Wednesday, April 12, 2006

“Outsiders” and the inside-running in the global labour marketplace

Chapter 1 of Mark Davis’ 1997 book Gangland is titled “ . . . insiders, outsiders and the new generationalism”. Unqueried in the chapter is that “insiders” are in utter pole position compared to outsiders in Australian workplaces.

This was certainly true at the time, and still seems to be the case now – re the industries that concern mainly Davis, viz academia/the media/the arts, anyway.

With blue-collar jobs in the West currently, however, it appears that insider/outsider orthodoxies have been severely shaken, if not actually reversed. And this time (for once), I’m not referring to a generational phenomenon, but to ethnic/national identity.

Exhibit one: the Hispanic illegal-immigrant amnesty debate in the US

Both the US President and one such illegal immigrant (I’m assuming; in the transcript s/he’s just “Protester #1”) say that the Hispanics are working in jobs that Americans won't do. While the sheer unlikelihood of such a conjunction of views doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being true, the US unemployment rate of ~5% does, IMO. Full employment is a natural and essential precondition of “Americans” picking and choosing jobs in such a way, and while opinions differ over what level of unemployment can be considered practical full employment, I suggest that it could not be higher than 2% (which is likely to roughly correspond to a figure of two unemployed applicants for each vacant job).

So what’s going on here? Plainly, there is a breach in the labour market that “Americans” aren’t filling, and Hispanics are. Apart from for the minority of jobs that I imagine many people wouldn’t do, period (e.g. working in the killing-room of an abbatoir), the most obvious explanation is ultra-low wages for some. This is, despite the USA’s bare-bones social security system, the wages offered in “Hispanic” jobs are so low that the continuing unemployment is preferable, or at least comparable.

Such ultra-low wages almost certainly would be below the USA’s (again, very modest) minimum wage floor. Here then we have the first problem with the “jobs that Americans won't do” case – it rests on illegality, and all that goes with that, with the additional element here of a compound illegality from the very beginning (because of the worker’s migration status).

An immigration amnesty (or para-amnesty, like Bush’s proposed guest-worker program) will obviously fix this latter, least-problematic type of illegality, but it will necessarily condone, and so increase, the former type. Alone, this worries me, but there are connected issues to consider, together capable of sending the worry-barometer down exponentially, in any event.

Exhibit two: booming, global London

“But the difficult intersection of race and class in east London is a story that has not been fully worked out. London still often provides more opportunities for outsiders than insiders, with a booming economy but 660,000 inactive or unemployed.”

Why? More so in the UK (and Australia) than the US, social security payments – almost always available to “insiders”, and often NOT to “outsiders” – go some way to explaining this apparently upside-down state of insider-vs-outsiderdom. I believe that there are other important, if fuzzy, factors at play, though.

The sharpest of these factors, in explaining why outsiders (NOTE: *not* immigrants; e.g. ethnic-Anglo NZ immigrants to Australia are in no sense “outsiders”) have a competitive advantage in the (blue-collar) job market, is what I term the Script of capitalism. Outsiders have to strive, and capitalism needs strivers – and needs them more than it usually acknowledges. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider:

“[Peter] Drucker said that Taylor [deviser of the scientific, micro-measured workplace, c. 1900] . . . ‘sparked the revolution that allowed industrial workers to earn middle-class wages and achieve middle-class status despite their lack of skill and education’”.*

Now leaving aside the dubious truth of the assertions therein contained, the above statement nicely encapsulates my point that capitalism needs strivers. Here, I *don’t* mean that capitalism needs aspirationals (= complacent worker/consumer drones); though they’re nice for it. Nor do I quite mean that capitalism needs desparate, exploitable labour fodder – although again, such a workforce hardly hurts the cause. Rather, capitalism absolutely needs (“needs” like a vampire needs blood) a workforce who can serve as its own attractive mirror-image. Hence, the otherwise perversity of Taylorism being invoked as a leg-up for a (here, unspoken) sliver of the working-class. Such a sliver, I should stress, are not, and never will be, boss/management material themselves, but nonetheless have a curious, complete overlap of their own economic/ideological interests with those of their capitalist employers (similar to Dubya and the Hispanic immigrant, above).

With unions now busted wide-open in Australia (a few blue-collar trades aside), blue-collar “outsiders” who walk and talk the boss’s agenda are going to be ever more on the rise. This is a shame, including for such outsiders themselves, as immigration policy and its racialising appear to be the *proxy* (as I’ve said, outsiderdom and immigrantdom are not the same thing) battle-field between outsiders/capitalists and the rest.

And racialised battles are never neat, fair, or short. I fully concur with these sentiments of John Martin (from the Federation for American Immigration Reform):

Yes, the President definitely has it wrong in that he is listening to business interests that see the large-scale availability of low-wage workers as a benefit. It allows them to increase their profits and allows them, to a certain extent, to discriminate in terms of who they hire.

Except for one thing – pro-outsider discrimination (or “reverse discrimination”, as it was called in the 80s) is not going to be stopped by immigration “reforms” – major or minor. Rather, capitalism – at least of the virulent sort the West has had since c. 1979 – simply has to go. Fortunately for this cause, virulent capitalism does have an Achilles’ heel – it needs outsiders far more than they need it.

* “Thinking for a living” The Economist 21 January 2006

I think you are far off in the case of London.

The reason outsiders find it easy to get jobs in London (which are, incidentally, mainly *white collar* jobs -- its not like London is a centre of manufacturing), is that

a) Highly educated white collar immigrants work harder than the average Brit, just like they do in Australia, the US, and many other places. Thats just what happens when you take the smartest people from other countries.

b) The British university/training system is falling to pieces, just like Australia. Thus people waste more time learning less. This means a) there are simply vacancies that there is no-one to fill (like doctors and some types of teachers) and b) you are better off employing someone you know has experience (whom might not exist locally) versus someone with a worth-little degree.

c) Liberal immigration policies mean that no-one has an incentive to train new employees, when you can import pre-trained ones who are probably better than the locals in any case. This means it is hard to become skilled because of both employer practises and (a). It also means employers can say that there are no decent people to employ in the country (which is probably true), hence they must get immigrants.

d) Just like Australians, young Brits are becoming more lazy and stupid. Thus there is a general decline in science and technology, and people simply go for the quick (typically low payed) money. A really good example from Australia is the apprenticeship scheme, where people are now *not* willing to work in a low paid job for 3-4 years, even though it basically guarantees a well payed future. Oddly enough, they are willing to pay to go to university for 3 years.

I don't think most of these things don't have much to do with capitalism. Rather, they have more to do with general apathy, and the fact that people are not willing to invest in the younger generation anymore (including the younger generation themselves).
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