Precarias a la Deriva




Trabajo flexible ¿Es que somos invisibles?

Trabajo inmaterial ¡Ay que estrés mental!

Trabajo de jornalera ¡Eso es la repera!

(Little song by Precarias a la Deriva in the General Strike of 20 June 2002)




Precarias a la deriva (Precarious women workers adrift) is a collective project of investigation and action.  The concerns of the participants in this open project converged the 20th of June 2002, the day of the general strike called by the major unions in Spain.  Some of us had already initiated a trajectory of reflection and intervention in questions of the transformations of labor (in groups such as ‘ZeroWork’ and Sex, Lies and Precariousness, or individually), others wished to begin to think through these themes.  In the days before the strike we came together to brainstorm an intervention which would reflect our times, aware that the labor strike, as the culminating expression of a process of struggle, was unsatisfactory for us for three reasons: (1) for not taking up –and this is no novelty- the experience and the unjust division of domestic work and care, almost entirely done by women in the ‘non-productive’ sphere, (2) for the marginalization to which both the forms of action and the proposals of the strike condemn those in types of work –ever more common-  which are generally lumped together as ‘precarious’[1] and (3) for not taking into consideration precarious, flexible, invisible or undervalued work, specifically that of women and/or migrants (sexual, domestic, assistance, etc.).  As a friend recently pointed out in the context of the more recent ‘political’ strike against the war (April 10, 2003), “How do we invent new forms of striking when production fragments and dislocates itself, when it is organized in such a way that to stop working for a few hours (or even 24) does not necessarily effect the production process, and when our contract situation is so fragile that striking today means risking the possibility of working tomorrow?”


We saw that many of these jobs in the margins:  the invisible, unregulated, unmoored jobs were in no way interrupted or altered by a strike of this type, and that the precarization of the labor market had extended to such an extent that the majority of working people were not even effected by the new reforms against which the strike was directed.  Therefore we tried to think of new forms of living this day of struggle by approaching and confronting these new realities.  We decided to transform the classic shut-down picket into a survey-picket.  Frankly, we didn’t feel up to upbraiding a precarious worker contracted by the hour in a supermarket or to closing down the little convenience store run by an immigrant because, in the end, despite the many reasons to shut down and protest, who had called this strike?  Who were they thinking of?  Was there even a minimal interest on the part of the unions for the situation of precarious workers, immigrants, housewives?  Did the shut-down stop the productive process of domestic workers, translators, designers, programmers, all those autonomous workers for whom stopping this day would do nothing but duplicate their work the next day?  It seemed more interesting to us, considering the gap between the experience of work and the practice of struggle, to open a space of exchange between some of the women who were working or consuming during that day and with those who were moving in the streets.  This small, discreet sketch of an investigation was the starting point for what became the project of the ‘drifts’.


The exchange of that June 20th was fruitful.  Not so much for what people told us here and there, or for what we made visible for ourselves and for others, as for the opening we glimpsed, the possibilities for unpredetermined encounters, the pleasure of an unclassifiable dialog, mediated by no apparatus besides the tape-recorder, camera and notepad.




These and other questions arose, as we have said, from reflections which in one way or another had long been circulating among us.  In the first place, we too situate ourselves in the midst of change and continuity in productive processes, we too, in various ways, are faced with a new work context strongly marked by neoliberalism.


A dominant tendency in much neo-Marxist thought points to the emergence of so-called immaterial work (work which is affective, communicative, creative, linguistic, etc…).[2]  This work, which has to do with cognitive processes, production of knowledge, languages and links is not, despite what many analyses might suggest, homogenous. It is heavily marked by the social value assigned to the different kinds of work within this category, which is what establishes a difference between giving a hand-job to a client and designing a web-page.


This is important for the debate, especially since all those questions which concern ‘reproduction’ -both in the strict sense, that is, domestic work and care (whether paid or not) and in a broad sense, such as communication, management, socialization, production of well-being, lifestyles, etc. (a formulation which goes beyond the ‘production and reproduction of immediate life’ of Engels[3])- generally remain in the shadows.

In the case of reproductive work in the strict sense, this is often explained away because these jobs are not part of the so-called “hegemonic tendency”, but rather part of what is simply interpreted as the legacy of an historical disequilibrium which establishes a continuity and interrelation between paid and unpaid work, in one’s own house or the house of others, which women do and which, by extension, determine their position in the labor market (or is it the other way around?), as much in terms of the kind of jobs they do (office work, client assistance, nursing and care, etc.) as in terms of the differences in work and salary in general.  The emergence of the Third Sector, with the  precarized transfer of some women’s reproductive activities to other women, locally but also on a global scale, introduces a new element which we should keep in mind.

In the broadest sense -if we accept this distinction between broad and strict senses at all- the reproduction of immediate life as an affective link turns out to be an extremely diffuse field which rapidly gets mixed up with life (“life put to work”, “the reappropriation of living time”…) visibilizing the aspects of domination which make life, cooperation, affective relationships, tastes, knowledge and sexuality very slippery terrains whose ‘naturalness’ remain unquestioned.


We see that some of those that participate in the debate on immaterial work are deaf to the question of reproduction and its relationship to patriarchal and racial domination.  Facing this reality, we recuperate part of a long tradition of debate within feminism which precisely does elaborate a Marxist idea of reproduction in the broad sense, crossed through by multiple power relations.  This orientation coincides with the ideas of Foucault about power and the processes of subjectification, that is to say, about modern forms of domination which to a great extent are not based upon the direct exercise of violence but rather in the active production of submission, an idea which has been amply developed, with different emphases, by thinkers like Butler or Pateman.  It coincides also with many of the radical, materialist and psychoanalytic tendencies within feminism, those that give important weight to questions such as the sexual division of work, the control of sexuality, normative heterosexuality or socialization within the family.


The debates on reproduction smattered through the whole decade of the 1970s now have new things to offer which should be brought to light.[4]  From them we rescue an analysis of reproduction, of the articulation of capitalism, patriarchy, racial domination, and now more than ever, the history of colonialism, the geographical asymmetries which have produced the inequalities motivating the displacements of populations in the last decades.  We also rescue the political thought and practice which thematize the body as a place of expression of domination and exploitation, and we think of the “productive body” or the “production of the (sexed) body” as a continuous process of incarnation of subjectivities which are simultaneously bound and struggling to determine the conditions of their development.  We also rescue the feminist theorizing on the public and the private as a form of approaching the continuities and discontinuities between what happens in the realm of relations and homes and what happens in the more socially valued realm of employment, politics and the State.  The growing integration of these realms, of employment and personal life, of education and employment, etc., as a historical process which produces differentiations and as a political criticism of the segmentations of modernity seems to us an essential path for investigation.


Second, the studies done on immaterial work, whose homogenization we resist, look at other modes of organizing work which feed upon the very characteristics of the activities which they lump together in the category of the ‘immaterial’; specifically the strategies of neoliberal restructuring, which consist basically in cutting costs in rights and salaries and increasing the strength of command over an ever more fragmented and mobile labor force which presently works under conditions all too well known to women:  by commission, with flexible and unpredictable hours, with long days then periods of inactivity without income, by hour, without contract, without rights, freelance, at home, etc. Thus the development of this category has to do with key questions to which we will return later, such as the reordering of time, space, contracts, income and conditions.  The consequences of these modalities are known to all (women): isolation and incapacity to organize life “as it should be”, stress, exhaustion, social control, impossibility of developing a self-determined social life,  of protesting, of “coming out” and of expressing oneself freely in all sorts of questions.


