A Different Precarity: Gender and Generational Conflicts in Contemporary Italy
In this decade, especially in the last five years, European social movements have
developed increasingly on the issue of flexibilization of labor. These movements are clearly a response to neo-liberalization and the reduction of welfare and the so–called “social rights” acquired, after intense struggle, by citizens of the industrialized countries during the 20th century (Hobsbawn, Piven and Cloward).
In Italy in particular, several new laws and tax measures passed over this period have transformed the workplace both qualitatively and quantitatively, particularly through the proliferation of temp-agencies and new types of short-term contracts. While a number of books and research have focused on how these shifts have impacted the workforce in general (Tiddi, Zanini, Chaincrew, Accornero), a gendered approach is uncommon and underdeveloped (Allegrini 2005). By bringing gender into the analysis of precarity, I intend to address its multiple dimensions, especially the aspects of precarity that impact everyday life and social reproduction. This approach stems from previous traditions of feminist research and aims to avoid any reductionist equation of precariousness as simply
a dreadful condition of labor *1. By analyzing the emerging discourses in the new precarity movement, I intend to provide here some useful insights, eventhough any analysis of such a recently born movement can not provide but a specific depiction of concrete cases. My analysis is centered around the ideas of gender and generations, as two important dimensions defining the emerging movement.
The main argument of the essay is that precarity and job market flexibility are different issues, and that they are not solely negative phenomena for the generation of women in their twenties and thirties. The idea of an existential precarity turned-around and looked at creatively in opposition to the traditional values that Italian society imposes on young women. In fact, various third wave feminist groups are skeptical about security, as it evokes the ideas of a stable life made of marriage, family, and a number of responsibilities both in the house and in the workplace, which came with little recognition. Nevertheless, in the view of this generation of feminists neo-liberal precarity must be resisted due to its exploitation and erosion of basic rights.
Precarity may thus be a condition that makes suddenly clear to all European men
and women the mechanisms that perpetuate vicious cycles of exploitation in a post-industrial context, in which the weight of social and affective labor rests mainly on women’s shoulders, and, even worse, is unevenly distributed between elder women, young women and migrant women. Therefore the younger women’s experience of instability requires new strategies and tools for struggle. This approach intends to be an attempt to reframe the precarity movement as a struggle which requires solidarity and networking across genders, generations and ethnicities, rather than a simple defense of old rights through legal battles. My conclusion will address some current issues raised by women involved in such movement in the light of contemporary Italian (and European) politics.
Precarity as a post-industrial issue
The European context
The so called precarity social movement emerged in the last decade in Italy and Europe. Before outlining its features it is useful to remember, at the risk of stating the obvious, that the contemporary European context is marked by an increase in economic inequalities and growing disparities in social participation and citizenship rights, which are granted or denied according to the lines of skin color, age, masculinity, (white and
not, adults and not, male or not) and, last but not least, northern and southern origins. In this context it is important to look at the precarity movement as a powerful new discourse which has been able to mobilize a generation across the EU and to re-center issues of labor for left movements in a post-fordist contest. However, it is important to keep in mind the limited social and historical scope of this contemporary European movement. There are no comparisons with the similar economic contexts of the North America or Japanese post-industrial economies, where the shift to job precarity already
happened without a mass movement capable of responding to it in the public sphere. *2
An even more obvious displacement of euro-centric generalizations on precarity, as well as on “the end of the industrial work model”, can be observed in the transfer of production to less regulated developing countries. The vast issue of globalization, in all its aspects, makes very clear how immaterial labor (as discussed by Negri, Lazzarato and others) is a broad concept with limited use, as it does not apply to the majority of countries where large scale industrial and agricultural production, as well as “old-style” forms of exploitation are thriving.
No one can deny that the precarity movement enacted some extremely useful strategies of unifying various groups under a shared perspective. Most importantly, it appropriated a negative term and circulated it widely, successfully creating a new political horizon where demands for new rights can develop *3 (flexicurity, unionizing of chain stores’ employees, access to free knowledge and culture, cheap housing and traveling). One can see how these discourses and actions are vitally necessary in EU countries that are currently going through a labor market reform, such as Italy, Greece, Spain and, most notably France *4, which had the greatest mobilization so far, in Spring 2006. However, I intend to address here some material and discursive limits of the precarity movement, emphasizing the gendered dimension as one aspect that can provide a fresh view on the issue.
The specificity of the Italian situation: flexible labor, inflexible institutions
Data provided by the European Commission for Labor Affairs show how 4 million Italian workers have temp, part- time, free-lance or subcontracting jobs5. Of those, 2.5 millions are employed in the public sector, working for the state or for regional governmental institutions (public education, media, regional and city government, postal and health services). In Italy, they fall under a slippery category of “para-subordinate occasional, atypical, labor contractors”(co.co.pro, collaboratore esterno, occasionale, atipico, contingente and many other definitions bordering unintended surrealist humor).
In a comparative study conducted in the regions of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna (CGIL 2005), the large Italian union CGIL, counted 1.5 millions of temp-workers who, two years after being hired (between 2002 and 2004), had not been given the opportunity to improve their contract into a more stable form of employment. So, if we consider that 18% of the Italian labor force has gradually become precarious over the last decade, it is not surprising that this movement has drawn many people into the streets during the last five years. The EuroMayday demonstrations have grown from 5,000 in Milan in year 2001 to 50,000 participants in 2005, but there have been many other actions as well.
