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An Ultra-Realist Account of the Service Economy
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As the percentage of people working in the service economy continues to rise, there is a need to examine workplace harm within low-paid, insecure, flexible and short-term forms of ‘affective labour’. This is the first book to discuss harm through an ultra-realist lens and examines the connection between individuals, their working conditions and management culture.

Using data from a long-term ethnographic study of the service economy, it investigates the reorganisation of labour markets and the shift from security to flexibility, a central function of consumer capitalism. It highlights working conditions and organisational practices which employees experience as normal and routine but within which multiple harms occur.

Challenging current thinking within sociology and policy analysis, it reconnects ideology and political economy with workplace studies and uses examples of legal and illegal activity to demonstrate the multiple harms within the service economy.

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This chapter states the case for a social harm perspective. Initially, the chapter outlines the emergence of social harm as an extension of criminological investigation through the suggestion that entirely legal processes and actions can engender harmful consequences. The strengths and limitations of harm perspectives are outlined before contemplating the question harm from what? This evidences Pemberton’s ‘human needs’, Yar’s ‘search for recognition’, and deviant leisure’s ‘ethical responsibility for the other’. Following this, an ultra-realist interpretation of society is proffered. Synthesising ultra-realism with social harm perspectives extends the social harm perspective by recognising the systemic violence of capitalism and neoliberalism, the negative motivation to harm, is complemented by the positive motivation to harm and the transcendental materialist subject. This emphasis on motivation delineates intentional and unintentional action and links the subject (micro) with organisational culture (meso) and political-economic ideology (macro). Finally, the crucial role of causative absence is outlined; negativity or absence has as much causal power as a positive or presence; both intentional and unintentional harms stem from problematic absences at a structural, cultural and interpersonal level.

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This chapter places the service economy in a political-economic and socio-historical context. The narrative details the emergence of a regulatory sleeve to limit the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalism’s non-ethical generative core. The post-war period of relative prosperity provides stability and a measurable sense of progress but ultimately gives way to neoliberalism at the end of the 1970s. The new ‘symbolic order’ shifts ground from security to flexibility in order to open up avenues for capital accumulation. Although successful in this respect, the impact upon labour markets and employment is significant and engenders a shift from industry and manufacturing to consumerism and service. The chapter outlines the impact of the financial crisis on labour markets and employment and demonstrates the growth of on-demand work. The key features of this chapter are the shift from security to flexibility and the composition of labour markets which now reflect imperatives of consumer culture but lack stability for employees.

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This chapter introduces primary data to illustrate the shift from security to flexibility detailed in chapter 2 and its specific impact upon management practice and culture within the service economy. The theme of the chapter is the quest for profitability and efficiency, embodied in the imposition of performance indicators and targets. The chapter does not offer an exhaustive account of all management practice in the service economy but instead focuses on some techniques which will return in the later discussion of harm. The work process is speeded up and controlled by managers and technology, often at the expense of employee well-being; the use of team briefings that focus on targets and under-performance is criticised by employees; the imposition of targets becomes the primary motivation for employees who seek to maximise their output through a variety of techniques including collusion with non-incentivised staff and coaching customers to provide good feedback. The use of targets also ensures a zero-sum game where many employees are forced to compete for bonuses, an approach which divides the workforce. The evidence here demonstrates the primary motivation behind employer and manager practice; to maximise profitability at all costs.

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This chapter investigates the role of causative absences within the service economy. The culture outlined in the previous chapter demonstrates certain management practices which favour flexibility over security and thus create absences, namely the absence of stability as precarious workers negotiate flexible and indeterminate working patterns. Evidence is presented which indicates the use of rotas and just-in-time provision which creates a degree of uncertainty in planning one’s time and pressure to meet customer demand and need. Employment contracts also indicate the absence of stability as part-time hours are bolstered by overtime or zero-hour contracts are met with uncertainty over available shifts. The chapter then places this absence of stability in the context of a transition to adulthood and suggests that the transition is fractured and fragmented in objective terms but the promise of capitalism, the promise of future satisfaction and status, keeps the precarious employee focused on success in the future, despite the precarity of the present.

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This chapter offers evidence to suggest that harm is not something done to precarious workers by social forces and structural deficit but also something inflicted upon each other. The culture of targets and competitive individualism creates the conditions for conflict between managers, co-workers and customers, all of whom seek some degree of status, recognition or security from the infliction of harm on others. Evidence shows managers targeting employees, the emergence of cliques, often management led, which inflict harm on those outside the group, customers willing to belittle, infantilise and abuse employees, and co-workers seeking competitive advantage at the expense of others. This positive motivation to harm reflects the absence of an ethical responsibility for the other and, in some cases, represents the emergence of a subjectivity imbued with the ‘special liberty’ to act as one pleases in order to maximise market share and opportunities within a culture of competition and individual advantage.

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This chapter explores the absence of protection for employees within the service economy. Some employees are exploited by employers who extract ‘free’ work through practices such as underpayment of the minimum wage, cash-in-hand work, and work ‘trials’ paid at exploitatively low day rates. The labour market instability highlighted previously further impacts upon employees made redundant as some operators struggle to recover from the economic downturn. Employees are paid meagre redundancies and thrown back into the large pool of surplus labour. Others heed the call for self-employment and freedom or flexibility but this is often precarious and problematic. The final section of the chapter considers the impact of labour market conditions upon mental health and well-being and ultimately demonstrates the negative impact upon some employees who require medical solutions to structural problems.

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This chapter asks a simple question – if we know the problematic nature of capitalism and its attendant harms and inequalities, why can’t we fix it? The answer lies in an account of ideology which lies in action, not thought – we know there are problems but act as if we do not. The disavowal of problematic working conditions – and other significant issues such as environmental harm, migration and automation – makes it difficult to challenge the status quo and enact meaningful change. The search for human recognition and flourishing is hampered by the progressive search for change within the existing system rather than contemplating a different set of social relations and structures. The chapter concludes with some suggestions for ‘fixing the harms of work’ which centre around the need for social science to reconnect with analysis of political economy and problematise capitalism in a way that demands consideration of alternatives.

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The conclusion offers a comprehensive summary of the arguments presented in the previous pages. The chapter highlights the various management practices and labour market conditions within the service economy and the impact this has upon the employee. It also reflects upon the imperatives of capitalism and neoliberal ideology and the impact upon subjectivities that display a willingness to harm in order to advance individual needs. In returning to the concept of harm, the chapter concludes that contacts do not necessarily see their experience as harmful as it reflects labour market practice at the level of everyday experience; it is simply the way it is. However, in returning to the idea of recognition and flourishing, or the search for stability and fixity, the harms of work are increasingly problematic and must be addressed.

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This chapter introduces the themes and issues at the heart of the book. Starting with an account of Sports Direct and its recent publicity for treatment of employees, this chapter establishes the reality that this is not an anomaly but rather the normal functioning of the service economy. A brief account of the size and scale of the service economy confirms the necessity of closer investigation into its practices. The introduction also delineates the methodological questions that underpin this book; it outlines the origins of this study, the research location and the sample. The chapter alludes to the emergence of social harm as a unique theoretical perspective with the capacity to connect macro, meso and micro level factors such as the imperatives of capital, the configuration of labour markets and management practice, and the impact on individuals who may be subject to or inflict harm on others.

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