Third, all of this must be linked to other aspects of social life which permit that certain subjects occupy certain positions of disadvantage due to their limited mobility.  This is what occurs when one does not have residency papers, or decides to get pregnant, or is a mother or just a woman, or has an “inappropriate/ble” presence, being, for example, transsexual, or non-white, or visibly queer, or physically different, etc… The articulation of all these elements is a constant source of differentiation and hierarchization which causes certain groups to be systematically poorer or to have lesser access to opportunity and choice.  The so-called feminization of work thus consists in a ever more wide-spread servility or a generalization of precariousness, produced upon a tremendously irregular topography, reinforcing, reproducing and modifying the social hierarchies already existent within the patriarchy and the racial order inherited from colonialism.  It is upon just this background that the changes in family and home structures, the global restructuring of cities and the performances and rhetorics of gender are imprinted.




That first picket-survey of June 20th, which was limited though very inspiring, gave way to a new project of interpellation based on displacement, that is to say, the possibility of preparing and carrying out a series of itineraries which would cross through the diverse metropolitan circuits of female precariousness.  Thus, against the habitual division of life and work, a division long questioned by feminism, we opted for a research practice that would attend to the spatial/temporal continuum of existence and the experience of the double (or better, multiple) presence[6] as a subjective transposition or, as the Situationists would say, as a technique of uninterrupted passage through diverse physical and psychic environments.


We might have spent more time, seated, situating the theoretical bases of our research, the hypotheses we were dealing out or the feminist perspective from which we departed.  But what pushed us on was, above all, the desire to experience the path, to communicate with each other on the road, to meet those new (and not so new) situations and realities of the precarized labor market and of life put to work.


We decided, moreover, that this drifting should be done in the first person, that is, with each one telling the others about herself, and walking together towards a prudent but sustained approximation of the differences between us.  We talk, therefore, of seeking common places and, simultaneously, of singularities to strengthen. This approximation has grown through the subsequent debates which have made us modify the initial utterance “we are precarious workers” for others less prone to affirming identity as an original element and more attentive to the processes of (de)identification.[7]


Our situations are so diverse, so partial, that it is very difficult to find common denominators from which to elaborate alliances and irreducible differences with which to mutually enrich ourselves.  It is complicated for us to express ourselves, to define ourselves from the common place of precariousness; a precariousness capable of bypassing a clear collective identity through which to simplify and defend itself, but one which demands discussion.  We need to communicate the lacks and the excesses of our working and living situations in order to escape from the neoliberal fragmentation which separates and debilitates us, turning us into victims of fear, of exploitation or of the individualism of ‘each one for herself.’ But, above all, we want to make possible the collective construction of other lives through a shared creative struggle.  Our insistence upon singularity we owe to our desire to not produce, once again, false homogeneities, without permitting that this insistence prevents us from saying anything at all.  We thought, in relation to this, of the specific situation of some companions who are migrants working in domestic service and in the consequences of a link which demands other forms of commitment than those to which some of us are accustomed. 


Basically it was a question of producing a cartography of the precarized work of women based on the exchange of experiences, shared reflections and the recording of all that was seen and told in an effort to materialize to the greatest extent possible –through photographs, slides, video, audio recordings and written stories- these encounters in order to communicate the results and the hypothesis which might be derived from them; a question of taking communication seriously not only as a tool for diffusion but also as a new place, a new competence and primary material for the political.  Our point of departure: the occupied women’s house La Eskalera Karakola, point of arrival: unknown.  It is the transit that interests us now.




The ‘drift’ or derive, is a tactic which some of us had already experienced in other research contexts[8] whose basic source is the Situationists,[9] and which has not always been easy to explain.  Nevertheless, the course of events has clarified, bit by bit, the logic of substituting static interviews for journeys through the city.  When proposing the ‘drifts’ we particularly emphasized not only passing through the past and present workplaces of our guides but also the possibility of linking the spaces and, once on the road, to see what would come up.  Thus we ended up including in our routes streets, houses, businesses, public transportation, supermarkets, bars, shops, union offices, health centers, etc.  We opted for the method of the drift as a form of articulating this diffuse network of situations and experiences, producing a subjective cartography of the metropolis through our daily routes.


In the Situationist version of the drift, the investigators wander without any particular destination through the city, permitting that conversations, interactions and urban micro-events guide them.  This permits them to establish a psycho-cartography based on the coincidences and correspondences of physical and subjective flows: exposing themselves to the gravitation and repulsion of certain spaces, to the conversations that come up along the way, and, in general, to the way in which the urban and social environments influence exchanges and attitudes.  This means wandering attentive to the billboard that assaults you, the bench which attracts, the building which suffocates, the people who come and go.  In our particular version, we opt to exchange the arbitrary wandering of the flaneur, so particular to the bourgeois male subject with nothing pressing to do, for a situated drift which would move through the daily spaces of each one of us, while maintaining the tactic’s multisensorial and  open character.  Thus the drift is converted into a moving interview, crossed through by the collective perception of the environment.


So how do we do a drift?  We depart from a few paradigmatic feminized sectors of precarious work.  To begin, we chose five:


1) domestic

2) telemarketing

3) manipulators of codes (translators, language teachers)

4) food service (bar, restaurant)

5) health care[10]


and identified other equally important ones for a future phase of the project: prostitution, scholarships/research, advertising, communications, social work and education.  The women working in these sectors whom we asked to guide us chose a series of relevant places: their houses, workplaces, supermarkets, the park, the cyber café, the yoga class… and we threaded these spaces together as points on an itinerary loaded with significance, the networks of chance and simultaneity which compose our daily lives.  Thus, following an English teacher we were able to connect -through the fortuitous tour one of her students gave us in NCR (a multinational which installs and maintains automatic bank tellers) where she teaches- the reality of the flexible work of our companion within the new factory structure, recomposed according to the demands of the global market.


The drift permits us to take the quotidian as a dimension of the political and as a source of resistances, privileging experience as an epistemological category. Experience, in this sense, is not a preanalytic category but a central notion in understanding the warp of daily events, and, what is more, the ways in which we give meaning to our localized and incarnated quotidian.  It is not exactly an observation technique; it does not aspire to ‘reproduce’ or approach daily experience as it habitually occurs (an ideal of classical anthropology which has proved difficult to realize) but rather to produce simultaneous movements of approaching and distancing, visualizing and defamiliarizing, transit and narration.  We are interested in the point of view of those that guide us –how they define and experience precariousness, how they organize themselves on a daily basis and what are their vital strategies in the short and the long term, what they hope for- without dismissing, in this process, the dialog and complicity which is produced in our encounter.  There is no going back; once you get home from a drift your head keeps buzzing until the next one.


In all these wanderings we attempt to extract common names from this dispersion of singularities -each one unknown, even alien, to the others- which comprise the new reality of precarized work.  We dream of substituting, albeit just a little, the weakness of dispersion for the strength of alliances, the potential of networks.  But the difficulty of both objectives comes out during the drifts.  The realities of precarious work are very, very different: the resources we can count on, the emotional and material support, the wages, the rights, the social value of what we do, the diversity of availabilities and sensibilities. 




We depart from a rudimentary definition of precariousness and precarization as a process, and we define a series of initial axes which might help to comprehend this many legged reality.  What is clear is that this word, often a hollow vessel, has taken form thanks to what each one has brought.  We have preferred to overfill it in order to later give it greater precision.