Precarity was successfully transformed into an umbrella term with positive connotations, a tool for labor politics in a time in which working conditions do not facilitate communication nor unity and the unions lost many battles. The movement is based on a sophisticated use of internet and other media communication and is itself flexible enough to allow for multiple identifications. While it basically represents a whole generation, ranging from the 20s to the 40s, of (over)educated, politicized, urban youth *5 (often “alternative” people), it is open enough to include issues of gender, migration and
generations as potentially coevolving forces. It is to be expected then that this generation (la generation précarie, as Bordieu called it in 2001) would start to resent precarity, flexible jobs, and grow increasingly disgruntled about Italian institutions and society in general (as argued in the European Foundation for the Development of Living and Working research document, 2000).
Flexibility and precarity issues have attracted the attention of researchers, journalists and opinion makers across the EU, to the point of becoming a mainstream issue and a general talking point among strangers. It is usually discussed in negative terms, through the narration of catastrophic stories in which the European educated youth figures as the ultimate victim. Starting from these diffuse negative feelings, the precarity movement has
thrived, finding ways to channel into a collective action something both personal and new about this generational experience6. The movement grew rapidly also because of its ability to speaking in different terms to various constituencies, raising consciousness among the youth and at the same time engaging unions and policy makers in serious issues.
Post-industrial market, pre-industrial institutions and values
Another aspect specific to Italy is that the economic model based on “flexibility” clashes with the ancient, unreformed institutions that are characteristic of a rigid society in which strict gender and age roles are respected, traditional family values rule and new forms of labor or family arrangements are greeted coldly, with great skepticism and fear. Precarity also means lack of future prospect for a generation which, together the withering public funding, is responsible for Italy’s “brain-drain” in all fields of research *6 as well as in the corporate world. Many professional in the forties abandoned the most cutting edge sectors exasperated by their lack of status, inflexible bureaucracies and low income. For the most part, those who survive in precarious conditions can do so because of some form of help from their family. An example of this is the fact that many young Italians live within 30 kilometers from their parents, they see them twice or more a week and receive material help from their family of origin. *7 (Istat report on Italian families 2001 – updated on 2005). In fact, the Italian family proved in the last decade to be a resilient structure capable of adapting to various economic shifts and dysfunctional public institutions, as documented by extensive sociological literature (Bruning, Frey, Enaip and Censis researches). While I do not agree with much analysis of this field, it is important to recall here Italian family as the site of unequal gender dynamics.
Furthermore, the poverty and restrained lifestyle which characterizes temp-work is not immediately experienced by many youth due to their family’s help. The elderly members are willing to help the youth even to the point of stifling their economic autonomy or personal independence. Even if many young precari strive not to be a burden on the family of origin, the discontinuous nature of income brings them to occasionally tap the already existing family resources. In addition, the lethal mix of precarious jobs for the younger generation and the simultaneous privatization of social services for children and elderly is forcing middle-class families to mobilize all their human and financial resources to maintain their previous average living standard. In being forced to tap into their savings, this class has now entered a debt economy. One could assess an important side effect of flexibility in the clear dilapidation of savings and extra-capital acquired by the middle class employed in the post-war boom. From the Fifties on, many Italian
worker’s families were able to buy their first home, count on a lifetime job to pay their mortgage and look forward to a decent pension, but they now find themselves stripped of their assets. In this bleak social and economic atmosphere, labor flexibilization quickly became another object of complain and frustration, as it reinforced old power dynamics, class difference and traditional family roles. In this respect, precarity shows its ambiguous nature: on the one hand increasing individual risk and flexibility, on the other hand strengthening the institution of the family by mobilizing it to sustain the weight of economic neo-liberalism and the related social ‘squeeze’.
Paradoxes of precarity
Work without (spatial and temporal) borders
Another largely ambiguous aspect of flexible work in the service sector is connected to the emphasis on relational and communicational skills. Professional and personal knowledge overlap, as do work and leisure times, so that work can be done in non-standard hours. Moreover, the spaces dedicated to work dangerously blur the boundaries between the office and the home, so that it is possible to work inside and outside of the office space. Ultimately both these elements create a fluid border between life and work, private and public spaces, so that a precarious worker looses the capability to distinguish between the labor market, the self and his/her social networks. (Mitropuolos 2004, p. 91).
Risk and uncertainty
In the eighties and nineties, some philosophers and sociologists debated “risk society” and information society (Beck, Lash and Urry, Baumann), in the context of the rise of neo-liberalism and its effects, arguing that such a societal shift would require short-term time frames and continuous re-adjustment of knowledge to address the complexity of everyday life. Meanwhile, for the “precarious generation” uncertainty is a given and risk is taken for granted, as they have experienced nothing but insecurity and short-term plans. Such experiential knowledge can only clash with the ossified, slowly changing institutions, in which roles are very rigid. If the generation précaire lives in economic insecurity, works off-hours and needs to be mobile in order to follow rapidly shifting job markets, it simply can not do so when public services do not functions accordingly, or, where the predominant societal logic is the antithesis of both speed and flexibility. Italian institutions have dramatically reduced public services by keeping inconvenient schedules, rationalizing scarcity and increased their bureaucratization to an absolutely inflexible model. If risk and uncertainty are part of the ‘personal consequences of work in new capitalism’(Sennet 1998), the social consequences are much greater, for example inefficiency, generalized discontent among the citizenry due to the failure to harmonize life and work. These examples point at the highly ambiguous nature of precarity. Looking at its ambiguities can provide unusual readings of various ways in which precarity can create a disruptive change. Its contradictions can be appropriated, or queered.
Gender and generations dimension
In fact, from a feminist perspective, precarity has become a useful term to disrupt assumptions on traditional gender roles in Italy. At the very least, it is a paradoxical term which may challenge the rigidity of Italian society , particularly the ways in which it is family oriented and socially and geographically immobile). Some networks of young feminists such as Sconvegno, la rete Prec@s and Sexyshock have appropriated precarity, tried to look at it positively, inverting its connotations in a discursive movement inspired by queer theory, based on humor and provocation. In recent Italian debates, these younger feminists have developed a critique not only of the flexible job market, but of many less flexible societal structures such as heterosexual marriage, maternity, care giving work and loyalty to corporations, brands, or the ideal of a lifelong career.
