Cleaning not fishing: what a north east coastal village says about work today

With new figures showing that unemployment has dropped again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that increases in employment come in the context of a changing labour market. And if you want to remind yourself about how it’s changing you can do worse than visiting Seahouses.

Seahouses is a large seaside village in north east England. A historic fishing port, the former terminal for a major railway, the centre of which is a busy working harbour.

Here boats come in and out through the day. Large lobster baskets sit drying on the side, waiting be loaded on to boats at the next high tide. And the smell of fish and diesel that characterises a functioning port is strong.

But fishing is only a small part of the story of Seahouses now – an increasingly small one.

When you look closer most of the boats in the harbour are former fishing boats now being used to load queues of tourists on puffin and seal watching trips to the Farne Islands. The port activity, on closer inspection, largely consists of these small vessels being cleaned and prepared for the next trip.

And a stroll along the high street of Seahouses, at least in the summer, reveals a thriving service industry, with tourists weaving in and out of pubs, chip shops, cafes, arcades and souvenir shops.

The newsagent window advertises for local jobs, and there are a lot for such a small town: ‘bar and waiting staff wanted’, ‘cleaner required for holiday homes’, ‘receptionist needed for busy hotel’, ‘seasonal handyman required for caravan park’.

The contrast between what Seahouses was and is, is striking. From a working port where working was to run or man a fishing boat, battle the elements and bring back a catch that could then be sold on, Seahouses is now a bustling tourist town characterised by low skill and often seasonal jobs in the service sector.

Fishing and hospitality jobs contrast in a number of ways that are telling.

  • Whereas fishing is a trade learned and often passed down through families and in communities, cleaning and waiting is low skill work.
  • The high tides might come and go, but fishing is a long term occupation whereas the hospitality industry is seasonal.
  • Fishing is largely based in Seahouses, meaning that the people it benefits will stay in the areas, whereas service sector jobs come and go and, as holiday trend change, could easily move out of the area.
  • Fishing – like trades such as agriculture or skilled manufacturing – gives people a profession, a sense of shared identity, of doing something that matters, and perhaps even self-respect. Service sector work, on the other hand, has a low status and therefore those doing it have less of a sense that their work gives them a stake in the economy and as such their identity and sense of status in society needs to come from some part of their lives other than work.

Fishing, of course, is hard. Income is often low and unstable, the job itself is dangerous and hard, hours can be long. This is not to idealise fishing. But it is to say that there are big differences for a town and its residents when its work is built on serving tourists rather than catching fish.


Precarious work is everywhere 

Precarious work is everywhere 

I’ve just finished reading Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: the Government of the Precarious – a theory heavy but thought provoking book on capitalism and the politics of work.

Her basic argument is that precariousness is part of the modern economy and working life, bolstered by government policy around welfare and pensions which intensifies that sense of precariousness. It’s not just migrant workers on the one hand or young workers on the other, that are in a state of precarious work; but they and everyone in and out of work have insecure and precarious work, now that short term contracts, temping, zero hours, portfolio careers and the like have become the norm.
Drawing on Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ she suggest this isn’t simply imposed on people from external forces (the state, the market, business etc) but that people govern their own behaviour and conduct in light of this precariousness. Hence in a workplace, solidarity – if it ever existed – has been replaced by people developing their reputation and personal brand so as to compete with others for promotions in insecure jobs. The cultivation of this way of conducting yourself in public, where you are always in some ways working, is even stronger amongst freelancers, whether they chose the freelance option or not. For them, the division between work and leisure breaks down.
Finally, though, she sees – again following Foucault, this time his idea that power always creates resistance – that precariousness is not all bad: it creates problems but also the possibility of alternatives. She draws attention to movements of precarious workers who are identifying what they have in common and creating networks and movements to support themselves, with some reference to EuroMayday.
The book is heavy on theory and light on practical detail, but this sense of a new movement, of new possibilities emerging, reminds me of the Freelancers Union in the United States, which has of thousands of freelancers in membership. With their lovely little tag line ‘a union of the unaffiliated’ they have a good description of the network which on the hand praises the possibility of new and freer work whilst at the same recognising the drawbacks of freelancing.

Freelancers Union believes all workers should have the freedom to build meaningful, connected, and independent lives – backed by a system of mutual and public support.

Nearly one in three working Americans is an independent worker. That’s 53 million people – and growing. We’re lawyers and nannies. We’re graphic designers and temps. We’re the future of the economy.
Freelancers Union serves the needs of this growing independent sector. We’re bringing freelancers together to build smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems. We call it New Mutualism. You can call it the future.

We’re helping the diverse self-employed community build a powerful voice – in politics and in markets. We connect freelancers to group-rate benefit.

The reality of jobs and growth – a view from a bike


Yesterday I spent my lunch break on a bit of a cycle around the border of Manchester city centre and Salford. I didn’t see anything special, or remarkable, but learnt a lot, I think, about the economy, jobs, work and growth in Manchester’s apparently booming economy.

Building work and infrastructure development were everywhere in the centre of Manchester, it was hard to move; the cars were snarled up and people were busily hurrying between work and shops.

The inner suburbs of Salford, down Liverpool Road into Pendleton, were different: shops few and far between, the building projects were on freeze, people were on the streets, but just walking, or in groups talking, hanging out, not rushing around.

Pendleton precinct was busier, apparently overflowing with supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl and a Tesco Extra, all in one small space, competing on price for the same customers. Very different from fifteen years ago when I lived here, with just one small Tesco available to people without transport.

The Salford University strip was all-but abandoned in the summer, save for lone international students; and the old performing arts building that previously brought music (mostly a crash of drums) to a corner of Lower Broughton has now closed, moved to a state-of-the-art facility at Salford Quays.

Greater Manchester, apparently, is the only city in the UK that grew its economy as much as London in the decade before the recession. But a short ride like this, around the Manchester – Salford border, tell us more than growth figures can.

It’s not just the startling difference between the glass high rises of the centre and the concrete high rises of Pendleton. Or the difference between the busy workers of the city centre and the slower pace of the Salford streets.

It’s more than this: in the heart of city, in this shiny model of regeneration and growth, the faces of people hurrying to and from work, nipping out for a sandwich, off to the shops of a lunch break, tell all: Manchester is not a city of high powered jobs and executive lunches groaning under the weight of economic growth; it’s one of mundane office work and plastic sandwiches. Some might be enjoying the spoils, but for most Manchester’s is a service sector economy where growth has little meaning for the people with the jobs, let alone for those without.

Formal and radical democracy at work

There are so many ways of looking at democracy, but here are two (connected) ones in the workplace:

Formal democracy in the workplace provides employees with a way of expressing their ideas and passions, and venting their frustrations. They range from staff surveys and techniques of engagement right through to non-hierarchical decision making in worker co-operatives.

Without (and, in fact, with) formal democracy, you find an emergent or radical democracy where employees not given a say or any channels for expression make themselves heard and counted. This ranges from tiny acts or resistance like spending work time on Facebook to making collective demands of management.

In a way, democracy is inevitable. The question is whether it’s mainly through formal channels or through acts of democratic resistance.