Commentary on Alexandre Duchene’s “The Multilingual Division of Contemporary Labor: Selection, Inequalities and Exploitation” by Student Fellow Luke Elliott-Negri


Alexandre Duchene studies the sociology of language and chairs the Department of Multilingualism studies at the University of Fribourg. His current research uses ethnographic methods to gather data from new economy workplaces in Europe. The empirical focus of his ARC talk was the experience of three types of service workers in a Zurich airport.

Dr. Duchene argues that theories of the “division of labor” are as relevant as ever to understanding how value is produced in 21st century capitalism. He argues that while Marxist, feminist and post-colonial critiques of and contributions to the division of labor concept are vital, they tend to underplay the role of language. Dr. Duchene suggests that language is an independent axis along which which to evaluate and critique theories of the division of labor and the way contemporary divisions fuel inequality.

Dr. Duchene’s empirical work in the Zurich airport is fascinating. He focuses on three types of new economy employees all of whom work for “Airport Logistics Company” (ALC):

  1. Service agents, who are mostly female, white, Swiss and who often have secondary degrees. Some have permanent jobs and others do not.
  2. Special assistants, who are mostly female. Swiss special assistants have less schooling than their service agent counterparts, but many are from eastern countries, Asia & Latin America. They are hourly and non-permanent.
  3. Luggage handlers, who are mostly mail and are from Southern & Eastern Europe, North Africa & South America. There are no Swiss luggage handlers to speak of, and they have a heterogeneous school profile.

It is not possible to understand the experience of these workers in the new economy without also understanding the role of language. Service agents are audible and visible to all passengers, and hence must be able to display a capacity for French. Special assistants only interact with marginalized – old and otherly-abled – passengers, and must be able to use English and German, but not French. Finally, luggage handlers must simply be able to function in German.

But these distinctions along language lines are not always permanent. Some service agents are “dedicated” to an airline, and wear their uniforms. Many are “all around” workers, and wear generic ALC uniforms. The former situation – dedicated employment – is higher in status and offers more predictable schedules and often better salaries. Dr. Duchene tells the story of a Spanish woman who was happy to be employed directly by a Spanish airline. Her language skills were an asset that she did not expect when she arrived in Switzerland. However, 10 months later, the airline broke the contract with ALC and she became an “all around” worker. Her advantage disappeared.

There was far more in Dr. Duchene’s talk than can be covered in this brief review, and undoubtedly far more in his research than could be covered in his talk. He successfully conveyed key points however – namely that language matters for understanding and critiquing the division of labor and the inequalities it produces, and that language distinctions, while powerful, are also non-permanent. We must track these distinctions incessantly, if we want to understand the empirical world around us.

~Luke Elliott-Negri