“If we (younger female precarious) are asked to be flexible, ready to change and avoid planning anything in the long-term, why should everyone or everything else in society impose heavy pressures on us to maintain stable families, stable jobs and reproduce gender divisions of labor?” (excerpt from Prec@s mailing list)
This simple consideration utters a fundamental critique of both state institutions and societal values, in their failure to provide women with practical ways to piece together a meaningful, decent life (Piazza 2003). This statement evokes some of the “second wave” feminist’s arguments, such as the contradictory experience called “double presence” (Balbo 1978), of women working both in the family and in the workplace. This theme is reemerging in the contemporary global context, although it still starts from personal experience (the personal is political, and, if today the global is political, the global is personal).
Today Italian society and its institutions are engaged more than ever in reinforcing the traditional woman’s role in reproduction, partly because of the aging population and the low fertility rate, partly because of the fact that the previous generation of women entered the job market en masse. Even in the private sector, which should be more open to flexibility, Italian corporate culture does not encourage women to pursue risky or high-profile careers because of its sexism (Gherardi 2003). In this sense, risk in not yet socially acceptable for women trying to achieve high professional levels *8. In the post-industrial Italian labor market, risk and uncertainty are more or less acceptable according to a gendered model that privileges the male breadwinner. Therefore, precarity may also be read in different terms by female workers. In this sense, when in the public sphere precariousness is mostly “rendered in negative terms, as opposed to security” (Mitropoulos 2004, p. 90), it seems legitimate to wonder what kinds of regulation of precarity would women need.
This point poses a challenge to both neo-liberalist globalization and to the precarious labor movement and its supposed universalism. In fact, the “cutting edge” of the precari movement, based in Milan, Paris and Spain initially developed a discourse and related slogans based on an idealtypical temp-worker. This subject generally corresponded to a young man living in a Northern or Central Italian urban area, employed in the service
sector, specifically in chain stores, customer care phone services, or large distribution warehouses, performing repetitive tasks. Over time, after dialogues with other political groups, especially women, brought some attention to gender difference in the language of such movement, space was allowed to discuss affective and reproductive labor in the discourse of precarity. In the last few years, the precari movement started discussing issues beyond the stereotype of the young male chain worker, and has begun to address female-specific rights, such as paid maternity (Mayday 2005 literature and flyers).
Nevertheless, the previously limited imaginary, which is still the mainstream image of precarity in Italian media, remained centered around multinational corporations and their workers, an issue often found in anti-globalization literature, as Sassen pointed out:
"Common interpretations of globalization take for granted the existence of global economic system as a direct function of multinational corporations. (…) These companies can only be managed globally because the capacity to do that was produced. Focusing on that capacity shifts the attention to practices that constitute economic globalization; the productive and reproductive labor behind the organization and functions of a global production system. (…) Focusing on the practices allows to understand how much of the resources necessary to global economic activities are not circulating or mobile, on the contrary, they are deeply rooted in a place, a global city or a industrial districts (…) If we look at the geography behind globalization we may find the workers, the communities and the labor cultures specific to a place, and not just those of multinational corporations. (…) By looking at the global city, we can study specific local organizations of global processes, such as central, wealthy neighborhoods in which the transnational professional class lives together with ‘their’ immigrant maids and nannies.(…) In the global cities, informal economy cuts the costs of some activities which are in high demand locally. Such costs are mainly paid by immigrant women." (Sassen 2001, p. 236 in Erenreich and Hochshild)
Mentioning migrant female care-workers points to the limits within which the precari movement built a new ‘precarious’ subjectivity, revealing immediately its historical specific boundaries, euro-centrism and andro-centrism. For these reasons, it is extremely important for the precarity movement to look at gender and precarity together in order to move beyond the goal of unifying a supposed “new” post-industrial European working- class (Mitroupulos 2005). Perhaps it is time to shift into a more complex political analysis that can address citizenship and social welfare, immigration and de-industrialization at the same time.
In contemporary “Fortress Europe”, any struggle, especially around precarity, must keep in mind its excluded “others”. Immigrants have always been precarious, living in conditions of risk and insecurity. As Mitroupoulos argues:
Precarity has been the standard experience of work in capitalism, (…) impoverishment and war had been familiar to many generations of western workers before. The experience of regular, full-time long-term employment which characterized the most visible aspects of fordism is an exception in capitalist history (…) that presupposed vast amounts of unpaid domestic labor by women and hyper-exploited labor in the colonies."(2005, p. 92)
The facts that Italian domestic workers are mostly women from previously colonized areas and their jobs are scarcely paid, bring gender, racism and exploitation to the center of a feminist reading of precarity. This is the basis of current debates among a few Italian feminist groups, which may experience precarity as well, but in very different (racial, age and class) terms.
In this attempt to articulate different precarities it is also necessary to address the often overlooked issue of class difference within the same generation of precarious workers. To be specific, income differences and the availability of family support which can impact the lifestyle of people employed in precarious conditions, must be taken seriously. For example, it is obvious that an Italian female web-designer living with her parents does not experience the same level of instability which an illegal migrant woman lives daily, nor the same level of alienation experienced by a eighteen years old male high-school drop-out serving fast food in an shopping center or in any highway rest-stop.
These differences do not erase the grounds for a feminist critique of family structure, as oppressive for both male and female youth, especially in the typically Italian configuration described earlier, based on sexism and gerontocracy. Female precarity can be seen as a fruitful starting point for a dialogue across differences, where strategies can be shared keeping by in mind the different ‘relative power’ positions precarious subjects may have in European societies.
