Work, labour relations, social inequality, and agency

It is not possible to capture a multi-causal and multi-dimensional societal phenomenon in a single diagram. Nevertheless, taking into account that we look at work, labour relations, and the agency of workers as some of the many causes of social inequality – and conscious that this variable is interdependent with many other variables left out of this scheme (such as political and economic regimes including capitalism, ideologies, colonialism, wars, family patterns and demography) – we can use a diagram, or rather diagrams, as a tool to explain our approach.

What we want to show is how work and labour relations can have an impact on unequal access to resources and opportunities, and thus on societal inequality; how individual and collective action may have an impact on labour conditions, labour relations, and social inequality; and how durable inequality may reinforce and reproduce societal inequality. Inequality of outcome, i.e. the level of income, wealth, educational attainments, etc., are used to detect social inequality and are not analysed per se. Finally, the outcomes of social inequality linked to work and labour relations can have multiple consequences, which we may also want to study.

The diagrams are useful in two ways: they help us to understand the various static links between labour relations and inequality, but they also help us to discover and understand the dynamics: how changes in labour relations can lead to changes in social inequality.


Figure 1 Labour relations and social inequality of access and outcome

Labour relations

Labour relations are characterized by various forms of relational inequality. Firstly, many labour relations have an in-built structural inequality. Labour relations in which one side consists of an actor who orders work to be done and the other side comprises people who must perform the work are fundamentally asymmetrical. Taking some of the labour relations from our Taxonomy as an example, we can think of conscripted soldiers who must perform a tributary duty to a political authority, or a serf who is obliged to work for a landowner, a slave who must work for her owner, but also a wage worker who has to work for a corporation or multinational. Usually, the actor who is in command of the work process has more power than the person who performs the work; consequently, they appropriate a larger share of the output or the revenues. Asymmetric labour relations can lead to various forms of societal inequality, among others unequal access to material resources, as listed above, but also unequal access to rights: from slaves who lack the right of self-determination over their own bodies to wage workers who earn too little to be eligible to vote, or migrant workers who are deprived of citizenship and thus of social security and healthcare. These types of societal inequalities are often reinforced by durable, categorical inequality.

A change in labour relations, be it on an individual, micro, or a more macro level, can either reduce or increase access to opportunities and resources, and thus  increase or decrease social inequality. Several publications resulting from our Collaboratory project show the connection between (colonial) state-imposed changes in labour relations that led to greater inequality between different groups of workers.  Asymmetrical power relations can also exist within households and determine the division of labour and labour relations within this unit. Gender roles and gender norms often determine who can do which type of work. A change in (the importance) of these roles and norms can lead to diminished female labour force participation. Gender norms can be a barrier to women entering commodified labour in the first place and colonial states may impose very different gender norms in the colony to those in the metropolis, with all the consequences for labour relations and inequality that this entails. One result of lowering female labour force participation is women’s unequal access to various social, material, and political resources, such as education.

Relational social inequality can also exist within one region between workers with different types of labour relations. Labour regimes can develop in such a way that within a certain area some of the workers are enslaved while others are free wage-earners. Again, this is an example of changes in labour relations that lead to growing inequality. On the other hand, the existence of an enslaved group in an area may result in a downward trend in the remuneration of the wage earners.  Naturally, it is also possible for inequalities to develop between groups of workers with similar labour relations. Frequently, we observe inequalities between better-paid and less well-paid groups of wage earners that are consolidate along ethnic, racial, or gender lines.  Often, the mutual reinforcement of categorical inequality and the unequal access to opportunities and resources develop into patterns that persist over time.

 Finally, relational social inequality can also occur when labour relations in one part of the world influence labour relations in another part of the world. Think of the above-mentioned entangled histories, where (forced) changes in labour relations in colonial societies had an indirect impact on those in the metropole. Another obvious case, roughly a century later, is the movement, from the 1960s, of textile and shipbuilding industries from the North Atlantic region to newly industrializing countries, caused by global wage differentials. These types of relational social inequalities are often part and parcel of global commodity chains and can typically be found in commodity frontiers.

