Discovering Precarious Work and “Hotel Mama”

fast-food-strike-AP46472623_620x350Charlotte         Is it just me or is the mainstream starting to discover precarious employment?   Maybe it’s the “fight for $15” push that’s opening eyes?  Maybe it’s a residue of the Occupy 1% theme?  Maybe it’s the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us?  I’m not sure, but I know two things.  One, that, like spring, tales of the precarious are starting to sprout up everywhere, and, secondly, that it has to be a good thing, no matter how odd some of the pieces come out.  None of this is George Orwell down and out in London and Paris, but most of it is more a long look through a telescope at Mars full of observations with very limited, well gloved participation at most.

The New York Times of course has the occasional story of a fast food worker trying to live and raise a family on barely minimum wage, but that’s hardly new.   Recently though, The New Yorker ran a story by William Finnegan, their esteemed reporter on all things south of the US border, where he followed an informal mineworker – one of an estimated 400,000 — in the gold fields of Peru at 17,000 feet who tried to make a hardscrabble living as his fuse burned to an early death.  Elsewhere in the magazine for the life of me it almost seemed that the reader was being encouraged towards at least a glimmer of empathy for Somalian pirates because of the dire economics and precarious prospects for making a living in that failed state.  Interestingly, the business end of piracy seems to be small time, marginal workers hardly a half-step above precarious making “investments” in the success of the ransom demands.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not recommending this for marginally employed workers, but the New Yorker’s door opening for their readers into the other worlds of work outside Manhattan is truly fascinating!

The Economist recently expressed concern for the increasingly precarious situation for Japan’s working poor where even with almost full employment, defined at 4% or less, a record-level 16% of the population is now living on less than half the national median income.  Bestsellers are being written in this orderly society on how to live on less than $16700 per year.  American low-wage workers would love to read some books with valuable advice there!   The bottom line is irregular employment.  The Economist noted that “the number of irregular workers – often earning less than half the pay of their full-time counterparts with permanent employment contracts – has jumped to over 1.5 million.  Casual and part-time employees number nearly 20 million, almost 40% of the Japanese workforce.”

Many reports are now wondering, “How are people living like this?”

In Japan, many, especially younger workers, are living at home with parents as their primary housing and welfare agency.  That’s not unusual it seems.   Precarious employment is forcing huge numbers of younger workers around the world into what is being called “Hotel Mama” in Eastern Europe.  In the US 15% of adults 25 to 34 live with their parents.  In Slovakia 74% between 18 and 34 and 57% between 25 and 34, in Bulgaria 51%, Romania 46%, Serbia 54%, and Croatia 59%.

As more and more observers discover the ubiquitous nature of informal employment as if this is a new exploration into a previously unknown world, it’s a good thing, though I have to wonder how they avoided it so long.  Unfortunately, the observations decoupled from participation, still seem woefully short on solutions or even recommendations, even as the recognition of the growing crisis increases.

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The Search for Community and the Hope for Organization in Southern Italy

the class today

the class today

Taranto       My second day as a “professor” at La Scuola di Bollenti Spirit, the School of Hot Spirits, we were set to dive into how to look at campaigns.  Roberto Covolo, the school’s director started with an exposition of some of the differences in the Italian understanding of “state” responsibility and reflections that he and some of the students had come to as they rehashed some of our first day of discussions of community organizing.  From the discussion his helpful chart illustrated, we were able to look more seriously at some of the changing focus on public and private targets by community organizations that had arisen in the cross currents of neoliberalism and devolution.  We were off to a powerful start!

Next thing you know we were planning a jobs campaign on ILVA, the giant Taranto, Italy steel mill with 11,000 workers.  The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  We actually found a lot of handles and a bounty of leverage points fairly quickly in the conversation, which got the hot spirits thinking just maybe this was all possible.

Next, they wanted to tackle a problem almost literally under their feet, the abandoned properties in “old town” Taranto.  Where once there had been a community of 20,000 people, perhaps now 500 families lived in this section of the city.  Houses had fallen down, been condemned as unsafe, and ended up in the hands of the municipality which lacked anywhere near the resources needed to rehabilitate the units.  The students told me that anyone could buy a unit for as little as 2000 euros, but it might take 70 to 100,000 euros to rehabilitate the properties, though no one seemed to know for certain.  I broke them into small groups to see what they might come up with, and they harnessed themselves to the task with interesting results.  They were getting this organizing thing, finally it seemed.

small groups

small groups

 

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Later in the afternoon, we visited a partner organization of sorts where I later learned some of them were likely to be assigned.  This huge building had also reverted to city control in the new town area of Taranto.  In a former life, it had been a workers’ center of sorts, located cheek to jowl with the naval facilities.  This had also been the site of the Occupy encampment in the city, and continued to operate as an informal youth center of sorts with the tacit consent of the city but no resources including electricity and so forth.

Talking to the various groups in the afternoon that had come to visit with us in the space we could all easily hear the same refrain we had heard earlier in the workshops from the students themselves.  There were many lost communities.  One woman, when asked what she expected from the meeting, essentially said that she hoped to find “allies.”  She lived in an abutting neighborhood and had not been in the space since she was a small child with her father picking up presents being given for Christmas by the workers.  The young people in the group still occupying the site were searching for the same thing without much sense of how to find people and with some estrangement from organization even though they were also looking for the “tools” to build organization. 

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a social enterprise

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a
social enterprise

 

The school and many of its projects were experiments and innovations.  The students were exciting and excitable, talented seekers hoping to make contributions and create real change for themselves.  Over and over though it was impossible not to hear the search for community where people now felt a void and to hear and see the hope for organization expressed in so many ways.  The students have another exciting 6-7 weeks to go in the school.  For my part, I’m going to have to figure out how to act on what I’ve heard in southern Italy and see if there isn’t a way to deliver something in real demand:  community organization!

 

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the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space

the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space

 

welcome to the port of taranto

welcome to the port of taranto

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