Friday, January 8, 2021

COVID-19 Bites Bosses' Divisive Core and Periphery Theory

 Written by: Ned K. on 9 January 2021

In the 1990s, capitalist exploitation of workers intensified with many employers (not only governments) contracting out what they deemed to be non-core periphery work within their work force. This happened at the enterprise and industry level and even internationally.

There are examples of this in most industries. In manufacturing, non-core assembly line work was shifted to developing countries while design work stayed in the developed countries. More recently even restaurants and fast food chains deemed the provision of food to customers as non-core giving rise to  Uber Eats and the intensified exploitation of workers as a result.

Perhaps the most extensive use of core and periphery theory over the last three decades has been in the property services industry where all services have been contracted out. Contract cleaning and contract security service companies sprung up to compete for non-core work in a race to the bottom on quality of service and labor costs. Workers delivering the cleaning and security services faced growing job insecurity, all sorts of wage theft and little regard for health and safety standards.

Then along came Covid-19!

Low and behold, property owners across government, private-for-profit and not-for-profit sectors (eg aged care, Councils, even Unions and Parliament House Canberra!) for their own preservation started demanding more quality services from both cleaners and security. The stand-out example of the latter has been in medi hotels where security officers got blamed for every hole in the quarantine system.

Property owners and managers and tenants all of a sudden had higher expectations from cleaners. They demanded cleaner buildings, especially where the property owners had spent money on renovations of their buildings to make them Covid compliant regarding social distance between workers.

Cleaners were expected to perform miracles to upgrade the cleanliness of buildings despite years of non-existent training, no supervision, poor equipment and lack of cleaning materials to do a good job.

Some property owners in big commercial buildings blamed the cleaning contractors who in turn blamed the cleaners. Some cleaners reacted by chucking in their job, others were moved to other buildings and the property owner promised that the new cleaners would deliver a better service. 

However, the fundamentals of treating cleaners (and security officers for that matter) as non-core periphery workers has remained, by and large.

This situation is being met with growing anger and resistance by workers with more raising their voices about the way they are bearing the brunt of blame for Covid outbreaks or potential Covid outbreaks. 

On one occasion a cleaner with more than 25 years experience was phoned by her cleaning company manager while on annual leave. She was told not to report to work at her usual workplace because the property owner (a large corporate concern) told the cleaning contractor if they wanted to keep the contract they had to get rid of the cleaners.

Only this time the cleaner stood up for her rights much to the embarrassment of both the contract cleaning company and the property owner. She exposed the deficiencies in the whole contract arrangement which provided insufficient time to do the work required and lack of materials and equipment to do the job. 

The core and periphery division of the cleaning workforce and the creation of a second tier workforce is a threat to all workers and indeed to the whole society in the Covid-19 world we live in. The quest for profits stands in the way of capitalism being able to resolve this problem. Even well-meaning managers are forced by their superiors to come down on the side of profits first and high quality services second. 

Property services managed by the workers themselves would be a step in the right direction, but under capitalism this is unlikely to occur.


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