Revisiting the dirty work of neoliberalism: a conversation with Luis Aguiar

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Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Luis Aguiar is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. His research interests include janitorial work in Canada and elsewhere. Aguiar co-edited The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism (2006), which delves into the working conditions of building cleaners in a global economy tailored to the interests of big business. He is currently working on another book about cleaners and other workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

rabble.ca spoke with Aguiar about a range of issues including janitorial work and the decline of the Canadian welfare state. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your book, The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism, came out in 2006. How do you see the evolution of custodial work in Canada since then?

To my mind, not a lot has improved and the people who are precarious continue to be precarious, and even more so. I'll just give you an example. At UBC-Okanagan, they contract out the janitorial staff. The contract was up for bidding and we protested that the university should bring the cleaners back in-house, because it had done so with food workers [who had been contracted out for a while].

So I made a claim to the university that they should do likewise with the cleaners. Because the contracts that they were under, and the contractor there had employed them wasn't that great. And there's an opportunity for the university to do the right thing, given that it claims to be a world leader in social justice and citizenship, and so on.

But they refused. So the workers do have a contract and are unionized, but their insecurities remain in that in the next couple of years, they'll have to undergo the same process of fearing for loss of their jobs, and if they're hired, they might have lower wages. So they did the whole sort of neoliberal [thing] of contracting out, deregulation and so on. And it just continues unopposed and the university turns a blind eye to it.

So the workers are unionized but still face such circumstances?

The cleaners are unionized but they have what we call a yellow contract. It's a very inefficient union, where the workers basically didn't have much say in their contract, and they were going to get minimum wage only. And so there was a campaign by a cleaning union to get those workers [who want a change] to decertify from the existing union.

But then I saw the opportunity that'd be great for [a better] union to come in but also be great to permanently tie the workers to the university as employees, as are the cleaners at the Vancouver campus and as a result are making almost $20 an hour. Whereas the ones here aren't university employees, and they're making $13 and some change in a city that is so neoliberalized and expensive as Kelowna.

How does outsourcing to contractors lead to wage suppression and lowering compensation packages for workers?

When the contractor wins the bid, 99 per cent of the time they've outbid the existing contractor [through underbidding] to make more money. And therefore, because they've indicated that they can clean the facilities with less money than a previous contractor, then that money has to be recouped somehow.

One of the key features of [contracting out] is to make a profit on the back of workers, and especially those most vulnerable. The cleaning industry is sort of the poster child for this kind of wage depression and downward slide in terms of living standards.

What's happening with contracting out is that there's a high turnover because people, as soon as they find something with a more decent wage scale and protection, they leave because [their working conditions] are terrible. 

The literature on this is clear and it argues that those workers that are part of the existing institution, have better conditions and therefore the work is more effectively done because they feel a sense of belonging.

But contracting out doesn't allow that because their association with their contractors can be so short-lived. As soon as they lose the bid, the contractor is gone and a new contractor takes over and the cycle begins again.

So if the government wants to improve people's lives, one way of doing it is to eliminate contracting out, especially for those least able to make a [decent] standard of living.

What are the health implications for janitors due to increasing workloads and inadequate staffing levels?

So [the outbidding] is on wages, and more work intensification, which can lead to all kinds of obvious health effects. People are getting hurt on the job, but also the hidden injuries [resulting from] exploitation -- the inability to really live a life that is fulfilling as a result of these stresses that people feel and the difficulties of going into the job that you don't like because you don't feel that you matter. 

All those things weigh heavily in people's psyche. And we often don't recognize that or if we do, we associate it with the individual and their lack of ability to deal with issues rather than the [structural issues].

You've spoken about sweatshop citizenry in Canada in relation to cleaners. What does that mean?

It's the idea of really not protecting the most vulnerable in our workplaces, and therefore, they work as sweatshops in the 19th century -- work intensification without any kind of serious regulations and legislation to uplift them.

It's clear that wage stagnation for cleaners over the years is outrageous for people who are no further along than they were 15-20 years ago. Here they are making [just above] $13 an hour in one of the most expensive cities to live.

So sweatshop citizenship is two things. One was to indicate that there are a lot of conditions that exist in particular vis-à-vis cleaners in my work, that shouldn't exist anymore, should have never existed and shouldn't exist anymore.

And then the other part of it -- sweatshop citizenship was a more kind of call out for attention. I wanted to use the concept as a way to draw attention and to make a statement, and then to try to show how that sort of unfolds in the contemporary workplace. 

Using your definition of sweatshop citizenship, would you say that over the past decade there has been an expansion of it in the last decade or so in Canada?

Definitely things haven't improved. And the whole sort of crisis of neoliberalism, there's a lot of talk about things are going to be transformed. But in my estimation, nothing has changed. 

And so we got that process in the workplace, and then we get that process in the welfare state. Cleaners in this case face a double whammy. They're provided with very little opportunity to win rights in the workplace. But at the same time, they face a re-regulated welfare state that also hits them outside of the workplace in terms of the benefits that they can acquire from the state. 