It is a phenomenon which we associate with:


1)       the new forms of employment (many of them linked to externalization and dislocation, to the extension of freelance work and contracts by job or service rendered, to decentralized and miniaturized empresarial structure and the proliferation of variations in types of contract);

2)       the dislocation of work times and spaces (with flexible hours, part time, at a distance, and in-household workshops), whose effects upon household units and networks of care remain still to be estimated;

3)       the intensification of the production process (result of ‘just in time’ production with extra hours which are no longer considered such, both because they are not optional and because they are not paid);

4)       the incorporation of imperceptible qualities inherent in the workforce, difficult to estimate/remunerate or to assimilate in terms of ‘qualification’ and therefore difficult to reduce to simple units of work to which they impart value (personalized assistance, communicative capacities, empathy, appealing appearance, etc.  It is expected that au pairs know languages but this is not part of the formal qualifications for the job, it is expected that a Zara worker be slim and stylish though that has no bearing upon her ability to inventory clothes, etc.);

5)       cutbacks in salaries and the loss of the rights which have traditionally characterized ‘typical’ Fordist work and the Keynesian social pact (rights ranging from maternity leave to the regulation of pay, vacations or sick leave, not to mention benefits such as insurance and retirement).


With lesser frequency other conditions are referred to, such as:


1)       the absence of a salary (as in the case of housewives);

2)       the absence of any labor regulation at all, even the most minimal (as continues to be the case in paid domestic work –especially for live-in workers- not to speak of the general situation of those who do not have work and residency permits);

3)       the ambiguity of the link between employees and employers.


We might venture a definition of the word precariousness, broad enough to acknowledge the amplitude and multidimensionality of the phenomenon, but concrete enough to avoid that the term lose all explicative force:  thus we will call precariousness the juncture of conditions, both material and symbolic, which determine an uncertainty with respect to the continued access to the resources necessary for the full development of a person’s life.[11]  This definition permits us to overcome the divisions between public/private and production/reproduction, and recognize and visibilize the interconnections between the social and the economic which make it impossible to think about precariousness from a strictly work-and-wage perspective.[12] 




We dedicated several meetings to defining the axes of our approach, which later, in the course of the drifts, would take more shape.  The axes which came out of our debates were informed by our experiences of time (stress, excess, saturation, the impossibility of planning, instability…), of space (mobility, life territories, borders, displacements, sedentarism…), of income (badly paid work, lack of resources, loans from friends and families with guaranteed work, limited access to public services and misappropriation of various cards…), of care and relations (communities of work, affect, sociability), of conflict (possibilities and processes of struggle…), of hierarchies (in many cases diffuse and painful), of risk (insecurity, vulnerability) and of the body (discipline, abuse, sporadic care, compulsive sexuality…).  After various drifts, the axes took shape and meaning beyond our own initial intuitions.


We finalized the axes thus: (1) mobility, (2) border territories, (3) corporealities, (4) knowledges and relations, (5) empresarial logic, (6) income and (7) conflict.  The axes do not cover all experience but they do help to interpret it.  What follow are some partial and yet-insufficient reflections following our first five drifts.  The pages below are a whirlwind of descriptions, notes and testimonies which point towards incipient hypotheses, encounters with the form-text for talking about the form-drift, and utterances which attempt to express the joy and the insatisfaction which we feel before what are only barely our first stuttering efforts: a sort of balance of the first phase of the project.





Mobility is the quality which best describes the present malleability of the work force around the three axes: time, space and task.  Mobility in the disposition of rhythms and schedules, mobility between jobs and, beyond that, in geography, in vital decisions, in lifestyle, and mobility in ‘unit acts’ and in the ways of developing them, always subject to mutations, to processes of evaluation and adjustment, a constant auditing.  Mobility opposed to the old staticness, to bureaucratization and routine and, without a doubt, to the organizational capacity of persons who in any moment may find their functions modified and recombined, persons who don’t know the limits of what they have to do, and in general, of what they themselves are.


In the past people struggled against the reification of daily life, primarily incarnated in work but also in the family and mass consumption, and this determined a change in business policies, particularly in the management of human resources.[13]  Today security and continuity have become, in name at least, increasingly precious, although the price that must be paid for them is often too high and one ends up accepting mobility and unrestricted availability in an attempt to compose a destiny which at least is not totally prescribed.  The only stable element is being in perpetual transit, the “habit of the unaccustomed”[14] which characterizes work paid by the hour, by the job, or until something better is found. Which, as our guides through the mysterious world of telemarketing commented, never really happens, such that one returns again and again to bounce off different campaigns which the virtual enterprises in the sector contract with the big communication multinationals under ever more competitive conditions. 


In our drift through the social nursing sector, Carmen explained to us in detail how the lack of acceptable work opportunities in Spain and the demand for this kind of work in other countries is motivating a flow of young nurses who, besides working in their own field, aspire to learn languages and live in other places.[15]  The passage through past and present work places –a health center in which she worked as a substitute, an attention center for drug addicts marked by organizational chaos and lack of resources, return to the health center, a training course for social workers of the IMEFE[16] for which one must sign up from one day to the next – gives the sense of the sustained unpredictability within a life which besides employment –interest, security and salary – values other types of questions: the relation with others as something which is never pre-determined and as something which is esteemed in its singularity, or this idea of “the social” as a public good which extends beyond work as socialization, learning, exchange, consciousness raising, and vital context but which, as Carmen insisted when comparing her vision with that of her mother, also a social worker, one must learn to limit, to use to one’s advantage.  Carmen formulates the dilemma in this realm of action in her comparison of two interpretive frameworks: one as “working for the people” an attitude Carmen attributes to her mother, and the other “working for the system” a tactic she claims for herself. The distinction is important, demonstrating as it does how life is absorbed by work and work by life.  ‘Working for the people’ one loses ones own limits with respect to work and melds one’s energies and one’s emotions in an exercise of continuous and committed sociability which attempts to overlook the mediation, in this case of the State, which exists in a health center, where the privatizing tendency has skyrocketed in recent times and where the incentive system rewards a perverse model of medicalization and neglect.[17]  ‘Working for the system’, on the other hand, regulates this exercise of fusion by entering into a relation which emphasizes institutional mediation (though generally not from a critical perspective), supervising the link and embittering it by quitting from it the open, experimental and unlimited character of relation with others.  We are also talking about the difference between a strictly medical focus, adjusted to the “viability” of health minimums, and a more social focus which is necessarily interwoven with the habits and histories of each and every one of the persons whom we see during our trip to the Alcobendas health center. 


Mobility as an existential, subjective condition constantly puts us up against an ambivalence which makes its most important effects uprootedness, lack of a stable identity, an unbalanced practice of flight, nostalgia and submission.  We have caught a train in Atocha and once seated, we listen attentively to these reflections, previously written by one of us, as we move rapidly towards the industrial suburbs.


                  A rootless person is pitied or repudiated, blamed for lack of identity, roots and traditions.  But to construct an identity from local cultural elements is absurd in the changing world in which we live, of dislocations, temporary habitats, migrations and mixture. 

                  Stripping myself of certain traditions and values in my case has been a cause for celebration and relief.  Leaving Ecuador for the first time at 18 was an intuitive desire for flight and experimentation.  Although my adolescence in Quito is full of happy memories, it was also a period of much energy wasted: whether to repress desires and curiosities or else to conquer them.

                  From that moment on the image of myself with my suitcase in hand was impressed upon my life story.  Suitcase in hand to Brazil with the excitement of launching myself into the vertigo of the unknown, and with suitcase in hand, return home.  Suitcase in hand through the cobbled streets of Beacon Hill with an address on a scrap of paper: the future house, the future cave, the future slave drivers.  At the same time, the university campus became my new escape, my refuge.  A year of exploitation in domestic service disguised under the name “au pair” was enough.  Once again, the suitcase in my hand. (English teacher, drift with language workers).





