A Note on Fieldwork

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A key element of the fieldwork involves the contrasting narratives of management and workers with regard to conflict and cooperation in the workplace. Through exploring contrasting accounts between workers and mangers at the sectorial level, I will be able to articulate the politics of ‘service’ production in the workplace. From the data, I hope to be able to detail different perceptions of the labour process, as well as the modes of conflict and cooperation.I hope to build on materialist theories of the ’structured antagonism’ as well as the political dimensions of the value-form literature.

With regard to workers’ experience in the hospitality industry, I’ve found the prime mover of the employment relation is whether the contracted staff are agency or in-house. The secondary factor which determines different conditions are then between staff who receive remittances from the trunc system and those that don’t. The trunc system is a major source of conflict. Despite working for different companies, workers across the industry have remarkably similar conditions and issues. Each interviewee has so far given both a portrait of their workplace, as well as highlighted key conflicts over the course of their employment. It is clear that the rhetoric and strategy of managers contrasts with many of the accounts from workers themselves. However, this is most stark when they are a member of a union. Unionised workers often tell me that they speak up and aren’t afraid to say when things aren’t right. Most of the nonunion workers I’ve talked to try to adopt the views of management and often internalise them – the ’new spirit of capitalism’ is relevant here as well as Hochschild’s ‘managed heart’.

At the professional level, workers’ dissenting narratives are often missing. For example, the British Hospitality Association – the main industrial lobbying body in the UK – provides a wealth of literature on the industry and argues for its economic significance for the national economy. However, they ostentatiously omit accounts of the reality of work for most nonsupervisory and non managerial staff. Participants’ accounts of workplace tensions and the various tactics that mangers use to suppress dissent – from intimidation to wage theft – will be used as a counterpoint to the managerial narratives that I have collected so far, which fail to recognise the same problems at work. Most managers give a fairly glossy picture of their workplace despite the fact that the industry is plagued by violations and low pay.

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A research agenda for Marxian conceptions of value and the political economy of ‘service’ work

A research agenda for Marxian conceptions of value and the political economy of ‘service’ work

Currently, there is resurgence in scholarship on Marxian conceptions of value. However, much of the discourse has remained within the realms of heterodox economics, political economy, and philosophy. I would like to set out a new line of inquiry, which shifts the aims of this research from the abstract and quantitative toward the concrete and qualitative. Following this line, we will investigate aspects of the Marxian conception of value in relation to the way capitalism actually functions. This entails combining detailed examinations of the real-world experiences of work with a value-[in]formed political economic critique of employment relations.

Marx’s theory of value gives us a tool for understanding the dynamic process of capitalist exploitation that overcomes the fragmentation of that experience. To quote Diane Elson:

What Marx’s theory of value does is provide a basis for showing the link between money relations and labour process relations in the process of exploitation. The process of exploitation is actually a unity; and the money relations and labour process relations which are experienced as two discretely distinct kinds of relation, are in fact onesided reflections of particular aspects of this unity. Neither money relations nor labour process relations in themselves constitute capitalist exploitation; and neither one can be changed very much without accompanying changes in the other… Marx’s theory of value is able to show this unity of money and labour process because it does not pose production and circulation as two separate, discretely distinct spheres and does not pose value and price as discretely distinct variables. (‘The Value theory of Labour’ in Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism: p. 172)

Through the use of a value-form analytic, scholars and activists alike will be able to develop novel political insights into contemporary relations of production and reproduction, as well as conceptualise emergent forms of work – from ‘services’ to creative industries.

Lines of inquiry might include:

  • accounting for productive and unproductive labour
  • the relations of concrete and abstract labour
  • differential and absolute ground rent and labour
  • the meaning of ‘services’ and ‘deindustrialisation’
  • aesthetic/affective labour and value
  • knowledge/intellectual labour and value
  • the value-form and global value chains
  • the value-form and the social construction of work
  • the value-form and the labours of reproduction
  • financialisation, value, and employment relations

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The following is a working bibliography of articles and texts that I’ve found helpful in understanding Marxian conceptions of value in relation to work:

Articles:

Books:

My research: ‘The Politics of Service Production’

My research: ‘The Politics of Service Production’

My research aims to investigate the politics of service production in the UK hotel sector through exploring experiences of work, specifically with regard to labour processes and management. As service industries have come to dominate many advanced economies, studies of work have increasingly moved toward the areas of health, finance, and education. However, with few exceptions, hotels and restaurants remain under-researched areas in employment relations, especially given their growing importance to certain European economies. Hotels are the empirical focus of this study because they represent a microcosm of the variety of occupations that comprise service industries – from financial management to customer assistance, food preparation and room cleaning. There is a strong public interest in researching the experiences of work in hospitality. Hospitality is Britain’s fastest growing industry and currently the fourth largest industry by employment. However, it also has a higher rate of low-paid work than any other UK industry (BHA 2011). Much of this expansion is due to significant rises in tourism and migration to the UK in recent years. These factors may have profound consequences for the shape of the economy and work in the UK.

To understand the nature of work in hospitality industry, it is essential that research directly engages with workers themselves. The study therefore follows in the methodological tradition of widely-respected workplace ethnographies, which have produced classic texts by authors including Michael Burawoy (1979), Huw Beynon (1973), Glucksmann (1982), and Pollert (1981). Workplace ethnographies are an established method of data collection in this field and are essential for studying certain aspects of work. This approach can reveal nuances and complex social phenomenon, such as worker resistance, which conventional survey techniques and formal interviews typically fail to uncover.  The fieldwork for the research therefore entails an industry-wide survey in London based primarily upon participant observation and semi-structured interviews with workers and management. However, it also draws on a variety of other sources including academic literature on the service sector, Marxian political economy, and union archives. There are two stages to the research. The first involves ethnographic participant observation, while the second involves interviews with a cross section of workers and mangers. The research addresses the primary question: “How do labour processes shape the experience of work in UK hotels?” There are two secondary questions: “How does the labour contract mediate the politics of work in UK hotels?” and “How do labour processes and the politics of work in the hospitality sector reflect broader changes in the UK economy in the context of ‘deindustrialisation’?” Through addressing these questions, I plan to foreground key aspects of work in the hospitality industry, while connecting the politics and experiences of work to wider socio-economic dynamics of capitalism in the UK. The outcome of this research will be a detailed understanding of the politics of work and management for the lowest paid workers in the fastest growing industry by employment in the UK.

References:

Beynon, H. (1985) Working for Ford, London: Pelican.

BHA (2011) Hospitality: driving local economies. A Report by the British Hospitality Association. http://www.bha.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ENGLAND-HOSPITALITY-DRIVING-LOCAL-ECONOMIES-REPORT-FINAL-OCT-11.pdf.

Burawoy, M. (1979) Manufacturing consent: changes in the labor process under monopoly capitalism, Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Glucksmann, M. (1982) Women on the Line. Routledge, London.

Pollert, A. (1981) Girls, Wives, Factory Lives. Macmillan. London.

It begins again.

It begins again.

 

This is a blog about the contemporary state of work in the UK from the perspective of workers themselves. It aims to address issues around the growing hospitality sector and the lack of empirically grounded critical political economy of service work.

It is compiled and written by Matthew Cole, a PhD researcher in the work and employment relations division at the University of Leeds Business School.