This essay is part of the forum on Social Reproduction

“(T)he subject formed in the flux between waste and value… the permanent labor force of the temporarily employed.(Wright: 88)

“They squeeze you out like a lemon then toss you away” (Slovak factory worker in the Czech Republic, 2016)

Mapping (re)production

In entering the “hidden abode of production,” Marx disrupted the surface appearance of things. The fetishism through which the commodity itself appears as the source of value conceals the human labor necessary for its production, the “congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor” which forms the value of a commodity. In this process of producing value, of transforming concrete labor into abstract labor ‘crystallized’ in the form of the commodity, the commodity gains a “phantom-like objectivity”, obscuring the social relations necessary for its production (1990: 128, 165). In the Czech Republic, migrant workers (re)production as ‘disposable’ labor power for the manufacturing sector is partly secured through a network of workers dormitories and work agencies. The relations of workers’ social (re)production are core to the operations of this migrant labor system.

There is an interesting parallel of methods between Marx in Capital and the feminist scholars who critiqued his conceptualization of labor power reproduction. As Marx drills into the commodity form, discovering social relations between people not economic relations between things, so feminist scholars have further “de-thingified” the relations emanating from that most ‘peculiar’ commodity labor power, by highlighting its reproduction to be a matter of unwaged work and specifically gendered and racialized social relations (Weeks, 2011; Federici, 2012; Fortunati, 1995; Dalla Costa and James, 1972; Katz, 2001; Fraser, 2014; Strauss and Meehan, 2016). Just as the value of the commodity in Marx’s frame is congealed human labor, so we might trace labor power as formed of the reproductive labors of others from within specific, geographically and historically produced, social relations of reproduction (Dalla Costa and James, 1972; Strauss and Meehan, 2016). As Elson explains: “Marx’s solution was not to go outside the form looking for factors to explain it, but to go inside the form, to probe beneath its immediately apparent appearance” (1979: 142). Similarly, these feminist interventions highlighted ways that the gendered construction of reproductive labor means it appears as ‘life’ outside of ‘work,’ but is simultaneously inseparable from capitalist production of value. Leopoldina Fortunati in The Arcane of Reproduction demonstrates how the appearance of these ‘dual characters’ is a core constituent feature of the operation of capitalist social relations: “It is the positioning of reproduction as non-value that enables both production and reproduction to function as the production of value.”[1] (1995) This dual appearance of the production-reproduction relation as at once a difficult categorical distinction to maintain and a materially produced/reproduced border within everyday life, was revealed as an integral feature of this relation.

This is a tension which continues to exist within social reproduction theory (SRP), and usefully reflects the multiplicity which exists within life’s work: the often tense relations between the reproduction both of labor power, and of the full human who is its bearer. These tensions within SRP are here explored in relation to the system of labor migration operating in the Czech manufacturing sector, where workers from both EU and non-EU countries are employed on precarious contracts, often through work agencies, and housed in workers’ dormitories. In this context, understanding that production and reproduction are tightly, internally interconnected and co-constituting, but simultaneously exist in tension or contradiction, is fundamental. Rather than mapping the border between ‘production and reproduction’ as binary categories, it asserts the need for a politics of (re)production capable of accounting for both their interconnection and separation. In her now well-known formulation, Katz (2001: 711) posited social reproduction not only as the ‘fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life,’ but also as a “set of structured practices that unfold in dialectical relation with production, with which it is mutually constitutive and in tension.” SRP is able to map the internal connections between areas of social life which may on the ‘surface appearance of things,’ appear as distinct domains.

The problem arises, however, when we examine how analysis of a particularly gendered and racialized context of the Fordist-era ‘white western housewife’ continues to equip SRP with its analytical architecture and spatial imaginaries. I ask here how this inheritance can operate to invisibilize the lives of migrant workers in the Czech manufacturing sector. These workers’ social reproduction is secured through a system of dormitories which present an infrastructure of ‘degraded reproduction’ subsumed to the control of employers and crucial to the production of ‘disposable labor.’