The second axis is the border, both in its most immediate sense -the closing of geographical borders and the precarization which this entails- as well as a more general sense of the construction of borders which determine inside access and hierarchies within much more diffuse fields, such as the house in which one works and the personal relationships which one establishes with the employers and their families.  Perhaps the most vivid image of all this was offered to us by Viki, an Ecuadorian friend who works in domestic service, when she told us about the barriers which are erected in the work of in-house domestics, especially in the case of foreigners.  As A.Macklin has indicated, this work is marked by a series of ambiguities which situate those who do it both inside and outside: inside the nation and outside the State, inside the economy and outside labor relations, inside the home and outside the family.[18]  The space of home and family, which in principle is a smooth surface, bit by bit reveals its strata: its forbidden places, its behaviors, its habits (in terms of food, cleaning, leisure, order, shopping, vacations, etc.) which are converted into rules, instituted in practice.[19]  The uniform, Viki explained, is the first border, that which establishes upon the body and in the eyes of others which is the place occupied by each.


Really it’s very unpleasant, besides being an imposition.  They don’t ask you if you want to wear it or not, or how you feel, or if it looks good on you or not.  Nothing.  They impose it upon you at some point just to make the differentiation, or to feel better, to feel that they are above this person who has her own feelings, her own ideas, who perhaps has come to do a lot of different things, to maintain her family… they don’t think about any of this, they just think in this moment that people that visit them or the family itself will see that this person is inferior, is inferior to them, nothing else.(Drift with domestic workers)


Food –the access to certain foods or the times and places for eating- constitute another strongly gendered border territory.  The rules of hospitality which reign in the household apparently guarantee equal access to the foods in the refrigerator.  Nevertheless, the existing hierarchies determine ever narrower and more arbitrary limits (“Who drank the baby’s juice?”).  The assistant or the babysitter, like the housewife, experiences a severe dietary regime which “obliges” her to eat at fits and starts, on foot in a free moment, as if she were on a diet or picking at leftovers.[20]


The telephone operators also spoke to us about the clothes worn to work as an exteriorization of position, although in this case in the opposite sense: the wardrobe is meant to produce a non-differentiation between workers who may in fact enjoy different working conditions but happen to coincide in a particular campaign.  During the telemarketing drift, and in front of an anonymous building - one of those that is all opaque glass - Teresa and Bea told us how the Unidos workers, who earned more and who were advised to come to work “very well dressed” were to serve unwittingly as models for other workers with lower salaries and worse conditions.


(…) They had told them that they could all dress alike so there wouldn’t be any difference, and everyone thought that was alright- anyway, they didn’t argue- and nobody complained that this was happening, and so we found out by accident, since we didn’t see anyone who looked like a telephone operator and really you can usually spot an operator on the street. (Telemarketing drift)


Image, be it for the purpose of differentiating or equalizing, is fundamental, even if one is working by telephone.[21] Image, especially if one is a woman, is part of the company, but it is also something of one’s own, something connected to the self-esteem and the perception one has of oneself in relation to others.  For this reason no one wants to identify herself as a telephone operator.  This double character makes it possible for the interests of the company, designed in accord with a rationalization of ‘desire’ and the ‘necessity’ to maximize profits, can appear indistinct from the interests of those who work in it: young people just passing through, university students with big plans, girls concerned about their image.  This is the case of those working in telemarketing who aspire to “a better image of themselves” (in the eyes of their families, for example) who pretend they work in a “big company” in the telecommunications sector: “Nobody works for Qualytel, nobody works for Iberphone, everyone works either for Natural Gas or for Iberdrola or for Madritel or for Telefonica.  Or else you can just say you work in Jorge Juan.[22] The telephone operator, Teresa explained to us, does not identify herself by her occupation nor by her education, and certainly not by her profession, but by the name of the company that has contracted her.  The important thing is to be able to speak![23]




All of this places us in the terrain of productive bodies.  Something which for us now has a fixed and unforgettable image: the Nike macro-billboard in Plaza del Sol interpolating each and every one of us: “And you, who are you?”: the ‘diva’, the ‘yogi’, the ‘fighter’ and the others: a sweaty black woman in boxing gloves, a blonde absorbed in the lotus position, a rocker-girl in her plastic pants… a condensation of identity which speaks to the possibilities of corporeal or incorporated experience, assuming the sensibility which encourages us to “make yourself a (sexualized) body”, a sensibility which makes anorexia only the extreme experience of a common corporeality.[24]


The fusion in the body of life and work is a commonplace for many women whose work puts them in contact with the public: in commerce, hospitality and the new kind of administrative work which mixes paperwork with customer service.  The desire to be appealing (to oneself and to others), a desire powerfully domesticated in women, is here recuperated for the diffuse control of labor and for the production of a subjectivity based on unconditional surrender.[25]  The feminist revindication of corporeal self-determination (“Our bodies, ourselves”), inspired in a vision of the colonized body and of colonization as a superimposition of layers over an original and virgin nature demands an updated reflection. 


The increasing abstraction of commercial and cultural products, converted into images or lifestyles, submitted to the devices of the optical unconscious and the optical test of which Benjamin speaks, has given priority to a body in which products and attributes become inseparable.  Fashion advertisements, such as those produced by Mango, show a body in which the garments are imperceptible or no more perceptible than other physical characteristics: extreme thinness, reclining and invalid posture (sometimes barely managing to stay afoot), shadowed eyes (suggesting evanescence, illness and abuse), fleshy lips (hypersexualization in a hypertrophic body), the empty background which helps to emphasize the body’s elements, etc.


In this way, the opportunity to make oneself a body cohabits with the corporeal proposals in which (self)discipline, be it athletic or alimentary, becomes a common denominator.  Ultimately it is about beating the body, knowing how to overcome it in the face of stress, exhaustion, age, illness, depression or laziness.


In this battle the first to lose are the domestic workers.


                  -And when I say physical exhaustion, what do you imagine?

                  -Ay, exhaustion, so much work and so much of everything, its like an illness, one can’t give another drop.

                  -Do you feel physical exhaustion every day?

-Yes, yes, yes, every day, because one wakes up in the morning, because even though one works part-time if one is a mother and a wife and besides all that I also have my mother here, I’m a daughter, and so I have to be doing things, putting everything in order, a mother never rests, she is the first to wake up and the last to go to bed (questions to an Ecuadorian woman in the Parque del Oeste during the domestic work drift)


The work is hard.  Yes, I get very tired.  Sometimes my back hurts.  But the doctor says its just from working.  They gave me exercises to do.  The exercises don’t seem to work.  I have to keep working, so how do they expect the pain to pass?  My head hurts too.  And when I stop to think about my children I feel my heart hurt.  The doctor says its depression.  I don’t have anything in my heart… (testimony of an in-house domestic worker, Anacaona, from an investigation on Latin American domestic workers in Belgium, Las voladoras o de la migración international de mujeres latinoamericanas, 2003)


Physical exhaustion and all the aches and pains are enormous, and to them must be added other kinds of demands having to do with one’s appearance (also related to race, which is taken as a given to be accentuated), one’s health, or other more immaterial qualities such as attitude, none of which are aspects irrelevant to employers.[26] 


Nothing in domestic work, including care work and nursing, contributes to self-care, nothing but the capacity of the worker to endure and preserve her most necessary tool which is her own body and her integrity faced with the enormous sadness of all that which she doesn’t… (“Migration – a woman in the park told us – is being far from one’s land”).  Free time is, definitively, time to work more.  Viki’s insistence on her need to feel herself treated “like a person”, like a “human being” has to do with this fabrication of submission, the reduction of her being to a mere body for the reproduction of others, pure work force unconnected to any specific quality.


