in the particular market segment and bears the consequences. Finally, these employed persons carry around the class conflict in their own persons, permanently weighing the diverging interests against one another.

The example of IBM illustrates this paradox. "From now on, this is practically your own shop. You must watch whether you make ends meet and escape the red numbers. If you do that, you will have secure jobs. If you don't, you must close down. IBM cannot afford financing red numbers." (quoted according to Klaus Peters, The New Independence in Work, in: Supplement of Zeitschrift Sozialismus 2/2000).

The performance of an "independent entrepeneur" should be the motor for increased productivity not achieved in old work organization. "Do what you will but be profitable" is the business principle offered with the "new freedom" is offered. This relation between independence and helplessness or lack of independence is introduced through indirect control without shaking hierarchies of power and property relations. Economic data or particulars are fixed and identified for businesses, delegated downwards in corresponding goals for individual profit centers and project groups. "The new independence is allied with a new thinking completely defined by the entrepeneurial logic. All activities and processes are now viewed under cost-benefit aspects. The goal is the highest possible profit. Indirect control is based on a continuous bench marking (competitive mechanism) and produces a competition of everyone against everyone else (Klaus Pickshaus). "A perfectly functioning internal/company system of rule makes use of the silent pressure of `Satan's mill of the market' instead of the old command structures."

Increased social division: In their analysis of the new world of work in the IT-branch, Baukrowitz/Boes call attention to alarming tendencies. "Altogether a double division of society can be feared. Through long unemployment and other forms of social exclusion,, a segment of permanently marginalized people threatens to arise at the lower end of society. Their reentry chances diminish, the more strongly the potential productivity of the new technologies spreads. A group of employees, temporary and part-time workers often below the subsistence level is developing above this segment in Germany. These usually work but can reproduce less and less. On account of their training profile, age or gender, they cannot advance to the `inner ring' of the company workers of the enterprises. Therefore they are extremely threatened to experience the consequences of increasing international exploitation firsthand as exchangeable workers. A relatively small group of stressed `winners' face these two `loser groups'.

These tendencies are hardly necessary consequences of the informatization of capitalism but are capital strategies with the goal of intensifying exploitation of workers. Employers see the moment coming for abolishing existing regulations. Under the motto of "freedom of employment contract", a time leap of 150 years has occurred. The only difference is that primitive capitalism is traded today under the name "business culture".

The crisis of capitalism with its exploitation problems is manifest in a fundamental change of paid work structures enabling more profits to be squeezed out of the working population. In times of "informational capitalism", the unions, SPD and PDS must offensively wage the struggle for a radical reduction of working hours without cuts in payment and at the same time question the capitalist production method because it cannot meet the social needs of wage-earners and the demands for a humane society.

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