Should the state help people to become more “flexible”?

Since 1989, rising unemployment rates in Slovakia have been a concerning phenomenon, reaching almost 30% in some parts of the country. The state has tried to fight the problem, by empowering individuals and strengthening their “flexibility”, but these policies have not really helped people earn a living. Instead, inhabitants of marginal regions are using a very different notion of flexibility to survive: informal social networks. Needless to say, these people do not need any special training in this area. They are flexible only because they have to be.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ habeebee


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Introducing Kysuce

Last year I conducted ethnographic research in Kysuce, a region in Northern Slovakia. The people whom I met during my fieldwork often nostalgically recalled the socialist period. I would hear stories of people casually chatting with their supervisor during night shifts or during convivial barbecues organised by neighbours, accompanied by evening drinking and children playing. More than two decades ago, a state of disorder began to overcome the nostalgic souvenirs of communism’s past. As one interviewee stated: “Do you think these mothers will even let their children play outside [nowadays]?” To illustrate the post-communist chaos, she pointed to nearby fields full of disordered vegetation, attracting snakes and destroying gardens.

Obviously, most peoples’ complaints focused on the inefficiency of state institutions, primarily regarding jobs and the ability to secure a reasonable living. The local labour offices are deemed redundant. As one of my respondents remarked on the role of the local labour office administrator: “She did all the papers, but it was obvious that if we did not search, we would never have [a job].” And indeed, in reflection of the changing times and never-ending need for money, local people were able to find their own jobs. “You should send your husband to a pub,” Marcela was advised when she mentioned that her husband was recently fired. In reality, this advice was more reasonable than queuing in the dull ambiance of an unemployment office, because her husband would eventually come home with a job from a person with whom he had drunk a beer. Local people knew very well how to help themselves when searching for work. They would simply go out and talk with their friends or neighbours, and bring along some home-grown apples or help them pick potatoes.

Kysuce is one of the poorest Slovak regions, with one of the lowest average salaries in Slovakia (558 euro in 2010) and an unemployment rate that reached more than 13% in May 2014.  During the socialist period job seekers from Kysuce migrated to other Slovak regions, Czech cities and mines for work, and after the regime change to other EU countries. There are not any big employers in the region itself – the nearest large factory belongs to the South Korean automobile company, Kia in Žilina. There are, however, some small factories, which survived privatisation –  mostly suppliers to the car industry, taking advantage of the technology and skilled labour force left after the socialist factories collapsed. Most people with university degrees leave the region due to a lack of opportunities, so the majority of inhabitants, around 48%, only have a high school education.

The importance of interpersonal relations, or “informal social networks”, as I shall call them, is a consequence of the region’s agricultural traditions. Thus, kinship networks and local communities have been organised around agricultural cooperation, strengthening the value of mutual help and the importance of interpersonal networks. Because the soil’s fertility in Kysuce could not keep up with the population expansion after the beginning of the 19th Century, many people had to periodically abandon their fields and families in search of other occupations, normally as tinkers and later as peddlers. Recruitment for these jobs also remained within the circles of family, friends and acquaintances.

During socialism, not only was the land collectivised, but heavy industrialisation also caused profound changes in peoples’ lives. Most of the region’s inhabitants worked in local car and garment factories in the bordering Ostrava region, nowadays a part of the Czech Republic. One informant referred to the simplicity of this period: “Women used to work in Slovena (producing textiles) and men in Tatra (producing cars)”. Though industry work improved people’s quality of life, traditional self-subsistence still persisted – secure work did not mean the end of the existing family and kin networks. On the contrary, as Czech sociologist Ivo Možný 1 has said, it even boosted them. Although private entrepreneurship and family businesses were not allowed during socialism, families managed to re-interpret the socialist concept of ownership through non-monetary gains, i.e. exchanging favours, giving precedence or priority to waiting lists, providing scarce goods, as well as dealing with monetary issues like overpricing, pilfering, cheating, or bribing. As the state was not able to fulfil the needs of its inhabitants, these kinds of economic exchanges strengthened the cohesion of informal social networks and their significance in the local economy.