Between waste and value: producing disposable labor

I sit on one of the two chairs in Julian and Maria’s dormitory room, Julian stretched out on their bed, Maria frying potatoes in the kitchenette they share with four other people. Migrant workers from Romania I met during fieldwork in industrial cities in the Czech Republic, Julian and Maria were employed via a work agency in a factory manufacturing electronics, which I will here call ‘PrekTech.’ Located in a medium-sized city in the Czech Republic, it is the city’s largest factory and forms part of PrekTech’s status as one of the world’s largest contract manufacturers of electronics. Housed in a workers dormitory alongside other migrant workers from both EU and non-EU countries,[1] and employed on temporary and precarious contracts, Julian and Maria form part of a growing body of ‘disposable’ migrant labor working the assembly lines of the globalized manufacturing sector in the Czech Republic (Andrijasevic and Sacchetto, 2014; Čaněk et al 2015; Čaněk et al 2016; Trlifajova, 2014).

The timetable of production for contract manufacturers in the electronics sector is largely determined by the lead firms, such as Apple, HP or Dell, who contract them to produce their branded electronics. Short product cycles, rapidly declining value of parts and finished products, and intense competition between brand names and the manufacturers bidding for their contracts, drive down production costs, create high fluctuation in production levels and therefore demand for labour, and create an imperative for speed throughout the supply chain. PrekTech operates just-in-time production, and faces seasonal, fluctuating levels of production demanding a workforce correspondingly fluctuating in size. A system of temporary migrant labor, employed via temporary work agencies, entirely ‘fire-able/disposable’ and housed in dormitories, is used by PrekTech to ‘solve’ this labor supply problem. The dormitory system and temporary work agencies are central to the production of a ‘just-in-time’ migrant workforce matching PrekTech’s fluctuating timetable of production.

Julian and Maria’s usual work regime was made up of 12-hour shifts in a three-shift rotation system, in which day and night shifts are mixed together each week: two 12-hour day shifts (6am—6pm); two 12-hour night shifts (6pm—6am); and two days off.[2] But on this day, with body clocks scrambled by the shift system, they had called in sick to work. Seizing this precious day of relaxation meant swallowing the 114kc ‘accommodation fee’ the agency would deduct from each of their wages for the day missed from work.[3] “It’s worth it” Julian said before describing why:

Stress is everywhere, you know, everywhere you work, everyone is stressed, but not like that. Every day – ‘do it do it do it’, everyday same shit, it’s awful. The pain – your feet, your hands…you ‘go boom’ [gestures with his hand to his head]. There’s only so long you can stay, before you just need to get out of here. I’ve been here 8 months, but I feel like I’ve aged 10 years.

Complaints of bodily pain were not uncommon amongst the workers I met, who spent their 12-hour shifts standing at the assembly line, but neither were remarks about the difficulty of getting rest in the dormitory space, which many workers themselves characterized as ‘disordered’, ‘dirty,’ or ‘noisy.’ Working through the agency at PrekTech, left many feeling depleted, and searching for ways to ‘snatch back’ time and energy for themselves.

The dormitory, a former army barracks now privately owned and operated with capacity for around 600 people, offers bedrooms accommodating up to five people per room, and shared kitchens and bathrooms, which the work agency rents out for its workers. The work agency, which operates as a subcontractor to PrekTech and manages a certain number of assembly lines within the factory, provides this dormitory accommodation for ‘free’ to its workers, whom it recruits and transports primarily from Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. This accommodation is available only for agency employees: loss of work simultaneously brings loss of accommodation, meaning that work precarity is compounded by the immediate existential threat of homelessness. Entering agency employment is frequently utilized as a means to access housing. Each nationality group is managed by a specific agency coordinator with whom they have shared language, whilst rooms are also allocated on the basis of nationality. This structure not only (re)produces nationality in particular ways, but also often ‘client-like’ relations between workers and their coordinator.