In both those elements, I don't see any significant change that promises anything for cleaners and obviously unionization is a key to this, but there's still so many of them un-unionized, and then many union contracts are so piecemeal in terms of gains to have an effect on people's lives. It's going to take many years, if it ever happens, given the lack of legislation to protect them.

I want to speak about the growth of the Canadian welfare state (which came about in post-Second World War). I get the sense that many people harken back to better times in Canadian history, when you could be middle class and afford a home in a major city, or you could send your kids to university without going massively in debt, before the onset of neoliberalism. Can you talk about the importance of Fordism in improving people's lives?

[Note: The "Fordist" state or the Canadian welfare state emerged during the middle of the 20th century, resulting in higher government spending, greater public control of resources, better wages for the bulk of the industrial workforce and higher taxes on the wealthy. Neoliberalism, which began to take hold in the 1980s and defines our current era, is shaped by reduced taxation on the wealthy, lower government spending, privatization and stagnating wages].

The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu said that the Fordist period was one of the greatest achievements in human civilization in the sense of wealth creation, and the idea of redistributing wealth in a more equitable way. I would venture to say that this period probably reduced the inequalities between classes, unlike any other period in history.

So for those 30 some years there was a plan in place to sort of bring everyone standards up. Now, having said that, Fordism did very little for marginalized communities, immigrants, and so on who continued to be slotted into the jobs that they've always been slotted into and continue to not benefit much from unionization and so on. 

So Fordism really was advantageous to kind of the lower middle-class, upper middle-class. But in terms of racialized minorities and immigrants and so on, it continued to be a struggle. And it was only really in the 80s, and 90s when the labour movement faced a serious crisis that they were forced to turn to [immigrants], by the internal structures of the labour movement, but also by immigrant and racialized communities that became militant in order to push for their piece of the pie. But at the same time as these workers began to make demands, the economy restructured, and so became again very difficult for them to make ends meet. 

How did the Fordist state develop in Canada? Was it the goodness of the Canadian leaders who wanted everyone to have a good life? 

Well, it always comes about through struggle. I don't believe in the benevolence of the Canadian capitalist class. They have to be forced to compromise and it was no different with the rise of the welfare state. It was in their interest to participate. They were brought to the table because otherwise their profits would become unpredictable [as a result of labour agitation]. They were forced to compromise because of pressure from organized labour and others to come to the table.

Based on the track record of NDP governments in different provinces, what can we realistically expect from the party of labour?

If we go on track record -- very little; more of the same. They don't seem to have the nerve to go full force on what they promise. I think this is one of the differences between the left and the right. If the right gets in, [they say] "Here is the platform, this is what we're doing. Deal with it." Whereas the left-wing governments always want to accommodate and appeal to everyone, which basically means "screw the working class, we're going to govern for the middle-class." 

A number of years ago, I interviewed [former B.C. NDP premier] Glen Clark. One of the interesting things he said was -- "the NDP towards the end [of their term in government from 1991-2001) lost their moral compass." He said people in his caucus became so focused on getting re-elected, and trying to ensure that they didn't do anything to lower their poll numbers that basically they became very ineffective.  

He also said that the NDP, when it got into power, it unexpectedly sucked out the best people from civil society into government and therefore, they didn't seem to -- according to him -- didn't seem to feel that pressure from the outside, from the left to stay the course and keep their moral compass in line. So it was a really interesting sort of self-analysis and reflection of the party, that you need inside and outside pressure.

But the NDP, when it's been in power, turns into something that tries to accommodate everyone. The people [within the NDP] that we would like to win those internal struggles and conflicts, seem to be the ones who continually lose, and therefore, the NDP governs in much the same way as everyone else.

When reading [former B.C. NDP premier] Glen Clark's quote in your book, the most interesting part to me was when he said if the MLAs got into politics, "because they're into some interest group, and they don't really have a class analysis, or philosophical or ideological compass, then when shit hits the fan, they're not there." And it's kind of interesting that this social democratic party could have members of parliament who are not really ideologically in line with its purported mission.

Yeah, there are people whose working class credibility seems flimsy or who can be sort of easily changed. I look at [former NDP Ontario premier] Bob Rae as an example of that convenience over principles and [lack of] left wing credibility.

But I think this is also an important point -- is that when you get into government the bureaucratic process is one that if you're not strong, if you don't have strong principles, and if you don't have solidarity within, you're going to be turned to do that things that you would not normally do. 

Because the capitalist system works not only through overt violence but also the violence of bureaucracy, to do things as they've always been done with very little change or attunement to situations that people are facing -- stay the course, do as it's always been done [to operate according to the principles for profit].

So essentially the capitalist state structure is always sort of pushing back against any attempts to reform the system.

There's something to be said about that. You can't restructure the system with the existing power structure.

Zaid Noorsumar is a journalist who has written for the CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and Rankandfile.ca. He was rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019.

Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

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