Stress and physical exhaustion for some and tiredness, aches and pains and depression for others give form to the experiences of class, gender and migration which are impressed in the intimacy of different productive bodies.





Listening and relating, especially relating with people”, thus Carmen describes what she puts to work in her functions as a nurse.  Something which she shares with the telephone operators, the domestic workers, the prostitutes and other women in feminine precarious work.  For us, the encounter with the telephone operators was a revelation in this sense.[27] The capacity to attend and to empathize, the anticipation of others’ desires, not so much in order to provide solutions as to make the other feel good in a more general sense, patience and the ability to produce a “telephone smile” are fundamental tools based in a common sensibility lauded by some feminists as an ‘ethics of care.’  Technical knowledge, but especially relational knowledge - something which the company rapidly skips over in a 3 day training course (unpaid and with no guarantee of work) and which is mostly learned with the help of more experienced workers - is the key to success.[28]  In these training courses, and depending upon the kind of services – technical assistance, information, emergencies, sales, surveys, etc. – they establish guidelines about the length of the call, the methods of retaining, deferring or cutting the call, the line of argumentation to develop, the intonation, the prohibited words and the encouraged ones[29] or the activation of the famous ‘mute’ or ‘telephone tunnel’ through which they may leave the call on hold for any number of reasons, and to which the telephone operators have responded with Without the Mute, the title of the magazine they have produced about labor problems in telemarketing.  The control over communicative capacity – emotional as well as argumentative rhetoric – constitutes a vast field for exploration.


Normally during the first year people see that their character gets much more dry, much more defensive, because in client attention you are the first barrier. People call you to say that something doesn’t work and you’re not there to solve the problem, you’re there to endure their anger.  Then later if you can solve the problem you pass the call along or whatever you have to do, but you are there to stick it out.  So its very important to differentiate, to know when you leave your work, to change and be able to smile, but its difficult… When I take a call, I know, first of all, that the guy is not mad at me, that it is not personal and that if he yells at me and then I yell at him then its going to get ugly, so I sit there with great patience and all the calm in the world, but not because they make me: because I take it like that, because I really don’t care.  I understand that he has a problem but what’s it to me?  It’s not my problem, so I’m going to do what I can –sometimes you can say that, sometimes no – but I have to hang on to the idea that I am going to do what I can, and even though he says I am an incompetent and I am not, I have to stick it out and not let it get to me.  The problem one tends to have in this job is that you start out doing things as well as you can but you just can’t, you can’t do anything well because its really not your job to fix anything, your job is just to stick it out, and this is really hard because of course someone is there telling you something and you really do feel bad for him that his phone hasn’t worked for two days, and you can’t tell him, look, unsubscribe because no one is going to fix it.  So its just a matter of putting him off, telling him that you’re going to do all that you can, and tell yourself this: that you are just doing your job. (Telemarketing drift)


The most experienced or most adept workers are able to limit the tension by establishing authentic subjective excisions.  Nevertheless, the integration of knowledges and dispositions generates painful contradictions.  This is what happens, for example, on the hotline for battered women, a service contracted by the Institute for Women, in which it is necessary to develop a communicative orientation dense in skills – listening, understanding, calming, consoling, informing, diverting, deciding, consulting, etc. – within a situation of great emotional tension.


Okay, I come to this service and they tell me ‘you have to divert them’ but of course the caller tells me… for example in a rape case it was very clear, you tell her that she has to go to one of those police stations that has services for women and she says to you, yeah but it my village there isn’t one, because you get calls from all over Spain and if she lives in a village… sure, but its 200km away, so you send her to the police station, but its not going to be the same, so you have to give her some guidelines, tell her that she has to do this, this and this, but all this I say because I want to, and the company wants me to, but they don’t make me do it, they didn’t teach me to do it, and if I do it badly, what responsibility do I have? I have a personal responsibility, but the company can always say look, you said this on your own account and you’re not obliged to say that, and as a matter of fact, you’re not allowed to say that… (Telemarketing drift)


We find ourselves once again before the dilemma of care, before the frame of mind needed to work for people and not get burned, to find some means of subjective self-preservation, of integrity in contact.  As Viki explained to us, although things are bad and


As hard as the situation may be, you can’t fill up with resentment and bad feelings, because then those feelings bloom and you teach them.  If its caring for children, you teach those children all you know.  Do you understand?  All that your life drags with it, and all that has made you into a special person and a particular person.  You transmit to these people all that you are.  But they don’t pay you for that. (Domestic work drift)


Another interesting element of relationship which merits further investigation is the link between people working together, which was alluded to both by the telephone operators and by our guide in social nursing.  In the case of the operators, the companies attempt by all means to reduce the contact between the employees, whether by giving them little physical space to rest - as we had the opportunity to witness in situ, all squeezed together in the Qualytel office – or by using strategies oriented to generate competition and individualism, such as what they call “horizontal promotion”[30] or incentives[31] (which are also used in public health).   Nevertheless, the company knows that a good portion of the work is done thanks to the exchange between the workers which assures the transmission of the savoir faire accumulated by the veterans who have been there longer, and – take note – are already more burnt-out[32],  and of the information necessary in the course of the telephone calls, information which certainly does not reside in the few folders which we found in the offices, nor in the computers, but rather in the heads of those who are answering the calls.  The control of this process rests in modulated management, employing surveillance techniques (listening and recording), hierarchization (operation personnel: operators, coordinators and supervisors, and structural personnel), displacement and time changes (since the job is organized by campaign some workers are located in the headquarters of the operating company while others are in the contracting company, and thus they are continually changing) and differentiation based on salary and value (of the campaign, of the sex of those who are executing it, of their wardrobe, of the company, etc.).  The sense of being in transit is permanent: the scientific organization of total work.


Despite all the impediments relations are established, the workers end up meeting each other again in the course of their rotations, experience and resistance accumulate and socialization projects itself out of the work space, first to the Dunkin’Donuts to which they lead us since it’s the only affordable place in Salamanca (the neighborhood of Madrid where Qualytel is located in an almost totally clandestine manner[33]) and then, far from the opulent streets of this area, into houses, bars, parks, public transportation, the city.  Relationships, confined by the intense rhythms of work and by the acceleration of urban life, seek interior and exterior spaces for release.  Bea and Teresa keep in touch with many of their former colleagues.  Carmen, in our trip through her former job in a health center for heroin addicts, goes out for one thing or another with many of her former comrades in this nocturnal job.


Who has helped me is the team.  Sometimes I wanted to go to work just in order to be with my colleagues, since I had no social life.  My friends from the university have left town to work, many of my other friends too. Madrid has a super intense rhythm of work and no one has time to see each other.  If I had more of my people here I’d go nuts because I couldn’t see them.  So most of my emotional support is in my work. (Social nursing drift)


The fact that sociability exceeds and escapes from the the more rigid structures of work is a well known reality, the most interesting concretion of which we find in parks, where fellow migrants meet and work out all kinds of contacts.  The fragmentation of the houses where they work, the invisibility of residency papers and the anonymity of being foreign are recomposed in a public space which resists the postmodern phenomenon of  the “no place.”  And we think: if a particular space should exist for the struggle against precariousness, this would be the city in its full extension; this park, that bar, the stairway of the building, the whole block, the metro, the crosswalks, the doorways, the empty lots… This gives us important clues for thinking about conflict from a spatial continuum which unfolds itself in daily life, not limited to work (how, for example, to create conflict from within the isolation of the domestic worker?  Can we follow up on this?  Meet in other spaces?  Meddle?),  and in the figures and positions which incarnate these situated flows (the occasional companions in the call-center?  The fellow users of the internet café, the discount supermarket, the bus number 36?).





