Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in the exhibition Ser du löven för alla träd (Can you see the leafs on the trees, some info in English here) at Liljevalchs this summer. The exhibition is a part of the 100 year jubilee of The National Association of Swedish Handicraft (by the way, I'm totally smitten by the posters and branding work for the jubilee & apparently I'm not the only one).
After a lot of stress & agony (due to other factors in life, mostly) I finally was able to send them my contribution last week. It didn't turn out just as I imagined, but I'm still happy with the fact that I at least got it done... It feels nice to be part of something big, being one of 2000 pieces in a colletive project.
The point of the campaign was to launch a new term for workers employed by these agencies, to polish up their brand & silence the questioning voices that were getting more and more annoying & loud. The increase of companies that fire their workers, only to re-hire them trough agencies that do not provide the same security or salaries, has been notable in Sweden during the last decade. Getting a job through a agency is also often the only option for many young people, as companies do not want to risk employing staff that they cannot sack or relocate as they want to, when 'needed'.
The aim of this particular campaign was to 're-brand' these temporary workers, by initiating a competition where the workers could send in their own suggestion of what they should be called, to dream up a new & improved job title, & then vote for their favorite. Problem was, that's exactly what happened. But the workers employd by the agencies did not share the PR experts and bosses' idea that the problem with this kind of employment is what it is called, more than the actual insecurity of it all. So they started sending in suggestions that did not quite fit the 'positive' & 'flexible' connotations that the campaign aimed for. As these suggestions started to climb to the top of the list (by votes from the public), the people behind the campaign paniced & invoced a strong censurship on the website, cleaning out all the unwanted suggestions.
This in turn sparked the flame in some temp workers, that got together & launched a counter campaign, also called Vi kallar oss (but with a slighty different url). Here all the suggestions that weren't welcome in the original contest were collected & voted on. The catchphrase for the site was (still is) 'What we call ourselves, not what the agencies wants us to be called', & in a couple of days this new site had totally hijacked the original campaign (that closed down due to the shitstorm it got caught up in). The words in my cross stitch are choosen from the suggestions of this counter movement; day labourer, slave, flex servant, insecured, serf, precariuos, & so on...
I found this event both amusing & important, that's why I wanted to spread the word about it. Amusing, because it shows the total unpredictability of 'viral marketing' & internet PR campaigning, as no one can be sure of what the interwebz does to the content & message that is communicated. Important, becuse the right to a steady income, permanent employment, & overall job security is one of the most important political issues in Sweden today (& all over th world, I'd imagine).
Some might say that this form of employment is the new black, that the modern worker does not want to stay in one place all her life, that 'flexibility' & 'freedom' are the catchwords of today's labour market. That it's better to get a job - any job even though you're paid less, have no job security, & no chance of planning your life more than a day ahead - than no job at all.
But, as a friend of mine would put it - I call bullshit. Temporary work agencies were illegal in Sweden up until the beginning of the 1990's, since they exploit people, provide insecure employment, and makes it difficult for workers to organize in unions. Their modern comeback is part of a greater shift in society, where the flexibility of the creative middle class working as project managers, temporary understudies, and freelancers is applied to every area of the labour market. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it in The Individualized Society:
'Flexibility' is the slogan of the day, and when applied to the labour market it means an end to the job 'as we know it', work on short-term contracts, rolling contracts or no contracts, positions with no inbuilt security but with the 'until further notice' clause.This development is not about providing freedom of choice, creative job opportunities, or making it possible for people to 'explore their potential' & 'evolve as a person'. It's about making more money for less investment, & also, in the long run, to destroy the unity & community that has been the basis for workers' organizations. A reality where you don't know if you're gonna work the next day, where you gonna work in that case, and who will be working with you, makes it pretty difficult to demand your rights & put pressure on capitalist interests at the place of work. Bauman again; "The present-day uncertainty is a powerful individualizing force".
The insecurity of this arrangement also leads to health issues such as stress & depression, and in some cases - death. Temporary workers are overrepresented in the statistics of work place related injuries in Sweden today. This is no coincidence, since temp workers often are young, lack experience & knowledge about particular safety hazards, & are afraid to speak up when it comes to problems at their place of work (knowing that they might lose the job if they complain, since it's easy to replace them with someone else from the agency) .
Someone who does not find this as troubling as I do, is apparently Annie Lööf, leader of the Centre party in Sweden ("a green social liberal party" with its roots in the farmers' movement). She is a devoted neoliberal, known to list Ayn Rand & Margaret Thatcher as her political role models. She is also the youngest party leader in Sweden, but earns the highest salary of them all (about 151 000 sek per month, which is 7000 more then an avarage nurse gets in a whole year).
In the posts tagged 'bemmaningsföretag' on her blog (no I won't link, use google if you want to read her ramblings), she draws up a picture of the temp agencies as the saviours of youths & immigrants who have the biggest problem with "entering the job market" today. If the working conditions are bad, it's the unions fault for not taking care of their members properly, it has nothing to do with the profit or nature of the business. And, as a special twist, she argues that if it is that bad to work under these conditions that you have to call yourself a slave, then why don't you choose to be unemployed instead? Yes, it's always about choice for these people...
So without further ado, I dedicate my leaf to Annie. I call it "Annies lööf" (okay, so this is only funny in Swedish, since lööf is an alternative spelling of the word löv, meaning leaf).
I won't be able to attend the opening of the exhibition in June, due to facts such as finishing my masters degree & moving all my stuff from Stockholm to Gothenburg (yes, the West coast will be my permanent location from now on) in the same week, but I hope to get to see it sometime during summer.