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Fixed, Footloose, or Fractured: Work, Identity, and the Spatial Division of Labor in the Twenty-First Century City

Ursula Huws is professor of international labor studies at the Working Lives Research Institute at London Metropolitan University and is director of the research consultancy Analytica. She is the author of The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (Monthly Review Press, 2003).This essay is adapted from Ewa Gunnarsson, Anders Neergaard, and Arne Nilsson, eds., Kors och tvärs—Intersektionalitet och makt i storstadens arbetsliv (Crossing and Transcending: Intersectionality and Power in Urban Working Lives) forthcoming from Normal, Stockholm.

The combination of technological change and globalization is bringing about fundamental changes in who does what work where, when, and how. This has implications which are profoundly contradictory for the nature of jobs, for the people who carry them out, and hence for the nature of cities.

On one hand, work which has previously been geographically tied to a particular place has become footloose to a historically unprecedented extent; on the other, there have been vast migrations of people crossing the planet in search of both jobs and personal safety. There has thus been a double uprooting—a movement of jobs to people and a movement of people to jobs. Between them, these upheavals are transforming the character of cities in both developed and developing countries.

In the process, they are also transforming social identities and structures. Most classic accounts of social stratification place a central importance on occupational identity. The basic building block of class identity has traditionally been the occupation, normally a stable identity acquired slowly either by inheritance or through a training process intended to equip the student or apprentice with skills for life. Once entered into this occupation and practicing those skills, the holder has a recognized position in the social division of labor which gives him or her a “place” in that society for life, barring some calamity such as illness, unemployment, or bankruptcy—risks against which the welfare states of most European countries provide some form of social insurance.

These identities have helped to give most cities a known shape which is familiar to their inhabitants: quarters which are homes to particular industries; recognized labor market institutions; characteristic family structures; and physical and social infrastructures which reflect and reinforce these patterns. Social structures and relationships are played out in the physical geography of the city—“male” spaces and “female” ones; “ghetto” areas where recently arrived immigrants are concentrated and areas where the indigenous inhabitants preponderate; noisy areas where young people congregate and quiet ones where the elderly live. These patterns are shaped by gendered and racial patterns and structured by the power relationships between the different social groups. This does not just affect who lives where, who works where, or who chooses to travel where, but also how each area is subjectively experienced—for instance which areas are perceived by whom as clean, safe, or friendly.

The unprecedented movements of people and jobs around the world have coincided with a breakdown of many traditional occupational identities. Specific skills linked to the use of particular tools or machinery have increasingly given way to more generic and fast-changing skills linked to the use of information and communications technologies (for work involving the processing of information) or to new labor-saving technologies for manual work, for instance in construction, manufacturing, packing, or cleaning. In many countries, this disintegration of occupational identities has also coincided with a collapse in the institutional forms of representation of workers, such as trade unions, which have in the past served to give some coherent shape and social visibility to these identities. We are left with a rapidly shifting and largely uncharted landscape in which jobs are created (and disappear) with great rapidity, often without even a concrete designation—just a mix-and-match combination of “skills,” “aptitudes,” and “competences.”

Without coherent and stable occupational identities as basic building blocks of social analysis, how can we begin to chart the changes which are currently taking place in our cities? One possibility is to start with their spatial rootedness. Here, a possible typology is to categorize them as “fixed” or “footloose,” with an intermediate category for jobs that combine both fixed and footloose features that we might designate as “fractured.”

One of the ironies of the present situation is that many of the most fixed jobs are often carried out by the most footloose people, while some of the most footloose jobs may be carried out by people with deep ancestral roots in the location where they work.

Let us start with some of the fixed jobs. One of the most obvious characteristics of fixedness is the need for physical proximity to a particular spot, because the job directly involves the making, mending, cleaning, or moving of physical goods or the delivery of real personal services to people in real time and real space.

