Questions of labour market and labour intermediation have been a political concern in most European countries as well as the USA and Canada since the late 19th century. In contemporary debates, public labour exchanges have been depicted as a tool to cope with the confusing complexity of labour markets and to match the supply and demand of labour more effectively. On the one hand, labour intermediation was designated to provide adequate labourers for employers. On the other hand, providing employment opportunities for those in search of employment was seen as a tool of social policy in the fight against poverty. In this context, a new understanding of being out of work emerged: “unemployment” was conceived as an integral aspect of labour markets and therefore as an outcome of economic processes. As a result, public labour exchange came to be and is still commonly regarded as an inevitable requirement of modernization.
However, public labour exchange did not just coordinate or regulate a given labour market but also participated in the historical creation of labour and segregation of labour markets. Public labour exchanges fundamentally contributed to the codification of practices of work by imposing new categories of wage labour and of being out of employment. They established formal criteria of classifying occupational skills and employability. Public labour intermediation defined acceptable as well as unacceptable employment according to training, career, age, gender and nationality. While selectively including some practices in labour markets, it excluded other practices as well. Thus, it contributed to the creation and differentiation of national workforce and a segregated labour market. By defining regular employment, it helped impose a particular distinction between formal and informal (or casual) work, between the “real” economy and a shadow economy. Finally – in respect to unemployment benefits – it aimed at distinguishing those willing and able to work from those deemed “work-shy”.
Up to now, only a few studies have asked how public labour exchanges contributed to the emergence and differentiation of nationalized labour markets. Previous research has mostly focussed on the political aims and formal regulations of labour intermediation. By contrast, we know little about how labour exchanges functioned practically and what it meant to be subjected to those practices. It would, however, be quite misleading to assume that explicit aims and rules mirror actual practices in labour intermediation.
Moreover, we have to reflect on the practical impact of public labour exchange in seeking jobs and the position of exchange within the variety of forms of intermediation. Public labour offices have always been only one of many possible ways of finding employment or employees, but they have not necessarily been the dominant one. According to contemporary and recent estimates, informal practices of finding employment with the help of kin or other social networks, newspaper ads or direct inquiries have been important job search practices. Job placement by commercial mediation, charitable organisations, trade unions or associations has been quite common as well. However, in debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “irregular” forms of labour intermediation were often criticized as ineffective. They were not only accused of failing: (1) to organize the labour market effectively; (2) to prevent migration into the cities; or (3) to provide reliable data on labour markets. Abuses and fraud against people in search of a job were seen as common. To prevent this, public control of intermediation was put into practice.
Still, particularly as public labour exchange was emerging, there was no political consensus that labour intermediation should be a monopoly of the state since control of intermediation was seen as a way to control wages, labour conditions and strikes. As international comparison shows, a state monopoly of labour intermediation was the outcome of conflict-laden historical processes, but not an inevitable effect of modernization.
The workshop we have planned aims at comparing practices of labour intermediation and ways of finding employment in the 19th and 20th centuries across a variety of countries. Historians as well as researchers in other disciplines (such as sociology, anthropology, economics) are invited to participate.
At the workshop, questions such as the following should be addressed.
• Searching for employment: How did people make use of various forms of intermediation? What did it practically mean to be subjected to job placement, vocational counselling or assistance by public labour offices? How did people in search of employment perceive and experience public labour exchange? How did people influence practices of intermediation in making use of labour exchanges?
• The clientele of labour offices, commercial intermediation or charitable organisations: Which (main) targets did different forms of labour intermediation have?
• Do differences between towns/cities and rural areas influence practices of job seeking?
• Codification of work: How did labour placement practically establish new differences and hierarchies between different forms of labour and unemployment, between work and non-work? How was labour intermediation involved in producing old and new forms of labour market segregation?
• How did public job placement contribute to the establishment of national and regional labour markets?
• Unemployment benefits and labour offices: How did public employment offices change with the emergence of unemployment benefits? How did labour offices provide aid or enforce an obligation to work in officially accepted ways? How was the distinction between those “willing to work” and those “unwilling” or “work-shy” made on a practical basis? Which consequences did such labelling practices have?
• The perspective of employers: Which forms of recruitment did employers use or prefer? How did they make use of labour offices? Which differences can be observed between employment practices in enterprises of different size and in different commercial sectors?
• Labour intermediation and mobility: How did public and other non-governmental agents establish forms of control of and support for those migrating or tramping in search for work? Which measures aimed at the regulation and control of inter- and intra-national labour migration? How effective were these regulations?
• Political interests and conflicts: How did different interest groups, such as trade unions, employers’ associations or individuals interact in labour exchange, in consensus and conflict? How did these interactions shape labour offices’ practices of distributing jobs? How did public labour offices play a role in mediating interests between employers’ and labourers’ associations?
• Interrelation of administration and science: Which impact did research have on labour exchange (for example, what was the impact of psychology on vocational counselling)? How did labour exchanges contribute to the production of knowledge about labour markets (i.e. statistical representations)?
• Administration of labour exchange: How were the unemployed and job offers administered by different forms of labour exchanges? Did the establishment of public labour offices influence the professionalization of job placement?
The workshop is organised by the ERC-starting grant project “The Production of Work: Welfare, Labour-market, and the Disputed Boundaries of Labour (1880-1938)”, directed by Sigrid Wadauer. For more information on the project see the homepage http://pow.univie.ac.at.
The project will cover travelling expenses and accommodations for invited speakers.
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