For Julian and Maria, this day in their workers’ dormitory was not, however, the most relaxing. Complaints about unwashed dishes left in the shared kitchen sink mixed in with tense conversations about whether or not they had saved up enough money to leave and seek work ‘further west.’ Noises from the room next door, where another Romanian couple lived, sparked at first nervous listening, then debate in hushed tones about whether or not to intervene, before a loud bang and cry caused Maria to rush next door with threats to call the police unless he “left her alone.” These initial fears of domestic violence were then ‘explained’ as an argument caused by the stress of an early morning visit from the work agency coordinator, who had angrily demanded an explanation for an unannounced absence at work and upon discovering cigarettes had been smoked in the bedroom landed the neighbors with a 1,000kc fine. Repeated instances of domestic violence led to other dormitory inhabitants threatening to tell the coordinator, and have the offender kicked out. Not only was the employer positioned by workers as arbiter, but other workers used the housing precarity embedded within capital’s organization of social reproduction as a way to exercise power over the violence of a fellow worker and dormitory inhabitant.

There are two things in particular to be highlighted here. Firstly, that the dormitory in itself presents a profoundly binary-troubling space, containing a multiplicity of ‘home-work’ relations which produce the laboring subject as more and less disposable. Secondly, in offering only partial reproduction of labor power, the dormitory operates as a key infrastructure in the production of disposable laboring subjects. The broader system of migrant labor in operation at PrekTech is predicated upon this diminished reproduction.

Work-Life-Work-Home

As a theoretical frame, social reproduction has classically hinged upon exploring the relationality of two central domains: capitalist ‘production’ of value and the processes of social ‘reproduction’ of the conditions and relations which make this possible. This categorical bordering of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ has tended to rely upon the visibility of another binary: temporally mapped as waged and unwaged labor time, and spatially mapped onto the domains of ‘home’ and ‘work’. The traditional staple of social reproduction theory has been to focus on how the unwaged, and correspondingly gendered, reproductive labor undertaken within ‘private’ households relates to capitalist production of value.

This context, however, is one in which the relations of workers’ social reproduction, in spanning across what might be considered the ‘home-work’ binary, render too-firm conceptual boundary lines around ‘home’ and ‘work’ difficult to sustain. This system of migrant labor operates within a non-binary multiplicity of ‘home’ and ‘work’ in two senses. Not only are the spaces and relations of ‘home’ multiple and stretched geographically across space (Burawoy, 1976; Smith and Winders, 2008); but the relations of ‘work’ are also tightly interwoven into the dormitory as an infrastructure of workers’ daily reproduction. Colleagues are also roommates sharing the intimate spaces of ‘personal life’; lovers, partners, husbands and wives risk sanctions to help each other complete tasks on the assembly line, before negotiating use of the dormitory’s shared kitchen with non-familial ‘work’ colleagues.

Moreover, time spent in the dormitories is often characterized as ‘waiting for work’. This time spent waiting for shifts is unwaged work: the disciplinary performance of ‘surplus labor’ in a broader context of generalized labor shortage. These cramped relations of reproduction in the dormitories, where competition for the work becomes immediately visible, tends to have a disciplinary impact on agency workers who feel themselves precarious and replaceable despite the generalized labor shortage within the Czech manufacturing sector.[4] Non-waged time is fundamental to the production of laboring subjects.

The dormitory is a space into which employers frequently reach. Agency coordinators make daily visits to find people who have not turned up for work, move people in and out of the dormitory, hang up work timetables, and deal with disciplinary issues. Beyond the fact of this as employer-provided accommodation, in which it is possible to live only so long as one remains an (‘unproblematic’) employee, work agency coordinators are responsible for exercising disciplinary control to manage ‘problematic behavior’ within the dormitory spaces. This means workers face fines for things like smoking in bedrooms, making noise after 10pm, or letting guests stay over, with dormitory staff calling coordinators in to resolve disputes or disruptions. Whilst fines are paid to the dormitories, they are administered by the agency, which takes the money directly from workers’ wages. Workers themselves also frequently turn to the coordinator for help with life in the city: finding doctors, opening bank accounts, translation when dealing with authorities, and so on. The agency does not simply operate as an employer, but takes on more comprehensive control over workers’ social reproduction (Andrijasevic and Sacchetto, 2016a).

