Insecure working as social harm? Some thoughts on theorising low paid service work from a harm perspective

Criminology has been frequently challenged to broaden its horizons beyond legal definitions of crime in order to adequately grapple with the complexity of an array of socially harmful and deviant acts and motivations.  Numerous studies indicate that acts don’t have to be criminal to be socially harmful.

My primary area of research continues to be the workplace and the young people engaged in forms of affective labour within the service economy (see Lloyd 2012, 2013, 2016, forthcoming).  Steve Tombs has raised important questions about harms perpetrated by corporations, managers and firms wilfully ignoring health and safety legislation, linking workplace deaths and injuries with harmful management practice.  The media regularly highlights the oppressive conditions facing low-paid service workers.  Recent attention has focused on Amazon warehouses and Sports Direct distribution centres.  Workers are lamented.  Forced to meet just-in-time targets, monitored physically and electronically, the pace of work pre-determined, autonomy reduced, minimal breaks, no benefits, insensitive and oppressive management, no job security, low pay and long, arduous hours.  Sure, individual companies are vilified for a while – and then left to resume business as usual.

However, these practices are more widespread and endemic than a few ‘bad apples’ exploiting staff and my research supports this.  These practices are essential to the efficient functioning of the sector.  Without flexibility, competition, targets, efficiency, just-in-time services, zero-hour contracts etc. profit margins would suffer.  This raises the question, what impact does this model of working have on the people engaged in these ‘shit’ jobs (employees’ terms, not mine)?

More needs to be done in considering work in the context of social harm.  I want to combine my empirical research on the lives of young people working within the service economy, their work trajectories, daily working practices, attitudes towards their jobs, co-workers, and plans for the future, with an emerging theoretical framework of social harm.

When I’m told that low-paid, highly stressful jobs in retail and call centres, accompanied by targets, demanding customers and bullying management, result in informants seeking medical treatment for stress or being reduced to tears before going into work, it seems to me that we are talking about occupations that are actually harming employees.  When I hear of contacts set up as enfranchised driving instructors only to be left with spiralling debts through dwindling client numbers (despite guarantees from franchise operators) it raises questions about business models that appear to regard the individual subject as replaceable in a cost-benefit analysis.  When I’m told that quarterly bonuses are offered as a zero-sum game with employees in direct competition for coveted rewards, it seems to me that selfishly aggressive competition is encouraged in the workplace.  When I hear informants on zero-hours contracts have gone three months without any shifts, I wonder how they are expected to pay bills.

My research is littered with examples like this.  Fragmented careers, low-pay, poor conditions, insecurity and management practices tied to the need for productivity leave many young people with a negative set of working experiences.  The impact of these issues on the daily practices of individuals and their psychosocial well-being whilst engaged in the industries servicing consumer capitalism raise important questions about harm.

How then to connect the lives and experiences of low-paid, insecure, flexible service sector workers within a comprehensive harm perspective?  The answer requires sociology and criminology to seek new theoretical frameworks.  It requires sociology and criminology to engage in dialectical discussions that ask ‘what if’?  Received wisdom suggests that the ideological force of consumer capitalism presses down upon the embattled subject.  What if, instead, we invert the core-periphery model to suggest that the generative core of consumer capitalism creates energy pushing outwards, piercing the regulatory jacket of the welfare state?  Or, generating subjectivities attuned to the values and (non)ethical framework of consumer capitalism?

The regulation that once protected workers is increasingly eroded by the needs of capital, facilitating working practices that prioritise the bottom line.  The erosion of employee rights and protections produces the energy needed to drive capitalism forwards, at the expense of the individual.  The reorientation of the subject in the face of the generative core of consumer capitalism leads to harmful subjectivities increasingly devoid of attachment to the social in favour of competition and instrumental consumerism.  The young people in my research may actively (unconsciously) solicit the environment that harms them; attached to a set of values and symbols in order to make their way in the world, in order to survive, but which slowly eats at their psycho-social well-being, from the inside out.

It is sociology’s task to make sense of the social world in which we live.  In order to do this, I believe it’s also sociology’s task to look for alternative theories and frameworks that allow us to do that.  How can we talk about progressive change until we can make sense of what’s happening ‘out there’? The Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology continues to ask these questions and face these realities.

Anthony Lloyd, Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology


Lloyd, A. (2016a) “Understanding the Post-Industrial Assembly Line: A Critical Appraisal of the Call Centre” in Sociology Compass. 10(4) 284-293 doi: 10.1111/soc4.12360.

Lloyd, A. (2016b) “Efficiency, Productivity and the Comfort Break: The gap between ideological rhetoric and reality in the call centre” in The Sociological Review. (forthcoming)

Lloyd, A. (2016c) “Ideology at Work: Reconsidering ideology, the labour process and workplace resistance” in International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. (forthcoming)

Lloyd, A. (2013) Labour Markets and Identity on the Post-Industrial Assembly Line. Farnham: Ashgate.

Lloyd, A. (2012) “Working to Live, Not Living to Work: Work, leisure and youth identity among call centre workers in North East England” in Current Sociology. 60(5) 619-635. 

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