Ordinary: a new approach to work in migration research

By Dora-Olivia Vicol.

In the world of mobility research, scholars have long cast a critical look at work. In most immigration regimes in the Global North, worker status is what is used to distinguish between those who are allowed to migrate and those who are forced into immobility or nudged into the arms of smugglers. Save for the niche investor visas, most visas are open to migrants who have secured, or are willing to take up, particular forms of employment, often in shortage occupations or in occupations clustered at the low paid end of the labour market. Relatedly, hard work in everyday discourse is often stereotypically depicted as the quality of the ideal migrant – conscientious, undemanding, accepting of tough jobs and routinely juxtaposed against the caricature of the lazy native, as illustrated in current debates about labour shortages in the fruit picking sector.

But what if there was another way to look at work, beyond its deployment in the management of mobility? What if we shifted focus away from the macro study of labour markets, with their binaries of decent and precarious jobs, and observed work in the everyday, through the eyes of people who find in it a source of individual self-making, relationship building and critical imagination?

This is what a dozen ethnographers have come together to explore in the new edited collection Beyond the Wage: Ordinary Work in Diverse Economies (Bristol University Press 2021). We start from the premise that work is too often examined through the lens of absence. Take Marxian accounts. Work in capitalist economies is described as the absence of individual autonomy; one has no choice but to sell one’s labour, and with it one’s agency. Or take the vast literature on precariousness. At its core, precarious work is defined as poorly paid, insecure and devoid of the most basic requisites of a decent life. Both accounts mount formidable critiques against political economies premised on inequality and provide a rallying cry for activists. But they also leave much unsaid about how workers themselves practice, imagine and politicise their work, beyond a focus on material conditions.

Firmly rooted in the tradition of participant observation, contributors to the book challenge readers to examine work in its everyday diversity. The complex world of work, we argue, cannot be understood by looking only at what it is lacking. Waged employment, that standard of a fulfilling, well-paying job against which work has generally been measured, is more an ideal than a contemporary reality. Most people in the Global South, and an increasing number of people in the Global North, work in arrangements that differ wildly from it, as ILO reports show. Focusing only on how they measure against this standard of waged employment imposes a concept developed in industrialised economies, overlooking the diverse ways in which work around the world intersects with relations of kinship, patronage, social reproduction or self-fashioning. More worryingly, it reproduces the definition of a deserving life as a waged life, used by hostile immigration regimes to exclude migrants from the Global South.

To capture this diversity, the book proposes to examine ordinary work – the act of provisioning for material wants and needs that encompasses a range of practices from hustling to contract-bound employment, beyond the familiar binaries of formal and informal, or precarious and decent.

What, then, can the lens of ordinary work bring to the study of mobility? First, the richness of ethnographic work. When our craft is the study of migration, it is easy to turn from researcher into activist. Concepts like precarity offer a powerful rallying cry and a target for policy interventions. Doesn’t everyone deserve better jobs in the formal economy? And yet, history is replete with examples where policies faltered because they failed to understand the worlds of the people they were affecting. Think, for instance, of the UK labour standards authorities’ calls on workers to report exploitation and unmask their bosses – when so many of them are exploited by people they trust, or who wield significant power over them and their families. Studying work in its ordinary form foregrounds workers and their own means of inhabiting their conditions, bringing to the fore the tensions and contradictions in contemporary policy agendas.

Second, taking the everydayness of work seriously can carve out further space for agency in conversation about migrant jobs. A wealth of research has pointed to the ways in which migrants are relegated to the low paid end of the labour market. Scholars have documented how immigration controls, the lopsided relation of power between worker and employer, and employers’ own raced and gendered expectations of their staff cumulate to normalise exploitation. And yet, as my informants recounted time and again, the unscrupulous employers who were paying them at half the minimum wage were also ‘family men’, ‘good people from my village’, and people who ‘helped me make something out of myself’. I had started my PhD research looking to expose precarity among Romanian migrant networks. I concluded it reflecting on the ways in which friendship and patronage can coexist in tension. In the everyday, exploitation does not preclude migrants’ own personal ambition, tactics of resistance, humour and self-care. 

Third, thinking about ordinary work allows for different politics. The literature on the future of work is often driven by concepts developed in the Global North. Calls to formalise or even end work altogether have a distinctive genealogy in the lecture theatres of industrialised economies. But as the final section of our book illustrates, a world without work can be puzzling for Romanian migrants to London, who have built their sense of self upon their ability to provide, or for residents of a Namibian village who suspected Universal Basic Income of cultivating poor morals. Without a predetermined hierarchy of good and bad employment, the study of ordinary work encourages sensibilities and practices observed in the Global South to cast new theoretical inspiration upon the study of work in the Global North, as well as those who move between and unsettle these domains. 

Dora-Olivia Vicol is an anthropologist with a long-standing interest in mobility. She is CEO of the Work Rights Centre charity and post-doctoral affiliate at COMPAS, University of Oxford. Beyond the Wage: Ordinary Work in Diverse Economies (2021) is available from Bristol University Press.

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