Starting with my own real space, I look around at the fixed jobs that sustain it. I live on a street of nineteenth-century three-story houses in London, where around a third of the houses are occupied by single middle-class households, the remainder having been converted into apartments or occupied by larger, poorer extended families. Most of the middle-class households employ a cleaner for three or four hours a week. Of the cleaners I know on this street, one is Bolivian, one Mauritian, one Ugandan, and one Colombian. Not a single one is white; not a single one was born in Europe, let alone London. At the end of the road there are two restaurants, a café, a fish-and-chip shop, and a fried chicken takeout outlet. One of the restaurants serves European-style dishes of various origins, mainly French. Its owner is a Montenegrin married to an Irish woman. The waitresses are Brazilian, Polish, and Russian. The other restaurant advertises an Italian menu but is owned and staffed (with the exception of one Albanian waitress) by Turkish men, as is the café. The fish-and-chip shop is staffed by Chinese men. The fried chicken outlet, which is open most of the night and caters to a rather rough clientele, is, despite its American name, staffed by a transient crew of exhausted-looking workers of African or Asian origins.

Periodically the houses on the street that are publicly owned (around 20 percent of the total) are renovated together. This happened last year, and for several weeks the neighborhood was filled with construction workers. This time, as far as we could tell, all the skilled workers were Polish; some of the less-skilled laborers were from various Balkan states. Apart from one surveyor (a black Londoner) I saw no women in the crew.

Not having a car, I make frequent use of a local minicab (cheap taxi) service. The drivers are constantly changing but include men from a large number of South Asian and African countries. To my knowledge there is only one woman driver, a feisty Nigerian who refuses to get out of her car but leans heavily on the horn to announce her arrival. I cannot remember the last time I was assigned a white driver.

This diversity of ethnic origin is not unique to manual work. The small company that maintains my computer network is run by a Greek Cypriot man. His deputy is Syrian and when he is too busy he sends a Turkish engineer to attend to my problem. All are highly skilled and educated. The reception desk in our local health center is staffed by two very efficient women—one Nigerian and one Somali.

Such examples could be multiplied many times, not just in London but in many cities across the globe where the maintenance of fixed infrastructure and customer-facing service activities are increasingly in the hands of people who were born in other countries or continents. Their presence as newcomers or temporary migrants has multiple effects on the shape and character of the host cities now dependent on their labor, both in the areas where they live and the areas where they work. As service workers and service users they are often at the interface of consumption and production in both public and private services and in the process both are transformed: markets are created for new kinds of food and personal services; health and educational institutions revise the hours and the languages in which services are available; and new codes of dress or behavior, tacit or explicit, are introduced making multiple demands on both new and established residents whose social survival depends on learning how to decode them. The specific ethnic composition of any given city is shaped by a complex interplay of factors including its colonial history, political, religious, and cultural traditions, industrial structure, and geographical location; the fact of diversity, however, is increasingly universal.

So much for the fixed jobs; what of the footloose ones? The development of a global division of labor is not new. Regions have traded their goods with each other for as long as recorded history, and raiding other parts of the world for raw materials or slave labor is at least as old as colonialism. At the end of the nineteenth century the British Empire exhibited a remarkably developed pattern of regional industrial specialization knitted together into a global trade network. The twentieth century saw multinational corporations operating with increasing independence of the interests of the nation states in which they were based, ushering in a period after the Second World War that was characterized by Baran and Sweezy as “monopoly capitalism.”1 By the 1970s, it was clear that a “new global division of labor” was coming into being in manufacturing industry with companies breaking down their production processes into separate subprocesses and redistributing these activities around the globe to wherever conditions were most favorable.2 These trends continued in the 1980s with industries as diverse as clothing, electronics, and auto manufacture dispersing their production facilities away from developed economies with high labor costs and strong environmental controls to developing countries, often in “free trade zones” where various tax incentives were offered and labor and environmental-protection regulations were suspended in an effort to attract as much foreign direct investment as possible. Workers in these zones were disproportionately young and female, and they received wages below subsistence level. Nevertheless, they were by no means passive and many actively organized to improve their lot.3 This is one of the reasons why some of the regions once regarded as low wage, for instance Southeast Asia and Central America, are now seen as relatively high wage, and the companies have left them to exploit even cheaper workforces in places such as China, sub-Saharan Africa, and other parts of Latin America.

Needless to say, this development had dramatic impacts on cities that lost manufacturing employment as well as those that gained it. In developing areas, such as the Mexican maquiladoras or the Philipinnes’ Metro Manila region, huge new urban developments have sprung up, often highly polluted, whose economies depended on manufacturing for export. These areas attract labor from the impoverished rural peripheries and in the process create new urban markets for goods and services and new demands for infrastructure and housing which are frequently not met adequately.

