Squeezed Between Commodification and Formalization(s): An Ethnographic Case Study of Precarious Work

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:30
Location: Hörsaal 16 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Aykut KILIC, Bogazici University, Turkey
With the demise of formal wage work across the globe, labor scholars have increasingly focused on the growing sections of the “precariat”. A significant literature has burgeoned examining the politics of precarious workers, where they are identified as the protagonists of a new labor politics. However, this argument should be well contextualized, where an intense theoretical focus on neoliberalism obscures serious attempts of de-commodification through social assistance programs in global South. In this sense, Turkey occupies a sui generis position. Despite the lack of a mature welfare system, there are no comprehensive social protection policies reaching out to the lot of unemployed and working poor populations. Therefore, broader questions on livelihood and social reproduction move to center stage while discussing unorganized conditions of precarious workers despite poor wages and working conditions.

Part of a multi-sided ethnographic study on working conditions and social reproduction mechanisms of precarious workers employed in Istanbul’s second biggest industrial organized district, this paper contends that substantial formalizing interventions in social security, health provisions, housing and access to financial opportunities make workers much more dependent on labor market through a relentless discourse on economic stability and calculability of midterm goals. Here, formalization does not connote social citizenship endowed with certain rights. Rather, it’s extended by piecemeal within the dictates of uneven capitalist development.

In summary, this case study tries to understand how strictly market-led interventions in the field of social reproduction can reshape and regulate workers’ perceptions of precarious work despite a strong commodification. A historical comparison seems to provide a partial answer: Since processes of commodification highlighted as evidence of neoliberalism predate the neoliberal era in Turkey as in much of the global South, workers’ conceptions of precarity are essentially shaped by a comparison of benefits acquired during different periods with a similar labor market insecurity.