chapter  16
‘We Order 20 Bodies’. Labour Hire and Alienation
BySylvi B. Endresen
Pages 14

The title of this chapter is provided by a Namibian businessman, using the services of a labour hire agency to get a job done:

It matters whether people are permanent or temporary, full-time or part-time workers. It matters to the capitalist, it matters to the worker. But how does it matter? What is the difference between permanent workers and temporary workers? And, within the latter category, temporary workers can be engaged by the capitalist directly, or made available to the capitalist through labour hire agencies. Labour hire workers share a characteristic with temporary and permanent workers; they sell their labour power to capitalists. But they do so by means of an intermediate in the labour market, the labour hire agency. Does it matter? Explanations of contemporary processes of flexibilization of work educate us on the reasons why capitalists increasingly prefer agencies, and provide explanations of the growth of contingent work and give empirical evidence of the effects of these developments upon work regimes (see GOTSU, The Geographies of Temporary Staffing Unit at the University of Manchester2). However, to fathom the effects upon the agents involved in the buying and selling of labour power, we need to dig more deeply into other bodies of theory that can explain effects upon human dignity when ties between employer and employee weaken. The dignity of sellers as well as buyers of labour power is at stake: people losing their humanity and turned into cynics, people reduced to mere physical labour power. I take the above citation as the

point of departure, seeking answers to two questions: why did he say this, and how is it possible to say a thing like this? The quote may represent an extreme, rarely to be heard elsewhere. But the statement of this particular employer reflecting his relationship to his temporary workers, or rather, reflecting the way he chose to present it to a researcher, provides me with what I need to advocate a re-reading of Marx’s theory of alienation. However, we need more than explanations of the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism to understand how workers can be seen as ‘no more than a cipher reduced to an abstract quantity, a mechanised and rationalised tool’ (Lukács 1923: 166). The (cognitive) conversion of human beings into ‘things’ that appear as commodities on the market is the reification of human relations. It follows from the extension of universal saleability, the turning of everything into commodities. Fragmentation of society into isolated individuals that pursue limited, particularistic aims is the depressing result (Mészáros 1979).