In developed countries, cities that grew up as manufacturing centers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had to transform themselves into service centers or decline into collapsed rust-belt areas with high unemployment, empty shopping centers, rising crime, and deteriorating public services. In many cases they did not switch overnight from being employers of skilled, organized indigenous workers to wastelands of empty factories and warehouses. Instead they went through a transitional period during which the work was automated, simplified, and cheapened. Often an immigrant workforce was imported to carry out the jobs which were no longer attractive to indigenous people in the prosperous period that ran in most developed countries from the 1950s to the mid 1970s. When the factories began to close, from the mid 1970s on, it was these immigrant workers, whether South Asians in the Northern United Kingdom, North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, Hispanics in the United States, or Koreans in Japan who bore the brunt of this development. Ethnic tensions were added to the brew of decline in the rust-belt areas.

Less well studied—at least until very recently—has been the new global division of labor in white-collar work. Nevertheless, this too has been progressing since the 1970s when low-skilled work such as data entry or typesetting began to be exported in bulk from North America and Europe to low-cost economies in the Caribbean, as well as South and Southeast Asia, while higher-skilled services, such as computer programming, started to be exported to the developed world from developing economies such as India, the Philippines, and Brazil.4

In 2000, the first research project aiming to map and measure the development of an international division of labor in telemediated-information-processing work was launched under the acronym EMERGENCE, which stands for Estimation and Mapping of Employment Relocation in a Global Economy in the New Communications Environment. EMERGENCE was initially funded by the European Commission’s Information Society Programme to carry out research in the fifteen nations that were then full member states of the European Union plus the candidate states (now full members) of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The project later attracted further funds to carry out related research in Australia, the Americas, and Asia. In the process it has built up a multifaceted picture of the complex and rapidly changing new global division of labor in information services. The first question asked was to what extent employers are actually using the new technologies to relocate work. A survey was carried out of 7,268 establishments with fifty or more employees in the eighteen European countries and a comparable survey of 1,031 establishments of all sizes in Australia. The survey looked systematically at the locations where seven different generic business services were carried out. These business services were: creative and content-generating activities, including research and development; software development; data entry and typing; management functions (including human resource management and training as well as logistics management); financial functions; sales activities; and customer service (including the provision of advice and information to the public as well as after-sales support). For each function, the survey looked at the extent to which it was carried out remotely using a telecommunications link, “eWork,” whether it was carried out in-house or outsourced, and the reasons for the choice of any particular location or outsourcer.

The results gave a comprehensive picture of the extent to which these business services were already delocalized in the year 2000. In Europe, nearly half of all establishments were already carrying out at least one function remotely using a telecommunications link to deliver the work, while around a quarter were doing so in Australia.

Even more striking than the overall extent of “eWork” is the form it takes. Most literature on remote work, telecommuting, teleworking, or any of the other pseudonyms for “eWork” presupposes that the dominant form is home-based work. Yet these results show that the stereotypical “eWorker” employee based solely at home is in fact one of the least popular forms. Moreover, in-house “eWorking” is heavily outweighed by “eOutsourcing” as a mechanism for organizing work remotely, with some 43 percent of European employers and 26 percent of Australians making use of this practice. Much “eOutsourcing” is carried out within the region where the employer is based (34.5 percent), but substantial numbers (18.3 percent) outsource to other regions within the same country, and 5.3 percent outsource outside their national borders. These inter-regional and international (sometimes inter-continental) relocations of work provide clues to the geography of the emerging international division of labor in “eServices.”

What are the main factors propelling this move to outsource beyond national borders? At the top of the list is the quest for the right technical expertise. Only when this is available do secondary factors come into play such as reliability, reputation, and low cost. It is this factor, more than anything, which explains the importance of India in the supply of “eServices.” With its vast population it seems to offer an almost unlimited supply of English-speaking computer science graduates. A survey of 200 of the largest companies in the United Kingdom, commissioned in 2001 by a leading international outsourcer, found that India was the offshore software development center of choice for 47 percent of managers.5 There are already signs, however, that the Indian software market is overheating, despite the drastic drop in demand from the United States. Some Indian companies have already moved into intermediary positions in the value chain and are themselves outsourcing to other destinations including Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Philippines.

