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)
In the final days of July 2018 the co-presence and residential period of our ZiF Research Group 'In Search of the Global Labour Market' came to an end. Over the previous ten months, beginning in October 2017, the three organisers, 12 fellows and numerous guests had met in person on the premises of ZiF and discussed, most frequently at weekly jours fixes, the question if a global labour market actually exists and, if so, what it means in terms of empirical phenomena to speak of 'global' labour markets.
The Research Group, therefore, reacted to a widely and either enthusiastically or gloomily publicised current topos: Never before has such a large number of people left their home countries and migrated in the hope of better working and living conditions elsewhere in the world. Never before did so many people travel between countries on an everyday basis. In Germany alone, some 180 million business trips abroad are made each year. Are such observations a sign of an emerging and vastly expanding global labour market or should we better speak of cross-border work migration among nation states? There is little verifiable empirical knowledge about the consequences of globalisation for labour markets and it is baffling that the 'global/transnational labour market' has yet rarely been subjected to theoretical clarification and systematic research.
This was the point of departure of our Research Group for solving this conundrum by bringing together expertise and perspectives from a number of disciplines usually not very prone to talking to one another: history, economics, the sociology of markets and of work, industrial relations, migration research, regulation research, political economy and geography. We agreed to start by working out disciplinary differences in the understanding of each and every term of our common theme 'Global Labour Market': 1. the notion of labour, 2. concepts of markets and 3. the question of what is 'global'.
The central point of a very productive controversy was the question of the actual meaning of 'free wage labour' in capitalism. There was no final consent if this is, under capitalism, a necessary precondition to be able to speak of a 'labour market' proper. There was some agreement that to be economically bare and contractually free means to exercise personal sovereignty to engage in economic transactions of the person's own labour power for a specified period of time for a wage with the capacity to enter and exit contracts. We looked at this question in particular regarding the recent diffusion of contract labour, temporary hiring agencies and other forms of recruitments for fees, as well as the persistence of trafficking, bonded labour and forced labour. 'Labour markets' proper — in this sense — are found to develop shady peripheries where the term 'free wage labour' appears at least blurred.
In consequence, we debated in how far labour can be a 'commodity'. Is the notion of labour adequate to capture all forms of work, employment and participation in social (re)production? Obviously it is not, but it has been argued that the abstract notion of labour has never been intended to do justice to all forms of human productive behaviour but to make diverse forms of gainful work for monetary profit comparable. Insofar we must analyse the short-circuiting of the term under capitalism as one of the system's characteristics.
As for the question of labour as a 'commodity' the difference to the exchange of goods or financial assets was defined in the way that a 'labour contract' is not terminated with the transaction but constitutive of a social relation that only begins afterwards. Therefore the 'commodity' labour transacted means an exchange of promises — future expenditure of physical activity and dexterity for a wage — rather than one of materially feasible assets.
Our very illuminating first workshop Labour — Or what is Exchanged in Labour Markets? (1-2 February 2018) was dedicated to this topic.
We came to discover that the term 'market' in history has largely remained underdetermined and in present times has only been discussed in detail in economics and in the sociology of markets. In economics the focus is on the mechanism design, information transmission, price-setting and the degree of competition. In the sociology of markets there appears a tendency to essentialise the modern abstract 'market' as a standing 'social structure. Thus a more social constructivist and a pragmatic notion of the abstract 'market'—again a characteristic of capitalist parlour — developed side by side, creating a productive dialectic tension which may be productive in propelling future interdisciplinary research.
In this context: When and why did the concept of 'labour market' emerge in the discourse about labour relations and working conditions?
What is unique about 'labour markets' in comparison to other forms of markets (real estate, goods, etc.)? There was a broad understanding that the 'labour market' is the revolving door into the (more or less) lasting productive antagonism between capital and labour and thus a key to a future working relationship rather than a spot transaction. This involves the inseparability of labour power from the worker's person — if a robot is used it is not labour. The immediate consequence of this allocation arrangement is that a 'transformation problem' or — for higher charges — a 'principal agent' problem arises which is not covered by the employment contract proper. The final, and probably most important, point is that the 'labour market' is less about instant profitability but more about 'matching' for a productive future working relationship.
