I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles today, and the thoughts they provoked were not pleasant. One is a piece in The Guardian by Seamus Milne about the growth of ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the UK. With such contracts, workers are on standby to work, but with no guarantee of any actual work, and therefore payment, eventuating. In many cases, the contract forbids the person from working for anyone else either. Hailed by neo-liberals as an example of ‘flexible employment’, it is clear that all the flexibility is on the part of the worker. The consequent insecurity is obvious – no guaranteed income from week to week for a start, no pension or fringe benefits, no prospect of buying a home, difficult to sustain a family – in short, the full weight of the new insecurity I wrote about here a couple of months ago. And, although Milne does not make this connection, increasingly, there is little or no safety net, with recent clampdowns on benefits for the disabled in particular leading to a spate of suicides and an even greater upsurge in suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, as I noted in my book (p.117), suicide rates in Greece have risen alarmingly since 2009 (and the rise has continued since I wrote that) and there can be little doubt that the cause of this is the social and psychological dislocation caused by the economic crisis.
Suicidal desperation is at the heart of Jenny Chan’s recently published paper entitled ‘A Suicide Survivor: The Life of a Chinese Worker’ in New Technology, Work and Employment. Unusually for an academic article, this is a powerfully written paper and it recounts the life of a Chinese worker who attempted suicide, apparently a growing trend. We often here of the rise of the knowledge economy and new organizational forms which stress creativity and freedom, but the hidden heart of this economy is what Chan describes as “a production model apparently based on classic Taylorism” (p.88). The intense discipline of life on the line of an outsourcing company producing Apple's i-phones is described in chilling detail, culminating thus: “The accumulated effects of endless assembly line toil, punishing work schedules, harsh factory discipline, a friendless dormitory and, rejection from managers and administrators, compounded by the company’s failure to provide her with income, and then her inability to make contact with friends and family, were the immediate circumstances of her attempted suicide. Her testimony reveals how she was overwhelmed, ‘I was so desperate that my mind went blank’. At 8 a.m. on March 17, Yu jumped from the fourth floor of her dormitory building in despair. After 12 days in a coma, she awoke to find that her body had become half paralysed. She is now confined to a bed or a wheelchair” (p. 91). It is not just in harsh factory conditions that work-related suicides are found. For example, in 2008 and 2009 there was a wave of suicides amongst employees of France Telecom, with many leaving notes blaming work pressures in an organization undergoing massive restructuring.
Suicide is undoubtedly the most powerful and extreme act of the powerless and desperate, a complex response to, and creator, of trauma and its causes are equally complex, and varied. One part of its power is to make it almost undiscussable and, certainly, one should never draw glib conclusions from and about suicides. But, equally, as Salford University academics Jo Milner and Ian Cummins note (and give links to further research on), the links between suicide levels and social and economic conditions are well-established, and have been since at least the publication of Emile Durkheim’s 1897 book, Suicide. So it would certainly be glib to consign suicide to the realms of individual psychology. If we have global economic systems and associated organizational systems of work and welfare which engender suicide then we (including and perhaps especially those of us whose profession is the study of organizations) should not be shy of saying so. Terms like flexibility, welfare reform, global supply chain efficiency and organizational restructuring sound neutral and unexceptionable. What lies behind them may be horror.