Book Review: The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism

Aguiar, Luis, and Andrew Herod, eds. The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism: Cleaners in the Global Economy: Cleaners in the Global Economy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

In this edited volume Luis Aguiar and Andrew Herod have brought together a collection of articles on the global cleaning industry principally organized into three thematic sections: geography, ethnography and agency. This book takes an expansive approach to considering labour relations in the cleaning industry. Not only do the editors manage to bring together a collection of articles in which the experience of cleaners in the global north and the global south are put into relief. They also manage to provide great depth in terms of the individual experiences of cleaners as they are subject to increasing forms of intensive management. Here a clear line is drawn between classic Taylorist managerial strategies (involving increasing levels of micro-supervision with the goal of work intensification), new innovations in cleaning machinery and surveillance technology and the pressures that a now globalized cleaning industry brings to bear on workers in the modern cleaning sector. The last section of the book is dedicated to an exploration of the different strategies of resistance to work intensification and to examples of the collective struggles taken-up by workers in the furtherance of their common interests. This book thus comprises an ambitious attempt to reveal, what the authors’ stress, is the hidden and largely invisible world of the cleaning industry, cleaning work and the particular challenges facing cleaning workers.

One of the articles I personally found most interesting was that authored by Andries Bezuidenhout and Khayaat Fakier. Here the authors do an excellent job at exposing the continuities and discontinuities between the pre and post apartheid labour relations regimes. Both the continuities and discontinuities will be disconcerting for those who would hold to any simplistic notion of the amelioration of the life of South African workers following the end of apartheid.

Clearly the strength of this book is that it combines the work of several different researchers and their diverse perspectives. As often is the case in projects of this type and scope, however, its strength is also its weakness: the diversity of the researchers and perspectives makes it difficult to achieve a totally coherent whole. For example, as the title of the book makes clear the editors seek to link the research contained inter alia to the broader political economy of what the authors see as a globalized neoliberalism. While I am sympathetic to this project I am not sure the articles manage to come together in a systematic enough fashion to offer a clear workout of neoliberalism as a description of the structure of the global economy, an ideology, or a policy paradigm. In this regard the introductory remarks of the editors are too schematic.

Yet these are minor criticisms. I would recommend this book to those with an interest in critical management studies, industrial relations, trade unionists and those who specialize in the sociology of work.

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