ZiF Research Group

In Search of the Global Labour Market

Actors, Structures and Policies

October 2017 - July 2018

Convenors: Ursula Mense-Petermann (Bielefeld, GER), Thomas Welskopp (Bielefeld, GER), Anna Zaharieva (Bielefeld, GER)
ZiF Research Group Workshop

Closing Conference
In Search of the Global Labour Market: Actors, Structures and Policies

31 January - 1 February 2019
Convenors: Ursula Mense-Petermann (Bielefeld, GER), Thomas Welskopp (Bielefeld, GER), Anna Zaharieva (Bielefeld, GER)

With their sixth and final conference, the fellows of the Research Group 'In Search of the Global Labour Market' returned to Bielefeld from 31 January – 1 February 2019 to present results of their work and discuss them with an international group of experts and practitioners. Almost half a year after the end of their 10-months residency at the ZiF, the scholars from Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science, Social Policy, Industrial Relations, Management Studies and Migration Studies were enthusiastic to reassemble once more and fill four panels with their — in the meantime fruitfully developed — thoughts on the question whether there is a global labour market at all and how it should be analysed from a theoretical and empirical perspective.

Panel 1 focused on comparative and historical-semantic analyses of the social construction of commodities in 'labour markets'. This is a perspective on work that aims at an empirically grounded and theoretically informed definition of what 'labour markets' actually are and what constitutes their defining characteristics. While in modern societies understandings of 'work/labour' are usually impregnated by the capitalist notion of work performed for financial remuneration ('gainful employment' or 'wage labour'), the scholars discussed if the notion of labour was adequate to capture all forms of work, employment and participation in social (re)production. One of the central questions was if only transactions involving 'free wage labour' should fall into the category of 'labour markets' or if the term 'labour market' should rather encompass all forms of commodified labour.
Panel 2 dealt with the question of how the functioning of the labour market and its global or cross-border dynamics have been conceptualised in different disciplines and from different interdisciplinary perspectives. While labour 'markets' are taken for granted in economics, and also in industrial and in economic sociology, scholars with a background in the sociology of work insist that labour markets are fundamentally different from commodity markets, and many migration scholars are even reluctant to use the market concept at all. The contributions in this section, therefore, offered a critical discussion of the analytical capacities of the market concept when it comes to account for the cross-border matching of workers to jobs.
Panel 3 focused on the agents and practices which enable labour mobility across borders to materialise, but on those that contribute to (eventually) embedding cross-border labour in sustainable forms of working and labour relations. Presentations ranged from empirical research of how temporary staffing firms (TSF) have created and operated cross-border labour markets for temporary staff (Karen Shire), to an examination of the role of social networks for job search in national and transnational labour markets (Anna Zaharieva) to the first results of a case study on Eastern European contract workers in the German meat industry (Ursula Mense-Petermann).
Panel 4 addressed the question whether there are 'global labour markets' at all. The contributions elaborated on the different meanings that the 'global' in 'global labour markets' can take on: a specific scale among others (the local, the regional, the national, and the world regional), real global flows of migration, global horizons or perceptions of the global that orientate actors' decisions and agency, or global institutions that act to protect migrant workers and regulate cross-border labour.

An ending is always at the same time the starting point of something new and it was exactly this what set the optimistic tone of the closing conference. It was all about finishing and summarising a long productive process that had originated in 2016 with some shared thoughts among sociologist Ursula Mense-Petermann and historian Thomas Welskopp, who soon got into contact with labour market economist Anna Zaharieva. This dovetailed into the application for the ZiF Research Group. Beyond marking an end of this process, the closing conference also served as the point of departure of a new joint project — a book project in the form of a collective volume that brings together our thoughts on global labour markets and documents our ongoing debates.

The book aims at a truly original contribution to the diverse discourses on 'labour markets' in the sense that it does not stop short with applying a national frame of reference or analyses only selected aspects of the phenomena and processes involved in isolation. Instead the book will place emphasis on 'global labour markets' taking centre stage in research. Going quite some way to closing this research gap, our collective volume addresses the central question of whether truly global labour markets exist and offers empirical and theoretical avenues for researching the topic. Taking into account historiographical and qualitative and quantitative empirical studies the book strives to develop in particular a strong theoretical approach dealing with all these different aspects of global labour markets and by this gives room to controversial debates. Arguing that 'global labour markets' should be understood as both a way of thinking of central actors and the effects of their practices, the book's editors and contributors demonstrate that the notion of a 'global labour market is an effect rather than a substantial reality.

In four sections, based on the panels of our closing conference, the volume pulls together a number of key threads: How can we theoretically grasp 'global labour markets' and what exactly is the 'commodity' traded on such markets? Which concepts, methodologies and empirical approaches are suitable for identifying and analytically describing 'global labour markets? What does existing empirical research reveal about the current state of affairs and the historical development of 'global labour markets', provided that they can even be regarded as 'global' and/or functioning 'labour markets'? Which role is played by migration and the growing mobility of the workforce for the transformation of national labour markets towards a single 'global market'? How is this transformation influenced by existing institutions, international intermediaries and social networks? We are very grateful, that we had the chance to comprehensively discuss these questions during our 10-months residence in 2017/2018 at the ZiF. Our book presents the manifold results of this collaborative, intense exchange and we hope it will provide impulses and suggestions that transcend disciplinary boundaries.

Collective Volume:
Mense-Petermann, Ursula; Welskopp, Thomas; Zaharieva, Anna (Eds.) (forthcoming): In Search of the Global Labour Market. Brill: Leiden.

Annika Andresen, Thomas Welskopp

Conference Programme

Annika Andresen (Bielefeld, GER), Patrik Aspers (Uppsala, SWE), Peter Paul Bänziger (Basel, SUI), Michele Battisti (Glasgow, GBR), Bastian Bredenkötter (Bielefeld, GER), Jürgen Feldhoff (Bielefeld, GER), Béla Galgóczi (Brüssel, BEL), Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick (London, GBR), Jasper Hepp (Bielefeld, GER), Richard Hyman (London, GBR), Alexandra Kaasch (Bielefeld, GER), Georg Kessler (Bielefeld, GER), Eleonore Kofman (London, GBR), Alan Lessoff (Normal, USA), Mariya Mitkova (Bielefeld, GER), Michael Neugart (Darmstadt, GER), Jörg Plöger (Dortmund, GER), Abdul Qayoom Qaeem (Bielefeld, GER), Sigrid Quack (Duisburg, GER), Alexandra Scheele (Bielefeld, GER), Kerstin Schmidt (Bielefeld, GER), Helen Schwenken (Osnabrück, GER), Elena Shershneva (St. Petersburg, RUS), Karen Shire (Duisburg, GER), Anna Spiegel (Bielefeld, GER), Marcel M. van der Linden (Amsterdam, NED), Tobias Werron (Bielefeld, GER), Kaveh Yazdani (Bielefeld, GER), Zaza Zindel (Bielefeld, GER)

For further questions, please contact the coordinator of the Research Group, Annika Andresen.

phone: +49 521 106-12837