Let’s just say that we have fallen into the same productivity that capital expects from a worker, that it expected from a factory worker, except that now the factory is life and we almost never do anything that does not have a clear purpose, whose end has not already been determined. (Drift with language workers).


When the differences in salaries are really a minor detail because everyone is earning shit, the value of what one does, of what one is, produced inside and outside of work, becomes of primary importance.  What we discussed earlier: style, bodily indications, language, cultural traditions, existential itineraries, informal competition and its reinterpretation within the bosom of social enterprise.  For those people, mostly university graduates, who have worked in food service and pizza delivery and distributing flyers, this office job, say the telephone operators, represents a big improvement.  We speak about “total mobilization” of a design in which everything intervenes, from environmental elements (the neighborhood, one’s appearance, the availability of various objects at one’s working station…) to the difumination of the exercise of power.  Don’t deny yourself, don’t get irritated, everything is possible later…


In the company they never say no.  Of course.  But they always have to do viability studies. The question of the earphones in particular lasted two years and at the end they resolved only to give individual cushions.


Power is assumed, is made one’s own; one reproduces it in a pattern altered by the addition of each node in the network.  Doctors do this under the pressure placed upon them by incentive systems and pharmaceutical companies, social workers do it harassed by lack of resources, telephone operators do it motivated by a difference in status, editors do it seduced by the sheen of public image, section bosses do it pressed by the responsibility of their belonging to a big firm.  Emotional blackmail, immaterial privileges, ideas of solidarity and political ideals, intangible promises, potential promotions, the opportunities that they generate, the viable projects, psychological harassment and benefits which depend upon favors and compromises constitute an emotional grammar well studied in certain spheres such as the domestic, where to go to the doctor is always a concession which compels some compensation, translated into time or work or tribute.  The radically feminine relations between the lady of the house and the domestic assistant are, in this sense, a complex asymmetrical game of mutual dependencies in which they negotiate the intimacy of care and cleaning, blame, responsibility, and the total dependency which is generated by organizing a life around others’ needs.


The negotiating table has dissolved, the moment of contracting is interminable, the system of rights and obligations is established ‘as we go along’, such that the mere act of formulating this grammar is an arduous if not impossible task. The general wage agreement, for those who have it and for those who have it in their own sector, is more or less anecdotal, ill-fit to the rationality of the activity.


It depends on the company.  In some they give you a bonbon, in some they some pay more if you work on a holiday, in others you get a night supplement if you work at night, so it more or less equals out.  In all the companies I think the owners have it worked out this way so each one can give some things better and some things worse.  As for a general wage agreement, well, in the works committee we are habitually struggling for just that, that they fulfill the agreement to the letter.  Now they’ve done something good, which is that now there’s a break from looking at the screens.  Before there was a break of 10 or 15 minutes, depending on the hours you normally work, but now what there is is a five minute break for every two hours of work, to relax your eyes.  Its important that people know this and that if they pressure us not to pay attention, that we have the right to the break.  But what happens in this job is that if in this moment there are a lot of calls the coordinator is there to tell you “wait a moment, right now there are too many calls, or else you won’t be able to go to the bathroom.”  No one knows very well what is the function of the coordinator, but that one person can tell another that she can’t go to the bathroom… anyway, with the question of the breaks, if you enter in the rhythm that everybody enters when you arrive you think, okay, I’m going to do things well and I don’t really care if I go out five minutes earlier or later, and then that is established, and very easily you end up without any break at all… So do they fulfill the agreement in general, yes, but of course its not in general, its each day of work, and since the calls are entering and you want to attend them well and they sell you this idea of professionalism… (Telemarketing drift)


The important thing for them, as the telephone operators commented, is that what you actually do resembles- or at least that you believe that it resembles- what you wanted to do in the first place.





Income is habitually taken as the key criteria in defining precarious work, income and the condition of permanent temporariness to which we have already alluded and which we have tried to make more complex on the basis of things which have arisen during the drifts.  The importance of the salary with respect to the other values such as prestige, resources, connectivity, opportunities for strategic projection or personal interests vary depending on the possibilities each person has, as an individual but more importantly as a function of one’s more-or-less fixed social position.  For some, like the domestic workers, the job is just this: money, that which is immediately necessary to change things, to transform “this hell of instability in which we lived.”


The words of the women with whom we spoke in the Parque del Oeste, as well as the tone of their voices, their intonation, which we cannot reproduce through mere transcription, say it all:


-If I say to you ‘work’, what do you think of?

-Work is what you do to have money, because here everything is based on money… something to get work, I mean, money.  (Interviewing an Ecuadorian woman in the Parque del Oeste, Domestic work drift)


Income is inseparable from residency papers and the condition of being a migrant woman.  Both form the closed circuit of domestic work in which many women find themselves trapped, unable to develop their professions or interests.  In this circuit the servile dimension also becomes manifest, a dimension which is most clearly and materially expressed in the very form of the salary:  on the one hand, the salary appears ever more the variable vulnerable to adjustment by economic policy, that is, it is the task of the salary to absorb macroeconomic shocks, the rise or fall of the moment; on the other, it is ever more individualized: the standard wage (that which is calculated in the contract and which is based on the qualification of the worker: an irreversible element) is only a small part of real wage income, whereas an increasing part is based upon the degree of implication, zeal and interest demonstrated during the process of work, that is, after the contractual moment.  Thus the salary becomes less and less a result of a contractual relation (and a relation of force) and more a purely individual remuneration for services rendered.[34]


We walk through the streets, we cross the city by bus from the zone of Embajadores to the neighborhood of Salamanca, a discrete surface but replete with marks, transitions, environmental changes inscribed in the businesses, the buildings, the urban real estate, the people.  We go up Velázquez towards Jorge Juan with our noses pressed against the Christmas display windows of Loewe, a torrent of lights, golden bubbles, glitter and snowflakes swirling on the other side of the glass.


We pass by here every day to go to work and then to go home, so it is significant that as you go by you come across stores like this.  What a display! And a purse for 100,000 pesetas.  Yeah, it makes you wonder, being in this neighborhood, even for the lunch break: if you want to go down and have a coffee you know that its not going to cost what it does in the bar next to your house, so it is significant that you come here to work. At home they say “She works in Salamanca!” and it seems just like what they would have wanted, since they can’t live here they would at least like to have worked here.  Many of the telemarketing companies are in la Moraleja[35] and the same thing happens, people go to work in la Moraleja, and if on top of that they go to work in a suit, imagine! The height of perfection. (Telemarketing drift)


We continue on the same sidewalk and stop amazed in front of the perfect image, the most elaborate metaphor for what these streets suggest to us in our passage through precarious work.  It is the display window of some completely hidden prestigious company, the glass frosted to opacity, leaving only one tiny square of transparent glass out of reach, above our heads.  When we clamber up to look we can see one exclusive garment on one mannequin.  The visual conjunction of inaccessibility and prohibition, of this obscene gesture of sticking ones nose in (where it has no business, for if it had you wouldn’t be climbing up there to look): this is the best description of what happens to us. 




