Work: Personal lives and social policy, by Gerry Mooney (ed.)

Policy Press, Bristol, 2004, viii + 173pp, pb, 1 86134 520 8, £17.99. Order this book

This level 3 Open University text shows, among other things, how modern conditions of work are shaped not only by de-industrialisation and globalisation, but also by welfare policies.

Three main groups of affected people are discussed. First there are welfare claimants, who under workfare programmes may be required to take unsuitable, low paid work which, especially in the case of single mothers, worsens the home-work balance. Second there are the many low paid, usually female, often immigrant workers who provide the front-line care in health and social care. Under ‘best value’, ‘contracting out’, and other ‘efficiency’ regimes, their conditions of work and relative pay have worsened, weakening any loyalty to their employers, impacting negatively not only on their own sense of job satisfaction but also on the quality of care they provide. Third are professionals who work within the welfare state. Under current regimes that aim to render them accountable and to drive up quality by imposing bureaucratically determined targets, these workers may find their professional autonomy undermined, leading to the cynicism and demoralisation that is the everyday talk of, for example, university and school senior common rooms. In addition, of course, there are the low paid workers whose take-home incomes are now augmented by the shift from out-of-work to in-work benefits – but the book does not examine this group.

I was not convinced by one argument made about the third group, professional welfare workers. The book suggests their work has been changed in a way similar to Taylorism in which management identifies each stage of the labour process in order to use fewer skilled workers to perform most of the stages. Classically this is associated with the assembly line. It seems to me, however, that in professions such as medicine and teaching a rather different form of control is going on: doctors and teachers still have relative autonomy within the consulting room or classroom, but are burdened with a million and one extra tasks that have to be done if they are to retain their schools, hospitals and jobs. Alienation escalates: the product is no longer a young pupil’s mind enlivened or a hernia patched up, but a paper trail of statistics that get absorbed into league tables and quality assurance documentation. The doctor or teacher literally loses sight of the product of her work, or at least of any product that is valued by the powers-that-be. This is classic Marxist alienation, but it is not Taylorism.

The book’s overall message is dismal. In the name of a neo-liberal freeing up of the markets for labour, health, education and care, the consequences are more and more control of workers’ lives and hence their families’ lives. I share the authors’ sense of dismay, which is why they really should have discussed alternative policies, such as CI, designed not to control but to maximise personal liberty. The lack of any mention of CI may derive from the book being about the relation between work and social policy as it now is, rather than about visions of how it might be. This is a pity, as it would surely stimulate students to think what work might look like in a society in which welfare benefits function to emancipate rather than to control.

Tony Walter