Creativity and Solidarity
Women have always done social and cultural reproductive labor under precarious conditions in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies, “as disposable labor, service and domestic labor that has always been indispensable to the free movement of capital” (Vishimidt 2004, p. 94). In these contexts, gender roles have always forced women to juggle material and affective labor, often with little recognition in both fields.
In the last two centuries feminist struggles drew attention to these long historical patterns of exploitation, refusing the victim’s role for women. On the contrary, drawing from the best tradition of internationalist Marxist and Anarchist solidarity, women still struggled together with male industrial workers and slaves. During the last three decades, capital has benefited from the struggle of post-war feminists by taking advantage of the disruptions to the “traditional” family and its division of labor. These social changes have created new “needs”, such as fast food and waged “care” industries, which were previously outside of the market. In the current post-fordist system, traditionally female relational skills (i.e. being professional and affectionate, docile and versatile, willing to travel to work and still taking care of the housework) have become highly valued by capital as it moved into the service economy, where the blurring distinction between work and life facilitated new forms of exploitation. This kind of feminization of labor did not coincide with any increased monetary and social values attributed to typically female skills, but led to a proletarization of all the sectors in which such skills are required (care giving, housework, customer care, desire and reproductive economies).
In this logic, where production of immaterial objects through intellectual and cognitive work still carries higher value than social reproduction, feminist movements resorted to attributing creativity to the sphere of everyday life (a strategy adopted since the seventies in urban studies as well) *9. One successful feminist argument was the simple stating of an obvious fact: that domestic and care work are not simply reproduction and repetition, but involve creativity and complexity (Vishimidt 2004, p. 94).
Creativity allows to actively piece together an invented, patch-work identity, by cutting and pasting various roles and inconsistent parts of women’s lives (Balbo 1986). Creativity is also a highly valued currency in immaterial work, which could be given more visibility in its female forms. The last argument could provide today female precarious workers with a sense of active agency instead of seeing themselves as victims of precarity. It may also apply to various political subjects, ranging from migrant care- givers to sex-workers, who certainly know about precarity, instability, risk and creative forms of connecting personal and professional life *10.
In short, the current precariat tends to see only its own kind of post-industrial euro-centric precarity, constructing its image as the universal victim/revolutionary subject. Such a construction may gradually expand to allow for solidarity across different kinds of precarities, and to this end some strategies developed in previous feminist movements may be inspirational. This is especially true when female precarious workers are offered to chose from a false dichotomy between immaterial labor, often proletarianized, and social reproductive labor in the exploitative context of family,
characterized by traditional and secure gender roles *11. This dualism does not account for female creativity and capacity to navigate contradictions and differences. In addition, it denies any intersectional identities, such as those who may be both cultural or information workers and housewives or sex workers, or those who find themselves in–between reproduction of social labor and immaterial labor. This specific group may offer different ways of looking at precarity as inherently contradictory and creative.
Prec@s network: Articulating precarity struggles
The main argument of the essay is that precarity and job market flexibility are different issues, and that they are not solely negative phenomena for a generation of Italian women, especially the educated, middle class youth. Various “third wave” Italian feminist groups (Sexyshock, Fiorelle, A/Matrix, Sconvegno, Prec@s) have discussed their precarity as a new experience in which they are not simply victims, even if it involves risks and challenges. Of course, being myself part of these networks, this analysis carries a strong element of self-reflexivity, typical of feminist research, producing mostly situated knowledge (Harding, Haraway), without any pretense of neutrality or generalizability.
Basically, the debates carried on by these ’30 something’ feminist groups, brought many Italian women to realize the need to address some fundamental everyday life issues, such as income, life choices and the manifold problems derived from entering a flexible, sexist and gerontocratic job market. For the Prec@s network in particular, precarity means rethinking their political subjectivity as multiple, made of complex articulations of the contradictory roles for young women: on the one hand subject to traditional expectations and low economic status, on the other hand, being relatively privileged immaterial workers, enjoying higher-education and middle-class backgrounds. Drawing from various feminist currents and movements, Prec@s engages in a dialogue about precarity both with previous generations of feminists and with migrant women, in an attempt to question generational and ethnic differences, and their effects on feminist theories and practices.
Same place, different times: generations of Italian feminism
In the last decade, the issue of inter-generational communication within Italian feminism has been crucial and difficult. The appearance of a new (third?) wave of women interested in feminism destabilized the universalism assumed by many ‘Seventies generation’ feminists. The latter group was largely unaware and uninterested in the younger generation, to the point that there is still an ongoing tension, characterized by cycles of denial, acceptance and refusals of such a “third” wave (Di Cori and Barazzetti 2001). By pointing to the need for a generational shift, younger feminists have been able to mark their own specificity and the effects of exploitative power dynamics within feminist groups, without being dismissed, or accused of matricidal behavior. One of the most successful strategies that the post-feminist groups use to gain visibility and express their needs involves entering the current debates on precariousness, thus forcing a connection between the larger Italian labor movement and the feminists’ tense intergenerational debates *12.