Of course, the causal relations between increasing or decreasing social inequality and changing labour relations also work the other way round: people who have or acquire extensive access to material resources (land, capital, etc.) can make other people work for them and thus determine their labour relations.

Figure 2 Labour relations, durable inequality, and social inequality

Durable inequality and the valuation of work

Within a given social division of labour different specializations are almost always valued and rewarded differently, no matter what part of the world or which period we study.  For instance, Jean Barbot writes of the Senegalese around 1700: “they occupy themselves either in tilling the fields or sowing them, because this occupation is the most honoured after that of soldiering. Those who make fishing-nets, and the potters, the fishermen, the weavers and the weapon-makers, are considered mere mechanics”. While, today, wage labour is preferred by many to other available forms of work, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England it was regarded as very lowly, because it was associated with a precarious existence and entailed no rights. The status of the work itself depends on a great many factors. Labour supply and demand may play a role in the valuation of occupations. Scarcity of a certain specialization, leading to skill premiums, may lead to a higher status. Occupations performed mainly by women, for example, are more likely to be labelled as unskilled and to carry less prestige than occupations performed mainly by men. The opposite is also true: when men dominate an occupation, its prestige rises, and the skill level is upgraded. Similarly, work performed mainly by people of colour is often viewed as less prestigious than work performed by whites.

The above-mentioned social inequalities related to labour relations and the valuation of work are often reinforced and reproduced via the mechanism behind durable inequality, as analysed by Charles Tilly. First, people try to appropriate certain resources through exploitation or opportunity-hoarding. If they succeed, the resulting societal inequality needs to be consolidated; this requires distinguishing insiders from outsiders, monopolizing knowledge and power, and ensuring loyalty and succession. All this may be achieved by establishing categorical boundaries. In addition, inequality may be promoted by what Gunnar Myrdal has called circular cumulative causation: positive and negative feedback mechanisms consolidate and strengthen separate social groups’ differential access to resources.

When we link this to the labour relations typology, it is clear that certain (coerced) labour relations, especially slavery and caste-determined occupations, often create long-term intergenerational durable equalities that continue long after the original labour relation has disappeared, with the position of African Americans in the United States and the Dalit in India as extreme examples. Finally, underlining the importance of an intersectional approach, within these groups, women often experience the greatest disadvantage.

Figure 3: Labour relations, individual and collective action, and social inequality

Individual and Collective Action

The IISH research also takes into account how changes in labour relations affected the daily lives of workers, how they perceived inequality and precarity, and how individual and collective actions could improve labour conditions and reduce social inequalities. “Micro” sources, as mentioned earlier, are needed to find out what strategies workers developed to improve their situation. These strategies can help us understand how people perceived their work, inequality, and precarity. For a more systematic analysis, we can analyse people’s behaviour by studying their life courses, as is done by researchers using HSN data or comparative data on other parts of the world. Life course data can inform us which factors hindered or pushed people to attain better jobs, and if and how people gained access to societal resources such as education and healthcare. In addition to social mobility strategies, these data can also be used to analyse migration strategies. Not only the strategies, but also their outcomes can give us insight into the success or failure of individual or household attempts to improve their position and – via individual or collective action – reduce social inequality for themselves or society as a whole. At the same time, the data collected on gender and religion may also provide evidence that can be used to study the effects of durable inequality.

Studying patterns of social protests can inform us about the perception of work, labour relations, and social inequality. Moreover, it may answer vital questions such as: how do groups of people, organized or in informal gatherings, try to improve their situation and change their unequal access to resources? Though we have excellent overviews of strikes worldwide, and locally in the Netherlands, much work is still to be done since there are various other ways of organizing change and measuring the impact of agency. Finally, to link up to the consequences of social inequality, more particularly the political consequences: both Piketty and Milanović have examined the rise of populism and nativism or the tendency to protect the interests of  “native-born” or established inhabitants over those of immigrants. These considerations form part of a new book project by Leo Lucassen, which analyses the relationship between various forms of labour relations and xenophobia at a global scale in the last millennium. This will also address how perceived social inequality leads to xenophobia, exclusion, and (political) actions against people in the same or lower social position as the protesters.