Secondly, the dormitories offer only limited resources for ‘successful’ reproduction. The workers dormitory operates as a spatio-temporal technology or infrastructure central to the (re)production and regulation of migrant workers’ precarity. Capital subsumes workers’ everyday reproduction into itself to create a ‘just-in-time’ workforce matching the temporal needs of ‘just-in-time’ production which demands a workforce regularly fluctuating in size. In this context workers’ reproduction is not only impacted by the precaritization of work, but the precarity embedded in its social organization is directly utilized as a means to facilitate the production of a workforce valuable because of its disposability—it’s ‘non-reproduction.’ As Julian identified, dormitories are spaces in which, for the most part, “there’s only so long you can stay, before you just need to get out.” Whilst some are able to remain for many years, for the majority this ‘need to get out’ tends to mean circulation between different agencies and dormitories in search of better conditions. The labor-capital relation is reproduced as one of temporary capture and constant circulation, demonstrating “capital’s attempts to simultaneously valorize and contain labor mobility” (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013: 55).

A new category of worker is emerging in Central and Eastern Europe, the migrant agency worker, for whom a mobile work-life of precarious circulation between workplaces is a primary means of reproducing themselves and their households (Andrijasevic and Sacchetto, 2016b). The dormitory, in making possible only the diminished reproduction of labor power ultimately reproduces a system of migrant labor grounded within disposability. Labors’ diminished reproduction produces the individual disposable worker as an embodied commodity, and simultaneously reproduces the overall system of precarious migrant labor.

Lastly, the dormitory as a terrain of (re)production contains a multiplicity which includes workers’ own, varied and contradictory, attempts to determine the space and utilize it as a resource for their own reproduction. This is at times in harmony with capital, and at others manifests as everyday struggles which shape and transform this labor regime. In calling in sick, Julian and Maria attempted to claim the dormitory as ‘their own’ space of reproduction. But they simultaneously made themselves more vulnerable to being ‘sent home’ at the next round of layoffs, a warning that they later received informally from a manager at work. Attempts to more successfully reproduce themselves both constituted an act of everyday resistance, and ultimately contributed to reproducing their labor power as ‘disposable.’ Ultimately, Julian and Maria’s decision to leave and seek work elsewhere presented both an exercise of ‘exit power’ (Smith, 2006; Andrijasevic and Sacchetto, 2016b), and reproduced a system of migrant labor predicated upon precarity and disposability. The multiplicity embedded within these single acts points to a labor regime for which we cannot deploy an analysis which draws too-sharp borders around the everyday experiences and political meanings of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction.’

Mobile work-lives

This production of disposable labor occurs within a non-binary organization of social reproduction: made up of (re)productive relations simultaneously subsumed by capital and cramped in the space of the dormitory, and stretched across multiple sites of home and work. This context demands that we focus less on mapping the borders of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ as social domains, and instead center the dialectical relationality of (re)production as an analytical category. It is useful here to expand this with reference to Hart’s analysis of relationality as an “open, non-teleological conception of dialectics,” in which she draws on Bertell Ollman’s account of Marx’s dialectics as a philosophy of internal relations (2016). Limited space here prohibits a thorough exposition of this analysis, but suffice it to say that in the focus on processes over ‘things,’ recognition of determination by multiple processes, and consequently the internal contradictions embedded within categories, it provides a useful tool-kit for thinking through the relationalities of (re)production. Production and reproduction are tightly, internally interconnected and co-constituting. They produce each other. But this relationality is simultaneously filled with tension and contradiction.

Secondly, to further social reproduction as a knowledge project we need to inspect the spatial imaginaries which we have inherited from previous iterations, and understand how their remaining embedded within it invisibilize particular lives and laboring subjects. While social reproduction literature has examined the importance of migrant care workers and transnational households formed along care-chains to the reproduction of lives and social relations in their ‘destination’ societies (Hochschild, 2000; Parrenas, 2000; Parrenas, 2001; Yeates, 2004; Kofman, 2012; Silvey, 2012; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 1997); mobility and migration are in general under-explored within SRP. Very little literature has asked what the standpoint of the migrant worker tells us about inherited assumptions built into social reproduction theory. For example, the activities of reproductive labor, or the work of social reproduction, have tended to be understood as anchored in place, which maintains as less visible the mobile work-life practices and geographically stretched and multiplied relations in which these migrant workers figure. As a knowledge project, social reproduction cannot allow these lives to be rendered invisible because it does not detect the expected subjects, relations, or spaces it has been trained to see. This requires that we engage seriously with the specificities of different contexts, rather than approaching them with pre-figured expectations of what social reproduction looks like, and who is engaged in life’s work.