In recent years, the neo-liberal offensive worldwide and, specifically, the decline of the Italian “miracle” have led to a sharp reduction in real wages, benefits, social services and expectations. Living in a precarious context made the third wave feminists acutely aware of the fact that they will never live an adulthood characterized stability, social welfare and lifetime jobs, as their mothers did. In addition, many Prec@s came to the conclusion
that they do not necessarily want the ‘security’ that their mothers had, since it implied a stable life of marriage, family, and a number of responsibilities both in the house and in the workplace which came with little recognition (Piazza 2001). Today, everyday life activities such as shopping, care giving, cooking and cleaning are far from being divided equally between men and women in post-industrial Italy, in the rest of the world (Hochshild 1997). Not surprisingly, the presence of young adults and elderly members in the same family, another effect of precarity, ends up becoming a burden mostly for adult Italian women, whom have to provide the everyday housework and food for multiple generational households (Piazza 2005). The in-between generation of female baby boomers, instead of enjoying an easy retirement after their full-time working lives, are forced to work again in care-giving activities, to help younger and older generations of the same family. When women within the same family are not available for self-exploitation, it is usually another woman, possibly an immigrant, who is hired to carry on the burden of house and care work. In the same way, the precarie generation also fears the likelihood of having to provide care and assistance for their elderly relatives, considering the increasingly aging Italian population. The discussions among generations of feminists developed around a few topics: life chances and responsibilities, and produced reciprocal empathy and solidarity, especially with regards to the issues of education, autonomy and security; three issues presenting unresolved contradictions in Italian women’s lives.
The ‘trap’ of education
Recent quantitative studies show that education does not impact greatly the career chances of a young Italian woman.*13 If precarity and the feminization of labor ended up negatively impacting young Italian women, their access to higher education also came without the many social and economic advantages previously related to education. Certainly, the precariat will not enjoy any increased social status acquired by studying (unlike the previous generation of women), and will quite possibly not reach the status that their mothers hoped for their daughters.
Today, nevertheless, young women comprise the majority of university students in Italy and generally do better in school than their male colleagues. Statistical data gathered by temp-work agencies show that a young woman with a college degree is the least likely to be hired for any position on offer, since they are mainly technical jobs in small industries or clerical work. While Italian societal values still reflect the idea that a college education will give access to a stable –if not highly paid– state job, such as teacher, librarian, hospital or researcher, the job market has evolved so rapidly that today even the public sector largely hires temp-workers, leaving young women few viable options apart from precarity.
The trap of autonomy
One of the desires repeatedly expressed by Prec@s and other young women is that their acquired knowledge and skills should be adequately compensated, and that their work should take place in a environment where professional growth, personal enrichment and cultural development are available (Prec@s on–line document). In a sense, resorting to creative work appears to be a way to call for autonomy, to express the desire to keep learning, to redefine the content and the formsof one’s job in relationship to one’s personality and life developments. By valuing independence and creativity, these women tend to fill working and leisure time with new experiences and cultural events. Such passions make them less willing to put up with hierarchies and disciplined work environments. ‘’We trade security with creativity and autonomy” (Florida 2003, p. 35)
The truth is that many “alternativi” (bohemians) and urban dwellers who are a core component of those who consider themselves part of the cognitariat, would never want stable, life-time company jobs. As a consequence, young precarious women consider their adulthood exciting but uncertain in its outcome, which may also lead to future downward mobility, since free-lance contracts will provide them with minuscule pension funds at the time of retirement. In this sense, the precarity movement has became crucial because it provides active ways of addressing the hidden costs of autonomy: economic instability and lack of benefits and security.
The trap of stability
Certainly, much of the current discourse around precarity in the Italian movement, having been successful in creating a new, visible community, has moved to defining what such workers want. So far, the main argument against the proliferation of precarious jobs is the attendant lack of security. Research institutes and media use sociological language to underline negative aspects of precarity, dangerously relating marginality to the working poor. However, many arguments in defense of security are based on connecting precarity to low marriage rates, low birth rates, low savings and investment, social exclusion, psychological distress and deviance. Similarly, many researches by unions or labor sociologists connect low-income to indexes of dissatisfaction with society *14, position themselves in defense of security, while missing a chance to launch a more subtle inquiry on the effects of social and cultural capital on precarity.
Such language mimics a structural functionalist model of capitalist society in the context of neo-liberalism. *15 From a female perspective, maternity, starting a new family, or long-term financial planning to achieve home ownership are not exclusively positive events, since they also entail less time to work and learn, as well as increased housework.
Coming from a completely different perspective, Newsweek has recently published an article arguing that EU social rights and equal opportunity laws for women have essentially failed to create the kind of career-driven female manager that is necessary to the free market *16. In making a comparison between the EU and the US in terms of women’s presence in important companies government, Newsweek dismisses the fact that, in order to sustain her career, an adult American woman must outsource childcare and housework to exploited migrant women (Parrenas 1999). Newsweek tells a story of resiliency - that Western capitalist societies are capable of reproducing old structures of power. While on the surface they allow more opportunities to women and any other non-hegemonic subjects, such institutions foster female exploitation and devalue social reproduction and affective labor.
Female precarity as (an inter-generational inter-ethnic issue)
Various “third wave” Italian feminist groups (Sexyshock, Sconvegno, Prec@s, A/Matrix) are discussing precarity with the aim of proposing possible measures and political campaigns to make it “livable”, starting from their group’s values and experiences. Their original approach to precarity shows clearly their rootedness in earlier feminist thought and action. While their reflections assume the presence of a consolidated neo-liberal private sector, therefore they do not engage directly with demands aimed at multinational corporation (such as work at home), their demands mostly address the state as a central agency involved in precarity-related conflicts. An assumption that precarious jobs are here to stay leads these group to assess the full consequences and, subsequently, ask the state to provide more security. In this sense, precarity struggles do revive issues and strategies previously raised by feminists, challenging both the state and traditional household family structure as sites of complicity in the erosion of gendered rights and autonomy.
Concluding notes: New struggles, ancient obstacles
Precarity today is a work and life condition capable of mobilizing a great European movement, mainly because job flexibilization erodes labor and social rights. However, it is important to distinguish precarity and job market flexibility, which should be addressed as different issues, in order to allow for a gendered critique as well as to widen the scope and subject participation of the precarity movement.
