Three representations of insecurity in three narratives of unorganized workers.

AuthorJoseph, Jerome
PositionBy Invitation - Abstract


Theoretical effort depicts job insecurity as "the severity of the threat to one's job and powerlessness to counteract the threat" (Greenhalgh &Rosenblatt, 1984:440), thus suggesting that there are two important dimensions to the lived experience of the insecurity phenomenon in the pursuit of livelihood in and through what is represented by a "job". The more fundamental dimension of this phenomenon is the degree of real threat to one's livelihood and the second element is the degree of powerlessness in countering the threat. Managerial constructions of job insecurity also suggest that both the perception of threat as well as the perceptions related to one's own ability to stave off the threat is a function of "locus of control" and a function of whether the locus of control is external or internal. "Compared to people with an external locus of control, those with an internal locus of control generally see environmental events as having less impact and believe that they have the power to counteract whatever threats their environment may pose" (Ashford, Lee & Bobko, 1989: 807). Locus of control is presented here as a disposition of mind and orientation of attitude which gives the individual a greater or lesser ability to deal with threats. The material exploitation and deprivation that workers are subjected to, emerges from the ability of managerial thought in constructing their subjectivities as either subjects of domination or objects of subordination (Knights & Willmott, 1989). A position of this kind taken in the context of the discourse on job insecurity ignores the structural dynamics of organizational-managerial commodification of labor through the neo liberal instrumentality of job insecurity. Simultaneously, in one theoretical stroke, the locus of control argument exonerates organizational-managerial regimes of any moral compulsions while placing the onus of the social consequences of work on the vulnerable worker who is already burdened by the excruciating agony of debilitating insecurity. However, Collinson (2003: 534), drawing from Kondo (1990), rejects this idea, for "selves are never fixed, coherent, seamless, bounded or whole; they are 'crafted selves' not least through contradiction and irony." How organizational-managerial structures construct workplace insecurities may be crafted through social engineering but how workers as individuals as well as a class handle insecurity and its counter constantly defies straightjacketing to suit neoliberal regimes of work organization. The inherent contradictions in the structures of work organization and conditions constructed around the narrative of insecurity are confronted by worker's own individual and collective acts of creative assertions of dignity and the right to livelihood as a basis for emancipation.

This is evident even more in the unorganized rather than in the organized sectors of labor praxis. The worker counter to regimes of insecurity emerges, manifests itself in the form of the refusal to surrender or conform to organizational-managerial scripts of domination and subordination. The rejection of the praxis of insecurity which views workers as subordinate objects and uses insecurity as an instrument of work extraction (Brockner, Grover, Reed & Dewitt, 1992) also reflects a yearning for an alternative mode of work organization and worker mobilization among those who expend their labor power to fulfill the needs of society. It is this context that we seek to engage with the subjectivities of the marginalized in unorganized work and livelihood spaces to understand better the divers representations of insecurity.

The Method

We draw upon the experiences of three workers from the informal, unorganized sector with whom we engaged as a part of a larger study involving 202 workers from numerous contexts such as stateless refugees, unorganized sector workers, contract workers in the organized sector and formal organized sector workers to understand the phenomena of worker insecurity.

Towards the above ends, unstructured conversations were held with these workers after explaining to them the details of the research project and after getting their consent. Confidentiality of data to protect identities was assured. All the identities of the workers have been concealed in this article and their names have been changed. The conversations revolved around the problems they faced in their lives, their work, the problems they faced while working and pursuing livelihoods, injustices and deprivations experienced by them, their resentments about exploitation in work and society and the possibility of resistance. Detailed field notes and transcripts of the conversations were maintained and many of the conversations were recorded with the consent of the workers. Multiple engagements were sought with workers, and conversations were held either in their work settings or in their homes. They were held in three Indian languages Hindi, Tamil and Marathi.

Irfan, the Driver: Insecurity as Repression

We met Irfan in a place where tempos are usually parked and the drivers congregate to discuss the events of the day. We were able to hold conversations with tempo drivers collectively and individually in this place. This conversational site represented a public space where workers could engage with each other, and discuss the way ahead on matters. It was here we met Irfan, who works as a tempo driver transporting household items from one place to another in Mumbai. Irfan is about forty five years old and spoke about his experiences in the following words:

"Injustice is of various kinds. Injustice is in terms of money, in terms of work, in terms of time table. Instead of 8 hours duty, people are forced to work for 10 hours or even for 12 hours. But the payment is only for 8 hours. People are also forced to work. They don't have a choice. If they don't accept these things, then they...

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