For lower value-added activities, like data entry, cheaper countries including Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and the Dominican Republic have established themselves as alternative destinations to the earlier players (like Barbados and the Philippines). China is gaining ground with an even larger population and lower costs than India, as well as a determination to acquire a leading role in the “eEconomy.”

Different business functions are characterized by different types of workers. Lower-skill functions like data entry or customer service work tend to involve large numbers of workers who are more likely to be women; higher-skilled functions like systems design generally employ smaller numbers, who are more likely to be male.

As companies find themselves with global options to choose from, they become ever more picky about where to go, choosing suppliers or locations on a “horses for courses” basis. In the process some regions (Bangalore is a classic example) develop worldwide reputations for excellence in a particular field, while others are completely bypassed. Large sections of the world, including most of sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, were classified by the EMERGENCE project as “e-Losers.”6

What has happened since 2000? A second series of case studies, carried out by the Asian EMERGENCE project7 in 2002 and 2003, found that there had been significant developments in the early years of the twenty-first century. What was still a risky experiment at the turn of the millennium had become normal, not to say routine, business practice three years later. Value chains were getting longer and more complex, with more and more intermediaries involved. The world was witnessing the emergence of huge new companies involved in the supply of business services, often many times bigger than their clients, with an internal global division of labor. When a large organization in the private or public sector decides to outsource a major contract to supply business services, it is increasingly not so much a case of choosing between India or Russia, Canada or China, but more a question of deciding on a particular company (for instance Accenture, EDS, or Siemens Business Services). Once that company has the contract, it may decide to divide up the work between teams in many parts of the world, depending on the particular balance of skills, languages, cost, and quality criteria involved. This type of work could be regarded in many ways as a paradigmatic case of footlooseness, sliding without friction between teams across the globe who are linked by telecommunications networks and a common corporate culture but may nevertheless be physically located in strongly contrasting environments, and occupying very different social locations in the local class structure.

The presence of this new international class of cyberworkers undoubtedly impacts the cities in which they live. For instance, they may become conduits for spreading the values and cultures of multinational corporations outward into their local communities and down the value chain into supplying companies. If they leave to work for other, locally based, companies or decide to start a business on their own, these too will bear the marks of the international experience. There are other more concrete effects. For instance the impact of the international software industry on Bangalore has been dramatic in terms of creating pressure on the infrastructure and increases in property prices which affect the other residents of the city regardless of whether they work in the industry or not. Inhabitants of other cities have also become victims of the international success of some of their neighbors—for instance Dublin’s success as part of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon has produced chronic traffic congestion and a property price inflation that has put buying a home beyond the reach of many who could previously have afforded it. Similarly, traffic comes to a standstill every time there is a shift change in the booming call center sites of Noida and Gurgaon near Delhi in northern India.

Meanwhile, the very fact that their work could be relocated to another part of the world places a brake on the prospects for white-collar workers in the cities where such jobs have traditionally been based. The increased precariousness of their jobs, often expressed contractually as self-employment or a fixed-term contract, does not just make it harder for them to seek improvements in their pay and conditions; it may also impact the local housing market by making it impossible for them to get a mortgage.

So far I have drawn a strongly dichotomous picture of a world in which the fixed is counterposed to the footloose in relation both to jobs and to people. For most of us, of course, the reality is much more complex than that, exhibiting both fixed and footloose features in complex configurations. I have termed this condition fractured. In a fractured existence, the characteristics of fixedness and footlooseness are in constant, tense interaction with each other. Rooted real-time activities (like putting the children to bed or eating a meal) are constantly interrupted by “virtual” ones (like the ringing of the telephone), while “virtual” activities (like checking one’s e-mail) are disturbed by the physical realities of the situation in which one is placed (the pain of a stiff neck, for instance, or the impact of a power outage). The traditional diurnal rhythms of life are disrupted by requirements to respond to global demands. The interpenetration of time zones in one sphere of life leads inexorably to the development of a twenty-four-hour economy as people forced to work non-traditional hours then need to satisfy their needs as consumers during abnormal times, which in turn obliges another group to be on duty to provide these services, ratcheting up a process whereby opening hours are slowly extended right across the economy, and with them the expectation that it is normal for everything always to be open. This normalization process is accelerated by the existence in each city of growing numbers of new residents whose comparative frame of reference is spatial not temporal. Instead of comparing the opening hours of shops in a European city with how they used to be in the past, they are more likely to be comparing them with those in Nairobi, New York, or New Delhi. They are unlikely to be aware of the social solidarity that underpinned the reasons for many of the traditional time structures or, if they are, regard them as no more than quaint anomalies (or even racist practices designed to thwart them). For instance, from the 1950s to the 1980s in the United Kingdom, most shops in most towns were closed for half a day a week, known as “early closing day.” Although this posed minor inconvenience to shoppers, it was almost universally accepted as fair, since shop assistants had to work on Saturday morning and therefore deserved a half day off to compensate at another time during the week. Such attitudes are almost inconceivable in the twenty-first century.