For us this investigation is, above all, a way of thinking together towards collective action, an effort to locate the scattered sites of conflict and know how to name them, to inaugurate other previously nonexistent ones along with those we already experience: in the process of job-seeking, in the job-interview (that grand machine of daily humiliation!), in networks, in shopping centers, on the telephone, in the park, in social centers… After this first cycle of drifts, whose itineraries and reflections we try to collect in this text from the June 20th strike to the more recent and frustrated strike against the war in Iraq on April 10th, we have thrown out two questions, in first and in second person: “What is your war?  What is your strike?”.[36]


The primary objective of the Laboratorio de Trabajadoras was to create a space of permanent communication which would not be restricted by work-place nor limited to the strictly work-related -as if this could be separated from other aspects of life- and that would not be restricted to the singularity of this or that company, this or that specific conflict, some particular demand, but that could be reinvented as a practice, contaminating and provoking chain reactions.  A laboratory which would permit us to be on top of events and improvise coordinated movements of support and of rebellion (to intervene in the firing or the abuse of a live-in domestic worker, to participate in the strikes and struggles of health workers, telemarketers…).


As much in the course of the drifts as afterwards in the two workshops of Globalized Care, we have only just begun to go over some of the memorable recent experiences of struggle: the janitor’s strike in Ramón y Cajal Hospital, the struggle of the Qualytel telephone operators, and other gestures, bursts, protests and budding processes of uprising.  For some the encounter with the janitors in our brief visit to the hospital was strange, alien: alien to us because we saw them in a localized conflict, still influenced by unions like CCOO[37] (with which the workers of the Eurolimp-Ferrovial contract in Ramon y Cajal had had such confrontations in order to maintain their autonomy and their grassroots structure), in a conflict in which the question of precariousness resides basically in the increasing loss of rights, in the disappearance of the workers’ functions in order to intensify their activity, and in the absolute repression of any and all burst of protest.[38]  But we immediately recognized the intimacy of the relationship they sought with the patients and their families and with other social groups outside of the realm of the unions, and we identified with their discourse about care as something related to citizenship and their criticism of the  privatization of health care.


Perhaps the conflict of the telephone operators struck us closer to home, especially for the absolute nonexistence of representative structures, the extreme mobility (the constant shuffling of workers) and the isolation to which they are subjected, as well as some their hybrid practices of struggle in which they play with anonymity, networked action, clandestine organizational processes, the use of symbolic tools to break through isolation and fear, etc.[39]  Their experience of communication “with whoever is beside you” in order, bit by bit, to construct a common sensibility, their necessity to recognize themselves, because the common names are not obvious, or their ability to short-circuit the company’s logic producing other logics give us a few interesting hints for future interventions.


By exploring the intimate and paradoxical nature of feminized work we discovered a few points of attack:  turn mobility to our advantage – as we said in the debate following our “Grand Show” – appropriate the communicative channels in order to talk about other things (and not just anything), modify semiotic production in strategic moments, make care and the invisible networks of mutual support into a lever for subverting dependence, practice “the job well done” as something illicit and contrary to productivity, insist upon the practice of inhabiting, of being, a growing right.


Our incursions into spaces of non-work, or, to be more exact, in our existential and subjective itineraries, have isolated precedents into which we have plunged, among them the campaign against Inditex[40] organized by various groups of women off and on since 1998[41] or the reappropriation of maxi-pads which has gone on for years.  Transforming labor struggles into citizen struggles which act upon the asymmetries of sex and sexuality, place of origin and legal status, race and age, and which cut through the metropolitan circuits of precariousness constitutes an itinerary which each of us has entered from a different points: some from our own work, some from social spaces, some others from a syndicalism in transformation, from the feminist movement, from the personal encounters that are going on around us.




At the close of this first phase we wanted that our efforts to map the territory be expressed and multiplied, that they strike up a dialogue with other restless realities.  But how to express such an intimate and complex process?  How to express, in just one evening, in just one place, the particularity of the spaces and the lives through which we have drifted?  This led to what we called the “Grand Show”: a performance –as lively as we could make it-  of the drifts, comprised of a theatralization and a fictional reproduction of the places –crosswalks, display windows, screens, homes, construction work, hospital rooms and class rooms, passers-by- which we passed through, and the people with whom we had the opportunity to speak played by… themselves!  Video, slides, audio, a debate for which we were all already too tired and, to finish it off, a cocktail in La Eskalera Karakola.


In the house, a translator spoke to us –between phone-calls and computer crashes- of isolation, stress, and the intimacy of the text.  In the classroom a teacher gave an English lesson to the rhythm of chanted slogans.  Again in the house, a domestic worker described her hours of work and the long-distance management of her family.  We went out, walked around, reflected, saw the video of a virtual drift with a precarious archeologist always on the road, then interviewed one of the Ramon y Cajal workers.  We let ourselves be overwhelmed by the rhythm of the keyboard, the calls, the saucepans, the outbursts.


And then oriented and disoriented, stirred-up and united, we watched a montage which pulled together voices and images from our passages.  We debated, we talked about precariousness; everybody talks about precariousness these days.  But can we really?  Is it useful?  How do we define a category which contains such differences, such a variety of experiences and situations?  Doubts arise.  Is putting the work of a high-wire freelance researcher together with the work of an in-house domestic worker without residency papers in the same category not a way of obscuring a terrible difference in social power?  How shall we delineate precariousness outside of labor?  And with these and other questions we go to have a drink and to plan, drunken, future itineraries of the singular common.


[1] There is no adequate English translation for all that is implied by ‘precariedad’.  The word, increasingly common in discourses about work in Europe, while sometimes used to refer only to a condition of inadequate income, can be applied more generally to the diversity of life/work conditions associated with part-time, flexible, unregulated, multiple, no-contract, no-benefits, at home, project-basis, freelance, illegal or invisible employment.

Webster’s defines precarious as: “dependent upon chance circumstances, unknown conditions, or uncertain developments; characterized by a lack of stability or security that threatens with danger.”  This is pretty much right on target.

[2] See the works of A.Negri, for example The Labor of Dionysis and his articles in the magazine Futur antérieur: “Value and affect” with M.Lazzarato, “Immaterial work and subjectivity” .  Also M. Hardt, “Affective Labor” Boundary, 2, 1999.

[3] Engels, The origin of the family, private property and the State

[4]See, among others and from very different angles, D.Haraway Science, Cyborgs and Women; C.Sandoval Methodology of the Oppressed, A.Jonasdottir The power of love: does sex matter to democracy?, R.Braidotti, Metamorphosis: towards a materialist theory of becoming, C.Carrasco, Mujeres y economia.Nuevas perspectivas para viejos y nuevos problemas, J.Flax, Psychoanalysis and feminism. Fragmentary thoughts,  C.Morini, La serva serve: Le nuove forzate del lavoro domestico.

[5] The Laboratory of Women Workers, but it sounds better in Spanish.

[6] See L.Balbo, La doppia presenza and L.Bimbi, “ La doppia presenza: fattori strutturali e processi sociali nella diffusione di un modello complesso di lavoro femminile dalle economie centrali a quelle periferiche” en Mariella Pacifico (ed.) Lavoro produttivo, lavoro riproduttivo. Contributi sulla divisione sessuale del lavoro, Nápoles, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1989.


[7] If, as Braidotti observes, “the only constant at the dawn of the third millennium is change, the challenge resides in thinking about processes and not about concepts[…] the question is not to know who we are but, at last, what we want to become, how to represent mutations, changes and transformations, and not Being in its classical forms” (2002).

[8] C. Vega, «Estranjeras en la ciudad. Itinerarios de mujeres okupas y migrantes por el barrio de Lavapiés» in A. Bernardez (ed.) Perdidas en el espacio. Formas de ocupar, recorrer y representar los lugares, Madrid, Huerga y Fierro, 1999.

