Piece workers, contract tasker, day-workers, employees … A reflection on wage labor over the centuries at the announced time of « the uberisation of the world ». 1/2

by Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2764656


In the last post, I evoked teleworking and its possible demographic and ecological impacts … This time, at the announced time of the « uberisation of the world », of the precariousness of work, I would like to dwell on the question of the statute of the worker and wage forms over the centuries and, in passing, to pay tribute to the work of Alain Dewerpe1, co-animator of my graduate education at l’Ecole des Hautes en Social Sciences, for many years.

   The current tendency favouring the development of the micro-enterprise, of the self-enterprise, it is interesting to ask the question of the intertwining between wage statutes2 and system of solidarity, between wage statutes and development of the inequalities and / or mass pauperization of many low-skilled employees. What is « the uberisation of the world », if not the advent of the independent manager registered on a platform, but responsible for his gains, his losses, paid mainly to the results, to the commission, and no to fixed remuneration. The self-entrepreneur is free to organize his working time, within a connected mother structure, connecting workers and customers. In this scheme, the platform declines any responsibility in terms of results, guaranteed minimum wage, social rights, disrupting the labor code, which leads to the multiplication of referrals to the labor courts3. « The uberisation of the world » is the return to decentralized work forms, liberalized both in their forms and in their support by social structures, echoing to a certain extent the workers’ struggles for the introduction of a minimum tariff and of a labor right4. The validation, in January 2019 by the French courts, of a contractual relationship between Uber and the VTC drivers could change the situation5… and highlight all aspects of this precarious new entrepreneurship.

   The decentralization of work also represents the return to « piece working », especially thanks to new tools and new technologies, 3D printing in mind offering the possibility of a real personalization of the object to the needs and desires of the customer. The micro-entrepreneur, interacting with his customers via the networks, makes the desired object and is the owner of his equipment. This evokes the « garage business model » of early Silicon Valley giants, S. Jobs or B. Gates, developing their micro-enterprises, which became the world technological and economic leaders, between the family lawn mower and the bikes…

   If today the wage is strongly defined in its definition by a multitude of rights and duties for both the employee and the employer: tax obligations, social contributions, legal duration of work, right to strike, etc… it has not always been the same in the past. Uber model raise the same questions again, in terms of labor law, taxation, social risk management. From the « roman salarium » to the contemporary salariat, long was the way … Let’s see this history…

   If Nicot in the sixteenth century uses only the verb « salariser » in 1690, Le Littre offers a stable and complex definition : it is a remuneration for a job, the wage-earning becomes a condition, a statute, the salaried employee being the one who receives a salary. Broad definition… Viscount Mirabeau, (the physiocrat, the younger brother of Count Mirabeau), writes that any individual is an employee with the exception of the annuitant, which distinction recalls a whole part of the economic literature developing on the concept of « l’oisif6« … when the development of work as a conceptual idea, become a constitutive value of the social and societal order. Constitutive social order, yes, but not yet organized, wage-earning is not yet framed by a collective agreement, it is not subject to a contract of employment7.

   It is still a multitude of different statuses that coexist in the same structure: piece worker, day worker, domestic worker, each statute offering it own « social rank « , a certain statutory organization chart, in a very strong cognitive and normative framework, domestic work symbolically representing a form of subordination stronger than the artisan, working at home and defining his price in exchange for the achievement of an object , and / or later, with the evolution of the sectors, a service.

   In some cases, the salary can be annual, this is the case for some employees of the Oberkampf factory who receive their full salary in December, which is not without asking the question of the respective shares going to banking and consumer structures … while pieceworkers, engravers, draughtsmen, and more generally the artistic professions of Jouy en Josas, are paid per units of work.

  It is a search for labour discipline through remuneration, the development of an incentive / repressive system (through bonuses, advances and deductions). During times of crisis, two solutions coexist: the dismissal of low-skilled workers and / or the lowering of the wages of qualified workers, who are potentially competitive in a labor market that becomes internationalized in the 18th and 19th centuries.

   Another measure of activity, « time-working » requires a strong framework, a strong and expensive discipline, in conformity with external standards related to the issue of productive efficiency, which is found in manufacturing as an industrial model, incarnated by the figure of the foreman, surveillance teams, workspace organization,… by a system allowing the foreman to have a complete operational vision of the workers in the workshop8. This is the framework of the Benthamian Panopticon… Attempts at outsourcing to avoid work discipline measures develop. It is the development of the statute of « contract tasker », the subcontractor who works a lot, who brings his own material on the building sites, a practice that can be found in the cutlery industry of Billefeld, but prohibited in France by the law of 1848. The increase in the number of ads now offering jobs of « contract tasker » is evocative9.