Beyond the mainstreaming of labor rights struggles to end precarity, lies the more complicated issue of existential precarity, as it impacts affective economies, everyday life, social reproduction and societal values. In this sense, instead of generalizing goals to end precarious labor conditions as something typical and problematic for one generation of workers, current precarity discourse can be transformed and retooled to oppose the traditional values that Italian society still imposes on young women and marginals. A precarious existence is not solely a negative phenomenon for the generation of cognitarie women in their twenties and thirties (namely some active networks such as Prec@s, precarias a la deriva, or Sconvegno). Nevertheless, economic and income precarity do perpetuate vicious cycles of exploitation in a post-industrial context, in which the weight of social and affective labor still rests mainly on women’s shoulders, and, even worse, is unevenly distributed between elder women, young women and migrant women. Therefore, if the need for solidarity among women is stronger than ever, the younger women’s experience of instability requires new strategies and tools for a different struggle over precarity. This struggle must be based primarily on solidarity and networking across genders, generations and ethnicities, not just debates on new rights and legal battles in the name of a universal European worker or citizen. Labor laws and welfare policies ought to be redesigned keeping in mind not just the young (male) European service worker, but also the affective labor increasingly outsourced to migrants and native women. Therefore, the struggles over precarity is not separated from a critique of social values, enacted by criticizing families and everyday life as the key sites where flexibility is allowed to continue and where the negative effects of precarity are absorbed at the cost of reinforcing traditional female exploitation.
1. The core arguments of the precarity movement I refer to here, can be found in documents published in Chain workers and Euromayday websites, Mute, Green Pepper and other magazines from 2001 to 2006.
(See links in the webliography).
2. While I do not have sufficient information about Japan, I must clarify that this is not entirely true in the US. Even if mainstream political debates cheered the new economy, many critics focused on the vast effects of a crude neo-liberalism which characterized the 1980ies. The loss of job security and rights was one of these effects and did encounter some resistance. It’s important not to dismiss the many forms of resistance documented in counter-cultural literature, through the Eighties and Nineties, in magazines like Temp Slave or Processed World, which became central in the sharing of everyday forms of rejecting the erosion of stable employment. (See Processed World and Temp-Slave Anthology).
3. One important aspect of the precarity movement stems from the intuition of self-organizing and replacing the role of the union in providing legal advice and material help to abandoned workforce (Toner 2004).
4. It is worth to recall that a recent statistics published by Italian CUB union identified those Mediterranean countries as the ones with lowest wages, when compared to the rest of Western Europe.
5. A vast increase in such type of contract were also registered between 1996 and year 2000 in continental EU, shifting up 4 points, and reaching 30% of the workforce. In the Italian case, the labor market looks even more unstable if we were to add the approximately 3 million jobs in the gray or black market. (Data from the 2001 report on “precarity and social integration” published by the EU Commission in 2002).
6. It was in fact a timely shift into the issue of precarity that absorbed many of the Italian anti-or- alterglobalization movement, which was heavily repressed after the G8 Genoa meeting in 2001. As argued by Alan Toner (2004, p. 38): A renewed realism as to the acute difficulties faced in everyday life underlies the emphasis on precarity; this focus enables a narration of needs and desires in the first person, facilitating a rupture with discourses of the no-global period which often lapsed into jaded third worldism, where serious problems were often exoticizes as somebody else’s, somewhere else.
7. Such strong family ties also explain to the typically Italian phenomenon of adult professionals, mostly males, living with their family until their forties, commonly referred to as “mammoni”.
8. In regards to social measures and women’s careers, data show that the number of women with part-time contracts in the EU are four times more than men, while in the US it is only 2,2 times more (Censis 1999). It is also useful to remember here that the so called “glass ceiling” is a fairly common experience for women throughout the EU. Italy was rated 35th on the global chart of women presence in active governing bodies. Similarly, in the top European 200 companies, women hold only 8% of board seats, compared to an average of 14% in the US. In France, for example, high power positions often largely correlate to having attended the Grand Ecoles, prestigious higher education institutions which only opened to women in the seventies. Today, the French business school HEC have launched a campaign to recruit more female M.b.A., so to raise the number of female students from 16% to 32 %. Norway is actually is enforcing a quota of 40% female members, not only on within governmental institutions decision-making boards but also in the corporate world. (Newsweek, 02 2006)
9. In some notable cases, as in the wages for housework movement, the state goal was to end domestic labor, as a form of labor without value, which should be recognized by the state and legitimized a reproduction. This demand would push society into a radical redefinition of gender division of labor (dalla Costa 1971). Also, women performing free labor embodied the example of an ideal community where work may exit capitalist logic of value (Bettio 1988).
10. An interesting literary experiment can be found in the North American Processed World magazine, in which arguments regarding information and digital workers were intersected with sex worker and maids, creating a space for close comparisons and dialogues. ( See Anthology of Processed World , concluding
11. Such a view is largely based on an image of the single, male, urban artist or creative worker as the vanguard of the precariat, juxtaposed to the stereotyped housewife, living in the suburb, engaged in social reproduction and discipline. On the contrary, it could be argued that, today, cultural production is subsumed into work and cognitive capitalism, and family may be the context where dissent and emancipation can find expressions (Vishmidt 2004, p. 95).
12. This shows an understanding of “politics of articulation” (Hall 1978, Grossberg 1996) deriving from Gramsci via Cultural Studies and Post Colonial Studies borrowed from the Anglophone debates. At the least, this articulation shows a rather interesting refusal to engage in single-issue identity politics, where one group define itself simply by fighting one dimension of globalization or any other contemporary issue, renouncing a –priori to confronting with difference and multiplicity.
