Working Under Pressure: Social Justice, Employment and Equality in a Time of Environmental Crisis

SEI speaks to research affiliate Dr Frances Flanagan ahead of her keynote presentation next month at the inaugural Iain McCalman Lecture next month.

Image by Suzanne Tucker, via Shutterstock (ID: 651210628)

What would it mean to genuinely try to tackle inequality, social fragmentation and environmental collapse as inherently entwined and inseverable issues? SEI research affiliate Frances Flanagan explores this question and more in her forthcoming lecture, ‘Climate change and the new work order’. She argues that by reconfiguring our values around work, we can instigate a new democratic agenda to re-establish not only social cohesion, but also environmental stability.

Flanagan’s academic and professional career has long been guided by the imperative to give voice to those who are obscured by dominant systems of power. Beginning her career as a lawyer for an Aboriginal Land Council, representing traditional owners in the Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions of WA, she went on to complete her PhD at Oxford, culminating in the book Remembering the Revolution, a transnational exploration of political thought and memory in the wake of the Irish Revolution. Just as formative as writing the book was Flanagan’s experience of researching it against the backdrop of the 2008 global financial crisis and the increasing attention to the degradation of our global environmental systems. Her most recent role, as Director of Research for United Voice, one of Australia’s largest unions, comprising of cleaners, aged carers, educators and a range of other occupations has only fuelled her passion for social justice, and a desire to understand and overturn the deeper determinants of marginalisation.

Growing up on the outskirts of Perth, surrounded by orchards and bush, Flanagan describes her family as “huge beneficiaries of the education and industrial policies implemented in the postwar period”, even though she, herself, grew up in the early neoliberal era. It was this matrix of egalitarian policies, she says, that enabled her father to get his high school leaving certificate at night school, while working as a cleaner, and eventually go to university and get a higher education degree. While she argues that we cannot and should not attempt to duplicate the policies from that mid-century period (which were, after all, deeply infused with racist, sexist and militarist values, and often delivered through alienating bureaucratic means), that there is much to be learned from the ambitiousness and long-term focuses of policy-making in that period for our current, crisis-ridden times.

Work, in particular, is a domain that has been too readily overlooked by many on the left in recent years. Good work is not only a potential source of individual meaning, belonging, growth, environmental and social regeneration, it is integrally related to the quality of our democracy. As the French philosopher Simone Weil argued, it is politically essential that every human feels “useful and even indispensable within the social body”, and work is a crucial means by which such a sense of belonging can be realised1. In our current era of ‘surveillance capitalism’, many of our basic frameworks for understanding and supporting freedom, citizenship, work and democracy are being rapidly and unilaterally reconfigured. Advancing a modern, digitally-supported conception of work that is oriented toward human and environmental flourishing is more essential than ever.

Changes to the employment relationship have been amplified in recent years, with a rise in casual employment, digitalisation, privatisation and outsourcing that have altered the familiar norms of communication and control in the workplace, as well fragmenting social bonds of trust and reciprocity. Flanagan’s postdoctoral research focusses on the experiences of workers, employers, their families and communities working in what have come to be known as ‘non-core’ occupations, such as cleaning, maintenance and security, particularly in the context of sites that have a public character, such as public schools, hospitals and justice institutions. She explores the long-term impacts of the outsourcing and non-outsourcing of these occupations in terms of belonging, trust and social cohesion, across multiple urban and regional contexts in Australia.

“Casualisation and digital scheduling are, in combination, reducing the visibility of structural unemployment and the wounds of shame and despair it can inflict”, says Flanagan in a recent essay. “We don’t have a name yet for the experience of sitting alone in a bedroom, in a car or on the toilet in a state of distraction and latent expectation, awaiting a text message that will signal the prospect of work or its absence. Hundreds of thousands of people do this daily. Yet they now do it privately, without ritual or witnesses.”

Flanagan says her proposition for a ‘new work order’ is a democratic, as well as an environmental one. Far from being a set of top-down policy prescriptions, instead she advances principles for ways in which citizens, unions, community groups and environmental organisations might come together around a shared agenda to properly value and support the work of environmental and social stewardship, renewal and regeneration.

1. Simone Weil 2004 (1949). The Need for Roots: prelude towards a declaration of duties towards mankind. London: Routledge.

Dr Frances Flanagan is a 2019 University of Sydney Fellow in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies and an affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute. She will present ‘Climate change and the new work order’ on February 6 at the inaugural Iain McCalman Lecture