This fractured experience of space and time is mirrored in the fracturing of occupational identities. Although many job descriptions retain a mix of fixed and footloose features, these are increasingly volatile. There has been an erosion of the clear boundaries of the workplace and the working day, with a spillover of many activities into the home or other locations, including an expectation that you should continue to be productive while traveling, whether you are a truck driver taking orders over a mobile phone during your lunch break or an executive working on a spreadsheet in an airport departure lounge. In a world in which the responsibilities for home and children are unevenly distributed between the sexes, these impacts are far from gender neutral and have contributed to an invisible redrawing of the boundaries between the jobs that can easily and safely be done by women and those that announce themselves subliminally as masculine.

Accompanying these dissolutions of the old unities of space and time, there has also been a redesign of many work processes involving some subtle and other not-so-subtle shifts in responsibility for particular tasks within most workplaces. Some of these changes have the cumulative effect of tipping the balance between fixedness and footlooseness. For example, a job that previously combined meeting and greeting customers with more backroom activities might become wholly computer-based, making it easy to relocate it either wholly or in part to another location. If that other location is the existing worker’s own home, then this might be experienced as quite liberating, but if the skills are not unique to the worker, the chances are the other location could be somebody else’s desk on the other side of the world; far from being liberating this would then constitute a new source of precariousness. Conversely, some other tasks that were previously deskbound (and hence in principle delocalizeable) may be redesigned to involve more customer-interfacing activities and become more spatially bound, although they may be tied not to a single location but multiple ones if the worker is expected to venture out to meet clients.

More invidious is the slow erosion of occupational boundaries and with it of occupational identities. It is easy to caricature as rigid and hierarchical the old world in which everyone knew “this task is what I do; that task is what you do; that task is reserved for new young trainees; that one is only done by very experienced older workers who know what can go wrong.” Apart from anything else, it could easily lead to a set of unspoken rules which assigned certain tasks to women or to members of particular ethnic groups or people with a particular educational background. This would pose unacceptable barriers to social mobility and equality of opportunity. But without this, what do we have? A world in which you are always only as good as last week’s performance; where to keep your job you must always be prepared to learn new skills and change the old ways you were trained in (and in which you may have taken pride in the past); where you cannot know reliably in advance when you will be free and when you will have to work; where you can never say “no, that is not my responsibility” without fear of reprisal. A world without occupational boundaries could very easily become a world in which social solidarity is well-nigh impossible because you no longer have any clear way of defining who are your co-workers or your neighbors, and one where so many of your interactions are with strangers that it is hard to tell friend or ally from threat or enemy.

The future of our cities will depend in large part on how we reintegrate these fractured selves, workplaces, and neighborhoods.


  1. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).
  2. F. Froebel, J. Heinrichs, & O. Krey, The New International Division of Labor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  3. See for instance Women Working Worldwide, Common Interests: Women Organising in Global Electronics (London: Women Working Worldwide, 1991).
  4. Ursula Huws, The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (New York: Monthly Review Press & London: Merlin Books, 2003).
  5. Quoted in, May 31, 2001.
  6. Ursula Huws, ed., When Work Takes Flight: Research Results from the EMERGENCE Project, IES Report 397, Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies, Brighton, 2003.
  7. Ursula Huws and J. Flecker, eds., Asian EMERGENCE: The World’s Back Office?, IES Report 409, Institute for Employment Studies, Brighton, 2004.
2006, Volume 57, Issue 10 (March)
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