Trabajo, economía moral y crisis de reconocimiento en una comarca agroindustrial del sureste

Antonio José Ramírez Melgarejo


La Vega del río Segura, en el sureste español, es un territorio producido como espacio sociorelacional polarizado y fragmentado, donde las clases trabajadoras actúan como figuras laborales flexibles, caracterizadas por una elevada movilidad y adaptabilidad laboral. Durante décadas, las particulares relaciones de poder, de trabajo y de economía moral que se han desplegado en la comarca, se han mantenido más o menos estables. Pero después de la crisis iniciada en 2008 comenzaron a aparecer fracturas agravadas con la nueva crisis sociosanitaria de 2020. Las incertidumbres producen heridas morales, debilitándose el precario consenso social que favorecía la reproducción del modelo local.

The Vega of the Segura river, in southeastern Spain, is a territory produced as a polarised and fragmented socio-relational space, where the working classes have been produced as flexible labour figures, characterised by high mobility and labour adaptability. For decades, the particular relations of power, work and moral economy that have unfolded in the region have remained more or less stable. But after the crisis that began in 2008, signs of disruption began to appear in traditional labour relations and the social organisation of work, fractures that are being aggravated by the new social and health crisis of 2020, which is negatively affecting the opportunities for socio-occupational insertion and social reproduction of the working class. Job uncertainties make them feel more vulnerable and less socio-labourly recognised, which produces moral wounds, weakening the precarious social consensus that favoured the reproduction of the local social system. 


My research work had an important territorial roots. Territorial entry and fieldwork were fundamental. The territory where I made my ethnographic incursions and carried out the interviews was the Vega Alta del Segura river, a region of the Region of Murcia which includes three municipalities: Abarán, Blanca and Cieza, which together have a population of 55,000 people.

The main research techniques were qualitative, with 42 scripted interviews conducted between 2012 and 2019. In order to choose the subjects, I determined five different profiles that provided me with a representative sample of the different social actors. Specifically, the first profile was that of families and individuals, temporary and permanent workers, nationals or immigrants, of both sexes, with temporary or casual employment.  The second, workers from public and/or social institutions such as local social services, employment offices and other social entities.  The third profile was made up of political and/or trade union representatives from the region or municipalities of the Vega Alta. The fourth profile, key informants and people with an in-depth knowledge of local history, were among the first to be interviewed in order to get to know the framework in which I would develop my work. The last profile consisted of qualified professionals and small local entrepreneurs.  The data obtained from the interviews were supplemented by numerous ethnographic field visits and secondary sources of quantitative data.

Main results

Since the 2008 crisis, the balance between the subjective (moral economy) and the objective (production model) has begun to erode. Corrosion that continues with the socio-health crisis of 2020. This generates uncertainty for the social agents, especially the working classes, who are beginning to feel that they are no longer recognised as before in the new post-crisis organisational model that is being rearticulated.  In other words, they are suffering moral wounds in three distinct spheres:

In the first sphere, that of primary and family relations, recognition is materialised in the practice of care and protection of the people included in the family nucleus and primary sociability networks. The ruptures produced by crises produce moral wounds in the primary sphere when productive restructuring complicates the reconciliation of family and work, making it difficult to carry out household maintenance tasks; the provision of subsistence goods or the lack of time to enjoy leisure activities of a certain quality. 

The second sphere of recognition refers to legal relations materialised over time in the form of recognised rights.  The breakdown of the moral normativity of the territory causes moral wounds when labour rights are not respected; when social security contributions are not paid for the days worked, preventing or hindering the receipt of short-term unemployment benefits and a decent retirement in the future; when measures are not taken to prevent accidents at work or the pace of work is increased to limits that favour their occurrence; or when employers encourage competition between fractions of the working class by resorting to illegal recruitment or by making labour relations precarious.  People who have been part of the production model for a long time feel aggravated when their seniority is not respected and the contracting entities resort to recruitment mechanisms such as temporary employment agencies that prioritise savings and the greater productivity of young and inexperienced workers rather than the cost of maintaining experienced people who know the trade and who, if they were not hired in these jobs, would find it very difficult to find employment. The older and more experienced women feel that their jobs and the symbolic status they have built up over the years are threatened when they are replaced by younger workers.  Another way in which they feel hurt is by not recognising work-related illnesses and that their bodies may now be less agile, they have given the best years of their lives and their energies at the cost of their bodies and their health, and when time goes by and their performance drops as a result of this attrition and they are looked down upon or tried to be replaced for purely economic and productive reasons, they feel hurt. Other moral wounds in this sphere are related to the fact that for specialised jobs, crews are hired to do the work more cheaply, even at the expense of quality. The exhaustive control of working time in and out of warehouses, sanctioning "having a cigarette" or any form of slacking off.  The general increase in the pace of work. The imposition of dress codes. The limitation of space and possibilities to relax on the job. It also happens when small local entrepreneurs (hoteliers, hairdressers, shopkeepers...) feel that the taxes they pay are not commensurate with the entitlements they get, mainly unemployment benefits or resources for subsistence. A widespread complaint in the interviews was the imbalance they feel between what they contribute, with great difficulty, to the state via taxes and what they receive, as well as the inflexibility of the regulatory rules that make it difficult for them to cope with the ups and downs in sales or consumption of their clientele.

The third sphere is the social sphere, which involves the insertion of the subjects in the community where they live their lives.  In this more communal framework, moral wounds are produced for a multitude of reasons that are mainly linked to the socio-historical processes of the past, which established a way of doing things and working that was impregnated to the core with social Catholicism and relations of power and domination in which the local elites were able to create, maintain and reproduce networks of cacist control, The paradigmatic case would be the paralysis of the construction of up to three industrial estates in Abarán for almost two decades.  A strong social and labour segmentation between genders was consolidated in the territory.


Over the last few decades, the particular relations of power, work and moral economy that were consolidated in the Vega Alta del Segura river in the Region of Murcia have remained stable, but this particular social and labour model began to break down after the 2008 crisis, a degradation that continues to date. This is affecting the moral normativity that has been preponderant for decades and which has been the way in which the working classes have organised their lives, which in turn affects the opportunities for socio-labour insertion and social reproduction of the working classes, altering traditional labour relations and the social organisation of work. In short, uncertainties are being generated that affect the social agents involved in the production model, but especially the most vulnerable, the working classes, especially women and migrants, who are beginning to feel unrecognisable in the model and fear for their present and future, a situation exacerbated by the health crisis that began in 2020.

But these moral wounds do not only occur during formal work processes. Outside the factories, social benefits have been cut and requirements have been tightened; reproductive work continues to be devalued and is still mostly carried out by women; qualified young people (even with university studies) have no job opportunities and no hope of finding them, leaving only the option of migrating or accepting to aspire to live like their parents; women who retire and who have worked for years see that they have no contributions and that their pensions are miserable....

In short, the systemic crises of capitalism can (and perhaps should) be read and analysed beyond the economistic aspects, to try to understand why the fragile balances that for decades have allowed the reproduction of relations of exploitation between social classes and how this affects the meaning of life of the working classes are eroded.

© Revista de estudios regionales 2014 Universidades Públicas de Andalucía