Whereas labour markets, as all other markets, originally were specific sites, marketplaces in the true sense of the word such as market squares or other public spaces, over time many labour markets also have become more abstract. Buyers and sellers of labour capacity often encounter each other only indirectly. Advertisements, correspondence, skype and the like have become far more important mediating forces between supply and demand and ties have intensified between separate labour markets.
In this vein we examined how cross-border labour markets emerge and the role that (collective) 'market makers' play. The puzzling situation turned out to be that on the one hand 'intermediaries' of diverse specifications and even more diverse reputation could be identified as 'market makers' of sorts. For example, we looked at empirical examples of subcontractors and other agencies that provided German meat producers with Eastern European workers, provided translators, organised transport and arranged accommodation. On the other hand, the question was raised (and not ultimately answered) in how far regulative institutions such as the state, national social policy systems, and (international) unions serve as labour recruiting forces as well as barriers for channelling and — probably — completely closing migration routes. In addition, we also investigated the role of social networks in the transmission of information about vacancies and job candidates in the context of national labour markets and across the borders.
Our second workshop: Where do Global Labour Markets come from? Market-making and (Collective) Market Actors (19-20 April 2018) and our third workshop: What Enables a Market to Cross National Borders? The Role of Institutions, Networks, and Conventions (7-8 June 2018) were devoted to deeply immersing ourselves into these problems.
Whereas Eastern European workers in the German meat packing industry are part of transnational, but more or less regional, labour markets, embedded in global contexts, it remains almost implausible to portray them as preeminent examples of an emerging 'global labour market'. Tobias Werron provided us with two models of what 'globalisation' actually can mean for the Social Sciences. They are not mutually exclusive. One model suggests that 'the global' is an ideal that important actors conceive of and act upon. This is the 'social constructivist' interpretation of the term but you must not mistake it for a purely imaginary interpretation. Because if the 'global' imaginary enters into the horizon of action of the acting subjects, this will have feasible consequences which we have to be able to categorise as 'global'. The other one suggests that truly 'global' labour relations must be differentiated into those that encompass embedding regional labour markets into global streams and chains of capital (no necessary migration) and into those representing something like relatively stable transcontinental flows of migration. Indeed immobile workers in regional labour markets are often affected by the international trade activities of multinational corporations without experiencing actual migration themselves.
Truly 'global' labour markets are, then, what we could agree upon, in the ideal worldwide relations of worldwide operating firms recruiting forces worldwide for employees for worldwide dislocation. This translates into a rather small set of job branches that are subject to worldwide standards such as football players, airline pilots, scientists and professional musicians. However, this list is not limited only to the high pay professions. In our group we also discussed international recruitment of sailors in the shipping industry. Thus it is rather an international recognition and transferability of skills which is a necessary condition for the market to cross national borders or even distances between several continents. Large multinational corporations often employ locals (for instance, lawyers) or transfer leading managers from the company headquarters to foreign subsidiaries. Thus, a 'global labour market' does not necessarily mean that both sellers and buyers are embedded in one supra-national institutional structure. A very important consequence of this insight is that the 'globalisation' of labour markets is not automatically connected (and reduced to) migration. Yet, of course, flows of migration, and especially the recent refugee waves, are and will be of major concern for future research on 'global labour markets'.
Our fourth workshop: Migration and Refugees from a Global Labour Market Perspective (5-6 July 2018) mainly dealt with these questions.
The upshot of our discussions and analyses may be summarised to the effect that 'global labour markets' can be both seen as a way of thinking of central actors and effects of their practices. This means that the notion of 'global labour market' is an effect rather than a substantial reality. The consequences of the global and cross-border labour migration movements we have observed and analysed are that transactions of such kind may have very different consequences — from brain drain in the sending countries to increased economic growth from remittances sent back home. There will be more international competition but also more job vacancies — due to internships abroad, young people tend to have a more international orientation which might result in a self-reinforcing effect. The benefits to international trade through new networks between countries should also not be underestimated.
Labour markets do have become more global. International migration is an important manifestation of this globalisation and the members and guests of our ZiF Research Group will discuss this further in January 2019 at our concluding conference.