Furthermore, as ethnologist Juraj Podoba 2 explains, traditional cohesion through kin and neighbour networks was also strengthened by the modernisation model in Eastern European socialist countries. This quick modernisation over-emphasised technological progress, but at the same time preserved traditional cultural and behavioural patterns, in which interpersonal relations and informal social networks remained entrenched.  Relatedly, Juraj Buzalka 3 said that quick industrialisation led to a post-peasantism. Although the peasant family stopped being an economic and social structural unit, the archetype remained inculcated in cities and in villages, in the form of rural morality, imagery, and ideology through narratives, rituals, and symbols. As a result, relationships moulded by the agrarian past have not only persisted into post-socialism, but also flourished.

Flexibility

The post-1989 economic restructuring, not only introduced a new organisation of work based on efficiency and performance, but brought a new buzzword to the forefront of the labour market debate: flexibility. This was based on the new conditions under which the labour market had started to function, namely competition, pressure and the threat of unemployment. The system of work under socialism was now recognised as rigid and inefficient. During socialism, the functioning of whole enterprises was enabled by relationships between state planners and firm managers. On the shop floor, workers and their tacit knowledge enabled production to continue in a state of permanent shortage and machine deficiency. After 1989, however, workers became the subjects of an extensive industrial process in which they were put under the constant supervision of managers and accountability regimes. Interpersonal ties were minimised in order to make production more effective, and workers were expected to become “flexible” in order to accommodate increased production demands.

Flexibility started to be a highly demanded trait. The document Employment and inclusion, produced by the Ministry of Labour between 2006-2013, mentions the word “flexibility/flexible” 14 times, always in a positive light, as something desirable – a state towards which the labour market should direct itself. Flexibility’s “positive character” is not contested at all. In reality, however, flexibility enables managers to move employees from one position or shop floor to another, depending on the industry’s changing needs. This managerial technique makes employees more fragile, as Elisabeth Dunn 4 concluded after her research in a Polish post-socialist factory, and it means that workers should be prepared to lose their job at any time.

The notion of flexibility also relocates the responsibility from the state or enterprise to the individual, who’s expected to navigate the unstable grounds of the labour market alone, and shift his qualifications or position instantly. This official, state-introduced notion of flexibility seems a precise antidote to informal social networks, which enabled individuals to “manipulate” the production system. In the end, it appears that flexibility is a way to foster the power of employers and weaken the individual.

As post-socialist states try hard to attract foreign investors, they also highlight the importance of individual flexibility. Flexibility is indeed often stressed in many official documents issued by public institutions. An official annual report published by the labour office in Čadca stated that local entrepreneurs were searching for a flexible labour force, but this is difficult to obtain due to low wages in the region, and the mass exodus of educated young people to the capital where salaries are higher.

Discourse about flexibility and the importance of education is omnipresent in official documents as well. A research report from the Institute for Labour and Family Research states: “as a result of more and more intense pressure on job seekers to be flexible and adaptable, education and job training (preparation for the job market) as a part of life-long education seem to constitute a key mechanism in mediating significant marginalisation and exclusion in a constantly growing group of applicants for any given job”. Once again, each candidate for the job is expected to take responsibility for his personal skills and thus improve their own position in the labour market. Only extensive professional qualities and skills can prevent the individual from exclusion from the demanding labour market.

While official documents highlight education and flexibility, real situations observed through everyday interactions with the inhabitants of Kysuce showed a different outcome. The official notion of “work flexibility” may help big companies manage their resources or cut their expenses, but it means very little to these people, as it literally has not helped them earn their daily bread. Inhabitants of Kysuce, whether young or old, cannot count on the help of state institutions, or on the official notion of individual flexibility those institutions propose. They must rather use social networks as possible sources of information and employment. Thus, in reality individual flexibility has a collective connotation, in addition to meaning a willingness to change position, specialisation or industry.

The flexibility of social networks mentioned here is different from the flexibility emphasised in state policies. Flexibility from the state’s point of view is flexibility of the individual, while flexibility in reality is the flexibility of individuals connected through social networks. Low wages usually do not allow people to search for work for a long period; people take whatever employment is available. Thus, they cannot really rely on their qualifications or individual flexibility as defined by state policies and employers.