The mobile work-lives of migrant workers circulating within the EU space, including within the manufacturing zones of the Czech Republic, problematize these spatial imaginaries, as does the strategy of capital to subsume part of workers’ everyday reproduction—rather than wholly externalizing it onto unwaged and gendered labor in households. The cartographical messiness in charting how the borders of production and reproduction map onto the spatio-temporalities of (waged) work and (unwaged) home in the context of the workers dormitory signals the need to re-think how we approach their relationality as an analytical category. Rather than attempting to chart lines of connection between two self-contained or coherent spheres, their border determined by waged and unwaged time or the location of work and home, this context demands analysis focusing on processes of (re)production which encompass multiplicity.

If we are to understand space-time as inseparable from the social processes in which it is forged, then it is important to center the ‘messiness’ of the dormitory space as inherently troubling the home-work binary, and the importance of the dormitory’s temporalities to the production of labors disposability. Can we center processes of (re)production within an analysis which accounts not only for spatio-temporal multiplicity, but also the ways that gendered and racialized expectations of how the production-reproduction relation operates invisibilizes certain lives and laboring subjects? The workers dormitory as a technology of social reproduction, in which laboring subjects are produced, and which itself forms a site of value extraction for the work agencies and the dormitory owners, suggests a politics of (re)production.

 

Notes

[1] Workers came primarily from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Mongolia, Vietnam and Ukraine. At PrekTech the majority of EU citizens are employed via work agencies, whilst non-EU citizens without permanent residency are employed directly by the manufacturer. As part of a series of restrictions on labor migration from third country nationals following the 2008 economic crisis, the state banned employment of non-EU nationals without permanent residency through work agencies (Trlifajová 2014). Non-EU citizens have to apply for ‘employee cards’, which grant residency conditional upon employment at a specific, named employer. Differential mobility for EU and non-EU citizens is a key axis along which the workforce is segmented and forms an important dynamic in differential access to ‘exit power’ as a means to contest working conditions.

[2] Roughly half of the agency workers had this shift system. Others worked Monday to Friday, and often also on Saturdays, with day and night shifts alternating on a weekly basis.

[3] The work agency provides ‘free’ dormitory accommodation, but workers are charged this accommodation fee for unauthorized absences and sick days, i.e. days when the worker is not producing value on behalf of the agency. The suspicion is that the cost of providing accommodation is partly recouped by the agency via deductions from the money it receives from PrekTech for each agency employee, but it has not been possible to verify this. The agency also provides a 3,000kc rent subsidy for those in private rented accommodation on condition of having worked 150 hours a month. Most workers opt for the dormitory because they seek to earn and save as much money as possible, but also as a less risky option. This is partly because it is difficult for ‘foreigners’ to access private rental accommodation in the city, and partly because uncertainty about the amount of hours work they will have week to week means uncertainty both in receiving the subsidy and earning enough to cover the rent. This reproduces a system of spatial segregation, in which migrant workers typically inhabit dormitories separated from Czech citizens.

[4] In the first quarter of 2017 the Czech Republic had the lowest unemployment rate and highest job vacancy rate of all EU states. For more on this see:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/business/czech-republic-has-highest-percentage-of-unfilled-jobs-in-eu

https://www.ft.com/content/ae950cdc-5805-11e7-80b6-9bfa4c1f83d2?mhq5j=e1

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Hannah Schling is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at King’s College London. Her PhD is titled ‘Gender, spatio-temporality and social reproduction: migrant labor in the Czech manufacturing sector’. Hannah holds an MSc in Globalisation and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a BA in Modern History from Oxford University. Prior to starting her PhD, Hannah worked at openDemocracy, Corporate Watch and People & Planet.