[9] “Theory of the derive” Situationist International

[10] For us any text, any reproduction pales in comparison to the experience of the drifts; nevertheless, we have attempted to represent them in a few narrative accounts.  You can read them at (in Spanish)

[11] Our companions Amaia Pérez Orozco and Sira del Río explain all this and much more in «La economía desde el feminismo: trabajos y cuidados», Rescoldos. Revista de diálogo social, n. 7, 2002. Also in


[12] Habitually definitions and classifications of precariousness overlook these aspects we so insist upon.  One of the classifications we have come across, thinking strictly in terms of employment and quite outside the problem of who occupies which position, distinguishes: migrant work: persons with completely unregulated labor relations, frequently illegal and very probably informal: industrial permatemp: atypical and dependant workers linked to flexible material production, easily blackmailed due to the uncertainty of renewal of their contract; chainworkers: all those atypical workers who work in services and fordist chains both public and private, and brainworkers: all those who, with miserable salaries and ever longer working hours, offer their knowledge and abilities to the companies of immaterial work (communication, internet, semiotic production, logistics, etc.)

[13] L. Boltanski, L. y E. Chiapello, E., El nuevo espíritu del capitalismo. Akal, Madrid, 2002.


[14] P. Virno, Virtuosismo y revolucion. La accion politica en la era del desencanto. Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2003.

[15] See Beneker and Wichtmann “ Plan de servicio sin fronteras. Sobre la migracion de 

enfermeras” in Extranjeros en el Paraiso, Virus, Barcelona, 1994.

[16] IMEFE: A public institute responsible for employment training

[17] There are many examples this personal implication: the delicate “capture” of girls to talk about anticonceptives during an appointment about something else, or the work which Carmen’s mother does in the same health center, quite outside of her official responsibilities, with one group of battered women and another group of diabetics.

[18] “Labor of love? The migration of women as domestic workers” Regina, special issue ifu, 2000.

[19] Never do, Viki explained, anything extra, anything more than exactly what they have asked you to do, because if you do from that moment on it will have become a rule and an expectation and when you don’t do it they will demand to know why.

[20] See S. Bordo, “Hunger as an ideology”.

[21] The voice works similarly, and must be skilled in producing the effect of a “telephone smile” or in hiding the place from which it is speaking, as in the case of the Moroccan telephone operators with Spanish names and Spanish accents who supply telephone services in Spain at Moroccan prices.

[22] A main street in the luxurious neighborhood where many of the telemarkeing companies are located.

[23] A slogan of Telefonica, the Spanish telecommunications giant.

[24] See Susan Bordo, “Anorexia Nerviosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture” Philosophical Forum 17, 73-103, 1987.

[25]“Let us think, for example, of the shop girl I have referred to already.  Evidently, the corporeality of this woman is previous to her employment in Zara, we cannot reduce it to a mere efect of her socialization at work.  Nevertheless, it is inseparable from her work the moment her employment demands a stylization which goes beyond her clothing.  How does this woman experience her body when she leaves home on her way to work, or the reverse, when she heads home without taking off her uniform?  What transposition takes place in and through her body?  It is not possible to think about phenomena of these characteristics without the presence of an ‘intellectualized’ subject, that is an agent capable of fabricating and putting into circulation products and/or cultural ideas, and thus capable of subverting or displacing their functions.” C. Vega, “La domesticacion del trabajo”


[26] Barbara Ehrenreich tells about all of this in great detail in her book Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America.  On the power relations between employer and employee, also see the results of the investigation of Anacaona previously cited; “the Latina servant confirms her inferiority, behaving with deference and adopting maternal attitudes towards the patron; she is concerned for her, listens to her, tolerates her, comprehends her, she also accepts an ill-paid job as she has no capacity to negotiate her salary; and finally – on multiple occasions- she presents herself in a physically deplorable manner.  The lack of seduction in these women is due to the kind of work they do, the hours of cleaning, using strong products: their aspect is lamentable.  This increases the sense of undervaluing, making them feel ugly, deteriorated and old before their time.  Some women said that before 40 their lives had finished.”


[27] In terms of the socio-demographic characteristics of the work force in telemarketing, the average age is around 22, and on weekends the majority are students.  Now women of 40 or 50 are also beginning to enter.  The majority are women (80 or 90%), and of the men most are gay, although this also depends upon the particular campaign.  For example, in the campaign to file income taxes they prefer to take men since it gives a more technical image, but for client assistance and complaints they prefer women since they are more easy-going.  We commented on how interesting it would be to reconstruct the evolution of this job from the old telephone operators, emblem of the incorporation of many women into the labor market, to the unemployed young university graduates and divorcees. 

[28] In this field too the sexual division of work is at play; repairs are usually assigned to men, as is the income declaration campaign, while sales persuasion and emotional support fall into women’s hands.

[29]they give you a class in how to attend the client, typical ‘black words’: like you can’t say ‘No’, you can’t say ‘Problem’, there are lots of things you can’t say.  I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to one: companies don’t have ‘problems’ they have ‘incidents’… and then some words you have to say habitually, so they teach you that, and then you get used to it with practice. If you’re in a really strict company, one where they listen to everything, then yes they really take these things into account… anyway, you get used to it, and then you talk like that in your private life too.  I remember when I began to work as a telephone operator and would pick up the phone in my house saying “Telefonica, good afternoon’ and then say goodbye with ‘Thank you for your call.’  Its unconscious, because its something you’re accustomed to saying eight hours a day, so the call in your own house might as well be one of them. (Telemarketing drift)

[30] With respect to internal promotion, it used to be for reasons of seniority, but now they promote those who have been there little time because they are less burnt-out.  There is vertical promotion and horizontal promotion (they pass you from one campaign to another).  Horizontal promotion, though it entails no improvement in pay or in category, represents an increase in prestige, and one passes on to a new process of selection and the company announces this to all your colleagues.  It demonstrates that the company likes you.  Work is more linked to the campaign than to the companies, and this increases the sense of instability.  Even if you have been working for years in the telemarketing sector one day you may be working in one company and the next day in another.

[31] Depending on the campaign they may pay one thing or another as incentives, and its hard to control because, for example, in sales campaigns its all depends on whether the business then goes and makes the sale, and that creates a bad atmosphere.  On the emergency telephone line they tried to pay incentives to those who could convince the caller that there was no need to send an ambulance, but then this policy ended.  Bea and Teresa think they were just testing to see what the reaction would be.

[32] At first, the operators tell us, they chose the coordinators from those with most experience.  Its logical: if they were better acquainted with the work they could coordinate it better, too.  But quickly they realized that these people were too burnt, that precisely having suffered through this job made them more refractory in pushing their colleagues to hurry their calls.  So the ended up choosing the coordinators from the new employees, who are more manipulable, people who have recently arrived and are more ingenuous, to whom one can still sell the company’s line.

[33] The anonymity of these businesses is a well known fact…

[34] C.Marazzi, I posto dei Calizini. La svolta lingüistica dell’economia e i suoi effetti nella politica, Edizioni Casagrande Bellinzona, 1994.

[35] Another luxurious upper-class neighborhood of Madrid.






[37] Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain’s major unions, marked by a long history of pacts and compromises.





[39] In this sense, the experience of the stuggles in the Madrid census a few years ago or in the Cirque de Soleil with people hired through the temp-agency Manpower have been other important sources of inspiration.


[40] The Spanish textiles giant which includes Zara, Berschka, Pull&Bear…