On-call employees – An alienated reserve army?

Johan Alfonsson


The purpose of the paper is to understand how employees, as a consequence of today’s flexible labour market, can experience alienation towards others and oneself. The question of being alienated towards oneself have often been criticised of using an essentialistic view of man, as if man holds specific unhistorical and essential characteristics which one can be alienated from.
In the paper I argue that Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach abandons his previous essentialistic view of man as presented in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Instead Marx argues that what man is, is (trans)formed by society. The consequence of this change is that what it means to be alienated from oneself is foremost an alienation from the social and society. This is the view of alienation I will use. I argue that alienation is a great concept to understand how employees are affected by the flexible working life of today. In the paper I try to understand how alienation towards oneself and others is experienced by one of the labour forces most flexible group, the on-call employees.
On-call employees is a group that works by the hour and is characterized by great mobility both within and between workplaces. Their working situation is a kaleidoscopic one, where they have to move between different workplaces to get a liveable salary. Because of their situation of underemployment and difficulties to get a liveable income they have to be on stand-by and are on a constant pursuit for working hours. The chase for income and the characteristics of the work contract affects their life to a great extent. Since they work few hours and often at many different workplaces the social relations to other employees are affected and they get alienated in relation to other employees. As a consequence of the characteristics of the employment they seldom know when they will work and for how many hours, and thus face great difficulties planning their economical and social life, which has a high impact on their everyday life. The division between leisure time and working time fades and the instrumentality in the employment relation is, because of their standby status, spilled over on their personal life. This causes alienation towards social relations outside the working life. Because of the economical precarious situation they have a hard time knowing if they will be able to pay their monthly bills, and sometimes even to buy food. This leads to a situation where they constantly have to make economical calculations of their future and the present, and plan their life accordingly. In this sense, they experience a reification of their life, a reification that also involves social relations. The paper is a part of my PhD-project and is based on analysis of 15 interviews with on-called employed youths in Sweden.

Johan Alfonsson
At the department of Sociology and Work science
University of Gothenburg

Alienation - work - Reification - work precarization