13. Considering that 57% of the European workforce is female and women are slightly more than half the total college graduates, the presence of women in research, scientific committees or high-profile political roles is still quite low compared to Northern Europe or any developed country. (OECD and ILO report
14. This seems to be the tone, perhaps unwittingly conveyed by parts of the Precari manifesto published in Green Pepper 2004.
15. Similarly, some of the arguments proposed by the Intermittentes tend to defend their rights as based on the idea that they are engaging in fundamentally useful jobs for the future of France’s economy. Generally speaking, such arguments fit quite easily with mainstream economic analyses which tend to see the role of EU in the global economy as mainly to export cultural capital and tourism. (See Intermittentes website)
16. In this regard it is also worth noting that Italy scores one of the biggest disproportions between the percentage of women in the labor force and the percentage of those in decision–making positions (legislators, senior public officials or managers or various kinds of businesses): female labor force in general is up to 37%, but only 18% of working women works in decision-making positions, while in France the ratio is 50% to 30% and in Germany 44% to 27%. In contrast, Newsweek points at the fact that the US show a stronger balance, scoring 47% to 45%. (Data published by ILO and OECD, June 2005)
Allegrini, A. 2004 Donne, lavoro e tecnologie IC. Prospettive femministe/di genere sul
lavoro nella società in rete del capitalismo postfordista in “Le ricerche del progetto Portico”, Bologna, Pitagora Editrice.
Balbo, L. “La doppia presenza” in Inchiesta, 1979, 8(32), 3-6. 1987Time to care, Milano, Angeli.
1998 “Crazy quilts: Rethinking the welfare state debate from a woman’s point of
view.” in A. Showstack Sasson (ed.), Women and the State. London. Hutchinson.
Barazzetti D., Leccardi C. (eds)1995, Fare e Pensare donne, lavoro, tecnologie, Torino,
Bettio F., 1988,The sexual Division of Labor. The italian Case, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Bourdieu, P. 2001, “la precarite’ est partout” in Contrefeux. Pour en mouvement social europeen. Paris, Eng. Trans. Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market, new press, new york, 2003.
1999The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Societies Stanford University Press.
Borderias, C. and Cigarini,L. (eds) 2006,Tre Donne e Due Uomini Parlano del Lavoro che Cambia Quaderni di Via Dogana, Libreria delle Donne di Milano,
Bruning, G. and J. Plantenga. 1999. “Parental leave and equal opportunities: Experiences
in eight European countries.” Journal of European Social Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 195–209 Butler, J., 2004, precarious life, Verso, London,
CGIL Nidil, 2005, Lotta Alla Precarieta’Diritti e Welfare nel Lavoro Atipico, Roma.
CENSIS, L’impatto della flessibilità sul lavoro delle donne, Roma, 1999.
Dalla Costa, M. and James, S., The power of women and the subversion of community, 1973, Bristol, Falling Wall Press.
del Re, A., “Women and Welfare: where is Jocasta?” In Radical thought in Italy in the Seventies, University of Minnesota press, 1996, ed. (P. Virno and M. Hardt)
Di Cori P and Barazzetti D. 2001 (eds.),Gli studi delle donne in Italia, Carocci
EC, European commission,(ed)2001. Gender Equality and Social Security: An Engine for Economic Growth. Swedish Presidency Discussion Paper.
EC, DG labor and social affairs 2002 Employment in Europe 2002, Bruxelles.
EnAIP EMILIA-ROMAGNA (edited by), Conciliazione/condivisione: tempi di vita e tempi di lavoro, 2003.
Erenreich, B. and Hochshield, , A.R. 2002, Global Woman. Nannies, maids and sex- workers. donne globali, Cornell UP, trad. It. Donne Globali, Feltrinelli 2004.
European Foundation for the Development of Living and Working “Quality of work and
Employment in Europe. Issues and challenges”, in Foundation paper, n. 1 2000.
Florida, R. 2003 The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work,
Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, London, Basic books, trad. it L’ ascesa della nuova classe creativa. Stile di vita, valori e professioni, Milano, Mondadori.
Foti, A., “May day, Euro flex worker, time to get a move on ” in Green Pepper Magazine –Precarity issue, 2004, p.21-27.
Frey L., Livraghi R., 1998,“Lavori atipici, flessibilità del lavoro e problematica del
lavoro femminile”, in Quaderni di economia del lavoro, n. 62.
Gherardi, S.Poggio, B. Donna per fortuna, uomo per destino. Il lavoro raccontato da lei e da lui, Etas, 2003
Gramsci, A. 1949,Gli intellettuali e l’organizzazione della cultura, Turin, Einaudi,.
1985. Selections from Cultural Writings. (Forgacs and Nowell-Smith eds) Harvard University Press/
Grossberg, L., 1996, “On postmodernism and articulation: An interview with Stuart Hallo in Morley and Chen (Eds.). Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in Cultural studies. pp. 131-150. London: Routledge.
Hall, S. ,1978 "Popular culture, politics, and history", in Popular Culture Bulletin, 3, Open University.
Harding S., 1986, “From empiricism to Standpoint epistemology” in The science question in feminism, Cornell UP.
1997, Situated knowledge Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives , London, Routledge.
2003 The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies London, Routledge
Haraway, D., 2000 Modest Witness@Second Millenium. FemaleMan Meets
OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience , London, Routledge.
Hochshild, A. et al. 1997.The second shift:Working parents and the revolution at home, NY, Avon.
Holz, M., e Michaelson L., 1998, “Problemi femminili: lavoro salariato e casalingo” in
processed world, antologia: ribellione nella silicon valley, shake edizioni milano,. Istat, Rilevazione trimestrale sulle forze di lavoro, media 2001, 2005 update.
IRES, (ed), “Il lavoro atipico in Italia”, in Rassegna sindacale, n. 35, 2000.