   Rationalization, the scientific organization of work also means looking for objective criteria for wage negotiations. The « tarifs », (often municipal, drawn across the territory and contestable in court), are renegotiated as and when. In the Carmaux mines, for example, renegotiations rely on the hardness of coal10

   The idea of a « fair wage » on the same basis as a « fair price » and a « fair tax » is appearing. In 1840, in a society seeking to define the « optimum yield », appears the progressive salary, rewarding supernumerary work. The recourse to the labour courts are frequent because free and accessible even to simple spinner.

   In 1969, French legislation, by abolishing work paid daily or paid weekly to the benefit of monthly payment, levels situations and transforms consumption habits, changing the temporality of spending.

   Once the contours of wage-earning defines, it is appropriate to question the relationship between employers and workers. Is the salary the only thing, the boss has to give to employees ? It seems that the relationship is not reduced to a simple exchange work / salary. In the nineteenth century, patronage relations were formed which did not come only from wage, but rather from the constitution of a “serene social bond”, something historiography sometimes called « le condiment du salaire11« ,(Le Play, Cheysson, 1907), which includes sports clubs, free medicine, workers’ cities, school structures … The » familistère de Guise », for exemple, inspired to Godin by the phalanstères Fourieristes, proposes a real framework of life taking care of various aspects of the daily worker life. In the Middle Ages, the feudal order already encompassed the same concepts and behaviors between lords and peasants, the relationship not being limited to a simple financial transaction, but responding to a codified and structured social order, an order found in craft corporations up to the French Revolution and the Le Chapelier law of 1791.

   The change made possible, among other things, by a greater concentration of industry and a relative leveling of the statutes, began to take place in the years preceding the Great War, the public sphere gradually replacing this patronage. (1898: legislation on industrial accidents, 1912: legislation on workers’ pensions).

Definition and choices of wage statutes operated by a society remodels, beyond the world of work, the very conception of the global society by redefining social norms, (child labor for example12),… redefining our relationship to the discipline of work, business management methods, taxation …, but also by building or not solidarity systems and determining their scales. The « fourth revolution » once again raises the question of « travail en miettes », concept of G.Friedmannn, which insists on the splitting of industrial tasks by division of the act of production13. The « contract tasker » may well reincarnate through platform economies, especially with the development of the « digital clic workers14« .

   It is therefore with measure and pragmatism that one will have to cross the river by feeling stones… without getting wet feet, and without drowning… Festina lente !

1 Dewerpe, A., L’Industrie aux champs : essai sur la proto-industrialisation en Italie septentrionale (1800-1880), École française de Rome, 1985. / La Fabrique des prolétaires : les ouvriers de la manufacture d’Oberkampf à Jouy-en-Josas, 1760-1815, avec Yves Gaulupeau, Presses de l’École normale supérieure, 1990. / Le Monde du travail en France (1800-1950), Armand Colin, 1998.

2 C.f., Castel, R., Les métamorphoses de la question sociale, Une chronique du salariat, Paris, Fayard, 1995. / Friedmann, G., Naville, P., Traité de sociologie du travail, Paris, Armand Colin, 1961-1962. / Friot, B., Puissances du salariat. Emploi et protection sociale à la française, Paris, La Dispute, 1998. / Mottez, B., Systèmes de salaire et politiques patronales, Essai sur l’évolution des pratiques et des idéologies patronales, Paris, CNRS, 1966. Vatin, F., La salariat. Théorie, histoire et formes, Paris, La Dispute, 2007.

6 Montchrétien, A., Traité de l’Économie politique, 1615. / Mandeville, B., The fable of the bees, 1714. / Mably, G.B.de, Doutes proposés aux philosophes économistes sur l’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, 1768.

7 C.f., Cottereau ,A., « Droit et bon droit. Un droit des ouvriers instauré, puis évincé par le droit du travail (France, XIXe siècle) », In: Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales. 57ᵉ année, N. 6, 2002. pp. 1521-1557. To read critically, it deserves in some aspects to be cited, however.

8 Bernard Mottez, Systèmes et politiques patronales, Essai sur l’évolution des pratiques et des idéologies patronales, 1966. Sur l’organisation scientifique du travail, c.f. les bases : Taylor, Ford, Taiichi Ōno pour le toyotisme…

10 Trempé, R., Les Mineurs de Carmaux, Paris, Les Éditions ouvrières, 1971.

11 C.f., Le Play, La Réforme sociale / publiée par un groupe d’économistes avec le concours de la Société d’économie sociale, de Société bibliographique, des Unions de la paix sociale, et sous le patronage de M. F. Le Play, 1907.

13 Friedmannn, G., Le travail en miettes, Paris, Gallimard, 1956.