Take the case of Szymon, a father of two, who originally qualified as a mechanic, but due to the scarce opportunities available in the several car factories operating in the region, changed jobs five times during seven years. He could not really rely on either his qualifications or his individual flexibility – i.e. his capacity to meet employers’ needs, and in each case, he used existing social networks to find work. His case indicates that interpersonal relations and informal social networks were actually able to operate flexibly in situations where jobs or resources were not readily available. People in general were able to rely on informal social networks in situations where state policies did not suffice.

In conclusion, the support people got from the state when searching for work was often useless, and the official state strategy to decrease unemployment is rather self-contradictory. As it is based on post-socialist and individualist presumptions, mostly in line with the demands of big industries, it excludes a crucial understanding of the reasonable behaviour of prospective workers. Unfortunately, they often become mere statistics of the re-qualification certificate courses they complete, which should somehow miraculously help them.

Mutual help and the illicit

As Szymon’s example reveals, seeking help within one’s networks often proves highly important. Generally speaking, locating work is only part of a vast patchwork of mutually helping relationships that people utilize according to what they need at that moment, and social networks provide help in various matters unrelated to the job market too. To reuse the notion of flexibility, people use their informal social networks flexibly, even though this version of flexibility is the opposite of what state policies or employers would prescribe.

Most people I encountered were using their informal social networks to sustain all aspects of their livelihood, navigating their relationship networks to locate those able help them. Mutual help could be seen in a variety of cases, from finding a good dentist to locating an accountant who would do tax declarations for almost free. As social networks operated quite independently of any state-given order, people could also partially define their own rules. And as they logically tended to seek the “greatest profit”, help was sometimes connected to the demand and offer of illicit work. It should be noted that illicit work was often very unprofitable not only for employers, but also for employees whose social security was not covered.

Various types of work, sometimes not in accordance with official work law, could be found in Kysuce. “Forced” freelance work in jobs where full-time employment might normally prevail (a night security officer, cleaning lady, or builder) is often imposed by employers because it increases profitability and decreases their tax burden. The percentage of people working as freelancers has gradually increased in the region, reaching 13.5% in 2011. Official part-time work whereby employees actually clandestinely work full-time also occurs, allowing both employees and employers to avoid paying taxes. It is thus complicated to find statistical evidence for this kind of work, as people will often declare no part-time work contract at all in order to maintain their entitlement for social allowances.

Sometimes lawful modes of employment were used in ways fitting both employers and employees, such as internships for graduates financed by the state (their salary in Čadca is the highest in all of Slovakia). This relationship was highly advantageous for both sides, although it exploited the state without actually fulfilling policy objectives, which was the placement of young graduates in the labour market. Another example is the building industry, where men normally work as freelancers, paying minimal social security regardless of their wages. Groups of builders could also often work illicitly, having one man from the group take the money and responsibility as a freelancer while others worked unofficially, relying (and dependent) on their partner.

These practices were possible as people relied more on their friends and acquaintances than on public institutions. Working illicitly only meant leaving more capital in one’s networks, rather than declaring the “official” sum subject to taxation. Thus, health insurance and social security often remained unpaid whilst people exploited their social networks through the illicit economy. Thus social networks are extraordinarily flexible, although this flexibility is quite different from that defined by state employment policies. We can conclude that informal social networks- relations based on neighbourhood, friendship or kinship can become a strong weapon against unemployment, job shortage and lack of opportunity.

Notes:

  1.  Možný, I. (1991) Proč tak snadno… Praha: SLON.
  2.  Podoba, J. (2003) Kultúrne zaostávanie ako determinant sociálnych konfliktov transformačného obdobia. Slovenský národopis, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 447 – 468.
  3.  Buzalka, J. (2007) Nation and Religion. Berlin: Lit.
  4.  Dunn, E. (2004) Privatizing Poland. Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labour. London: Cornell University Press.
Lucia Vávrová

Lucia Vávrová

is a Ph. D student of Social Anthropology at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava.