Hectored, humiliated, bullied: how women bear the brunt of flexible labour

A new bestseller reveals how the financial downturn has heaped stress on those trapped in insecure, dead-end jobs

Madeleine Bunting
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 1 May 2011 19.00 BST
‘The harder he makes us work, the shittier we feel. The shittier we feel, the more we let ourselves get ground down.” A cleaner sums up her life to the French journalist Florence Aubenas, who went undercover to explore the “unmaking of the French working class” and the recession. The result, The Night Cleaner, has been a bestseller in France and is now being published in Britain, an appropriate memorial for 1 May, International Workers’ Day, a reminder of forgotten traditions.

It tells its tale in gritty detail. The churn of employment agencies with their cheerful euphemisms – they even talk of solidarity – and endless training courses for jobs that the agencies and the trainees know don’t exist. It’s a charade in which applicants have to think up ways to convince prospective employers of their motivation for the most menial of cleaning jobs. “Needing work” is not considered satisfactory. CVs, even for temporary cleaning jobs, have to “stand out” from the crowd. The lesson that Aubenas, a successful Paris-based journalist, is taught again and again is that she is one of hundreds, even thousands, chasing every opportunity: she is surplus.

“Permanent” jobs are like gold dust in such low-paid, low-skill agency work. For a woman in her late 40s with no qualifications, as Aubenas claimed to be, she discovered there weren’t even jobs in any traditional sense, there was work sliced into small portions – a couple of hours here, an hour there.

To cobble together a wage of €700 a month required several different jobs often long journeys apart. Bus timetables didn’t accommodate early morning or late evening cleaning shifts, so she had to rely on lifts and borrowed cars. The precarious timetable could collapse at any moment: “I suddenly became aware of how fragile my way of life is and feel that I’m at the mercy of everything and everybody,” she writes, as the stress was evidently getting to her – despite knowing that her make-believe life as a cleaner was finite.

There was never enough time allowed for the cleaning work, so it invariably spilled over. “Trial periods” weren’t paid. These were some of the many ways in which the minimum wage was routinely circumvented. Conflict among colleagues under such pressure was frequent. The humiliation of being hauled up for minor inadequacies – not sweeping under a table, a hair in the sink – was constant.

But perhaps the most disturbing incident was when Aubenas was cleaning an office as the employees left; a couple stayed behind to make out. They were only a few feet from where Aubenas was vacuuming but they behaved as if she was an inanimate object, an extension of her vacuum. She had become invisible.

The style of writing and the quiet horror owes much to George Orwell, the father of this kind of undercover journalism. Aubenas is also following in the footsteps of other women journalists such as Barbara Ehrenreich and my colleague Polly Toynbee, who both went undercover to report on low-paid work.

I don’t think it’s an accident that it is women journalists who have pursued Orwell’s lead in the last 15 years; it’s a reflection of how this low-paid part of the labour market has been feminised. It’s the shadow side of the transformation of women’s employment opportunities over the last 30 years; for every Aubenas, Ehrenreich and Toynbee, there have been thousands of women trapped in dead-end jobs. We celebrate the former and determinedly avert our eyes from the latter.

The contrast with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier is instructive. There are interesting similarities – dirt and cleanliness feature prominently in both books. Orwell was shocking by the physical deprivations of the living and working conditions in mining towns. He challenges the middle-class complacency and prejudice that tolerated such suffering. His book is a morally charged argument: it should not be like this.

Aubenas’s story is bleak because it lacks a conviction that things could be different. The story lies in the rubble – literally – of the achievements and failures of organised labour; at one point there is a reunion lunch of former women workers at the Moulinex factory, which closed down a decade ago to move its manufacturing to China. Among the redundant workforce there has been a series of suicides, otherwise most are stuck in Aubenas’s predicament of getting “hours” of cleaning but no jobs.

The bleakness in The Night Cleaner is less about material deprivation (though that is evident) than about the total absence of social affirmation in these working lives. They are cajoled, ticked off, hectored, humiliated and bullied by a sequence of advisers, trainers, bosses and team leaders. In all these work relationships they cease to be people, simply units of labour to be bought and sold; it’s a cruel depersonalisation in a culture that ceaselessly promotes the individual personality. It’s this isolation and emotional deprivation that is the hardest to imagine – and which no undercover journalist can fully convey after experiencing it for only a few months. How does it grind down the human capacities for hope, trust and wellbeing?

This is surely what lies behind the disturbing finding that between 1992 and 2006 the number of women suffering job strain (a measure of stress) tripled to 25% in the UK, according to a British Academy report summarising a decade of research. Women have borne the brunt of flexible labour markets. Given that all the factors known to increase stress such as job insecurity and work intensification have shot up during the recession, that figure is likely to be even higher now.

The links between workplace stress and consequences such as depression, anxiety and heart disease are well established. Decades of research have proved the counter-intuitive true: it’s not the hard-pressed senior executive who suffers worst from stress. Stress is a consequence of high demands and low autonomy, and the evidence is that autonomy has continued to be eroded in many jobs.

The research is clear, but there is a time lag in people’s perceptions; stress is still linked to executives making big decisions. The reality is more mundane: it’s the cleaner pushing a huge cleaning machine around an office to meet her exacting deadline who suffers.

Inevitably, at a time of rising unemployment across Europe, the attention is focused on job creation, and there is not much discussion of bad jobs. This was one of Labour’s greatest gaps, it failed to tackle the quality of work agenda at a time of high employment – apart from putting the minimum wage in place. The consequences of bad work are not just for individual health; recent research by Ewart Keep at Cardiff University shows how a prevalence of bad jobs in an area can deter young people from education and training, neither of which they astutely recognise will be of much help in the labour market. Bad jobs can become intergenerational, locking communities into low pay.

Thousands will gather on Monday to celebrate 10 years of Citizens UK’s national campaign for a living wage. For over a generation, no political party has had anything much to say about bad jobs. They have focused on education and social mobility as an implicit bargain – wanting to offer a tiny number a passport out of the predicament faced by their parents and contemporaries. Small rises in living standards have been the only consolation for working lives that numb and scar people’s sense of dignity and self; now even that promise has run out.