Kelly, J. .1997,Best of Temp Slave Anthology, GC press,WI,
Leccardi C., 2006“La reinvenzione della vita quotidiana”, in Il femminismo degli anni Settanta, Viella.
Lewis, J. and Meredith. B. 1987,Daughters Who Care, London, Routledge.
2001. “The decline of the male breadwinner model: The implications for work and care.” In Social Politics, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 152–70.
Mitropoulos, A. “Precari-us?” In mute – culture and politics after the net, n. 29, Spring 2005 p. 88-96.
Mohanti, C. and Russo A., Torres L., 1991, Third World Women and the politics of feminism , Indiana UP.
OECD (ed),2001, “Good versus bad job: the quality of service sector jobs” in Employment outlook.
Paoli P. ,and Merllié, D. eds., 2001, Third European Survey on Working Conditions 2000, Dublin.
Parrenas, Salazar, R., 2001, Servants of Globalization : Women, migration and domestic work, Stanford U.P, CA.
Piazza, M., 2003, Le trentenni, Fra maternità e lavoro alla ricerca di una nuova identità Milano, Mondadori.
2006,Un po’ di tempo per me. Ritrovare se stessi, vivere meglio, Milano,mondadori 2000 (et. al) Competenze S-Convenienti, Milano, Editoriale Aesse.
Rutherford (ed.), J.,1990. Identity: Community, Culture and Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Sennet, R1998. The corrosion of character: the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, London,Routledge. Tiddi, A., 2002, Precari, Percorsi di vita tra lavoro e non lavoro, DeriveApprodi.
Toner, A. , “exploiting precariousness,” in Mute – culture and politics after the net, n. 29, spring 2005 pp35-39.
“Manufacturing Dissent”, in Green pepper magazine precarity issue, 2004, pp. 19- 41.
Touraine A., 2000 “Stiamo entrando in una società dei lavori”, in Sociologia del lavoro, n. 80
Vishmidt, M.“precarious straits”, in Mute magazine, 2004.
V.A. Generazioni di donne a sconvegno, 2003Quaderno della nuova collana della rivista Pedagogika, Milano Ed. Stripes,.
V. A, 2005, Precariopoli. Parole e pratiche delle nuove lotte sul lavoro, Roma,Manifestolibri.
V. A. Newsweek “Stuck in place issue: the myth of women’s equality in Europe”, February 26 2006, pp. 36-45.
V.A. 2005,Precarity fightsharing iii, video dvd, , Amsterdam, Green pepper project.
V.A. 1990,Bad attitude, the processed world anthology., Bay Area Center for Art and Technology, California. trad. it. Processed world, ribellione nella silicon valley, conflitto e rifiuto del lavoro nel postfordismo. 1998, Shake edizioni, milano.
V. A. “precariat” Republicart 2004, web journal accessible at: http://www.republicart.net
V. A. 2004,The Middlesex Declaration of the European Precariat, 2005. accessible at:
V.A. (Chaincrew), 2003 Chainworkers: lavorare nelle cattedrali del consumo, derive e approdi
Zanini , A. , Fadini U., (eds), 2001, Lessico postfordista. Dizionario di idee della mutazione, Milano, Feltrinelli,
Young, I.M. 1990, “Polity and group difference: A critique of the ideal of universal citizenship.” Ethics, Vol. 99, pp. 250–274.
-prec@s, italia http://www.women.it/ precas
-generazioni di donne a sconvegno,milano http://www.sconvegno.org
-sexyshock, bologna www.ecn.org/sexyshock/
- Precarias a la deriva, Madrid, Spain (see also escalera karakola)
- chainworkers.org, Milano
-Athena Network Europe, Amsterdam.
-Next Genderation European network.
-Generation Précaire, Paris.
Glossary (adapted from A . Foti’s contribution to Green pepper magazine, 2004.p.18).
Precarity- from the Latin precor-preaece- to pray because someone or something is
depending on uncertain premises or unknown conditions. Precarious as an adjective
indicates a lack of security and stability that threatens with danger.
Precarious worker (in the English speaking world such definition corresponds to temp-
worker or in recently literature can be defined flex-worker). Someone employed
temporarily in information and service sector, under non– standard contracts and
schedules – without social security or contract benefits.
Somebody performing a flexible service work. While informational skills are essential
for this kind of job, relations skills provide the most value to the employer.
Precarious workers are interchangeable by firm and possess low individual power in the
labor market. Collectively, however, they (could) possess tremendous bargaining power
since they are situated in crucial sectors, where social production (service, distribution
transportation and communication) and reproduction (care giving) intersect.
(Synonym with) precarie
a.k.a. "cultural worker, immaterial, brainworker", i.e.: free-lance, artist, I.T. worker,
somebody usually employed in education, media, research institutes or advertisement
firms, with a contract that involves giving to the employer the product of his/ her
technical language or knowledge skills, all amplified by computer processing and formal
and informal networking. This process occurs not only during working time, but spills
over into the worker’s life through his/her use of cell phones, pda’s, email and other
supposedly neutral or private technologies.
Chainworker is a term first appeared in an Italian webzine funded in 2000, to give a
name to the temp workers employed in shopping malls, chain stores, warehouses and
customer care phone centers, usually owned by multinational corporations. They are
unhappy successors of those working on assembly lines (in a chain of production) in the
industrial economies, and those chain-ganged into slavery earlier, under forced labor
and servitude typical of early capitalism.
The "precariat", “the chainworkers” and the "cognitariat" are largely invisible or
excluded, as their work takes place at the limits of the informal economy, oscillating
between being paid and unpaid, black-market and limited contract forms, and, it usually
takes place in deregulated workspace (at home, in temporary structures or in cyberspace).