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Fighting Fit[ness]: Self-Employed Personal Trainers, Neo-Villeiny and Resistance

In the last decade the world of work has become increasingly precarious, summed up in the so-called ‘gig economy’.  A number of parallels can be drawn between gig work and the concept of ‘neo-villeiny’: work that reflects the core characteristics of the medieval relationship between the villein – or serf – and the lord of the land.

Neo-villeiny is underpinned by four central features.

First, whereas the medieval villein was bonded to the landlord, bondage for the neo-villein relates to one of two factors: continuance commitment – or, in other words, commitment that arises from the conclusion that one is better off within an organisation than without; or necessity – in other words, that one must operate within an organisation in order to succeed.

Second, just as the medieval villein received no wage and was wholly dependent upon their crops, so too is there an absence of a guaranteed wage for the neo-villein. Absence of a guaranteed wage is a standard condition of self-employment, but this is especially problematic for the neo-villein who offers a service that has the twin disincentives for clients in that it is non-necessary and represents a sizeable increase in expenditure.

Third, rent is a feature of both medieval villeiny and neo-villeiny, with those subject to the latter paying a rent in order to operate within and utilise the resources of the organisation.

Finally, the neo-villein must engage in extensive unpaid ‘work-for-labour’ that is not necessarily demanded, but which is considered necessary by the neo-villein if they are to succeed. This characteristic is important because the work-for-labour of the neo-villein is highly beneficial to the organisation in which they operate.

The occupational group that was first associated with the concept of the ‘neo-villein’ were self-employed personal trainers (SEPT), but this arrangement has been observed to a greater or lesser extent elsewhere in the service sector – for instance, among platform based gig workers.

Witness the resistance

Workers in the gig economy have demonstrated forms of resistance to exploitative work relations. Take for example Uber drivers whose successful legal case in 2016 ruled that drivers were in fact employees and not self-employed workers. The decision was reinforced in 2018 as Uber lost its appeal against the decision. Meanwhile, Deliveroo riders have been less successful at the courts, but have demonstrated an appetite for action engaging in wildcat strikes against the organisation.

SEPTs, however, face idiosyncratic obstacles in resisting exploitation at the individual and collective levels. Whilst traditional expressions of sabotage typically refer to destruction of premises, machines or goods, SEPTs have extended it to encompass efforts to stop production or reduce the rate of production.

Reducing the rate of production represents precisely the worker ‘soldiering’ that Frederick Taylor sought to eliminate through principles of scientific management. It is less likely among the self-employed because entrepreneurial zeal moderates the indeterminacy of the amount of effort workers are induced to give. This is amplified among gig workers, many of whom are reliant upon positive client evaluations in order to secure further work. Working without enthusiasm is particularly problematic for SEPTs. Withholding emotional labour in a show of resistance against the gym may not have its intended consequence of impacting directly and negatively on the gym itself. A surly, obstinate or otherwise difficult SEPT is unlikely to attract clients and will, thereby, certainly damage their own business.

It is not inconceivable that SEPTs find means of materially sabotaging production. They could disrupt the service offered by the gym by removing or hiding key pieces of equipment (e.g. the pins used to alter the resistance on stack weight systems). The weights themselves are sizeable and the machinery practically immobile, but the pin is crucial to the functioning of the equipment and can easily fit in the average pocket. Removing or hiding these pins would cause no small measure of discontent among members, which is bad for (gym) business.

Such an expression of sabotage is possible, but SEPTs are taking a significant risk in doing this. If found out, the gym can easily take effective action against SEPTs – for example, exclusion. The quasi-labour market for SEPTs is extremely loose and so the services of a recalcitrant SEPT can be discontinued with ease and a replacement found from among the growing ranks of other SEPTs.

This form of resistance is also potentially risky if the perpetrator is not discovered. After all, the success of any given SEPT is contingent upon a healthy gym membership – the more members there are, the more potential clients. Expressions of sabotage lead to member discontent and potentially the discontinuation of membership. Fewer members, fewer potential SEPT clients, fewer wage-earning opportunities.    

Stronger together?

What of the collective level? Unlike the courier or taxi driver whose opportunities are offered via a platform so that the competition is less overt, SEPTs must compete with one another in close proximity (the gym floor) for a finite resource: the members of the gym in which they operate.

The competition is intensified by a client base driven by calculations over the benefit gained from the cost of personal training as a service. Personal training costs vary but the tariff runs from between £20 for thirty minutes up to £60 for an hour. As an example of this competitive pressure, one of the gyms featured in our study is a discount gym where members pay less than £20 per month for their membership.

In this competitive context, the terms of collective organisation are much like those found in other forms of self-employment. The self-employed are traditionally less likely to join a trade union. In the past, trade unions have avoided engaging with ‘disguised wage labour’, either failing or refusing to recruit workers with a commercial rather than employment relationship with the firm.

Where there has been an appetite to organise the self-employed, trade unions face particular difficulties because of the heterogeneous conditions, clients and experience among workers. Whilst Uber workers experience a great deal of homogeneity around which to organise, the working conditions of SEPTs are far more heterogeneous. This only serves to exacerbate the difficulties of organising SEPTs.

SEPTs work in close proximity, over long hours, in pursuit of the same pool of clients. In a bid to extract additional value, several large chain gyms have further enhanced the prospects of collective action among SEPTs by imposing a uniform on its independent workers.

It is now common that SEPTs at large gym chains must wear apparel that carries the gym logo and nothing that distinguishes one SEPT from another. Commonly, lettering on the rear of the t-shirt indicates that the SEPT is a personal trainer, but there is no indication from the uniform that they are independent workers. In some cases, SEPTs are penalised if they do not adhere to the code of dress.

The organisational purpose of the uniform is to enhance wearer conformance to organisational goals and the suppression of individuality. To all intents and purposes, the SEPT appears to be an employee of the gym and the gym thereby harnesses the emotional labour of the SEPT.

Identity is a crucial component for collectivism, but a common identity is arguably more important for precarious workers and certainly for independent workers. In suppressing individuality, the uniform also serves to undo heterogeneity and increases the sense of community among the SEPTs. In a bid to extract further value from SEPTs the gym increases the likelihood of their resistance.

It remains to be seen whether SEPTs will follow in the steps of Deliveroo riders and Uber drivers, working collectively in order to resist exploitation by capital. The enforcement of an identity that links SEPTs not only to one another but also to the gym that appropriates the value they generate enhances the likelihood of collectivism, especially where there is so much in the way of rational, normative and affective reasons to do so. After all, interviews with SEPTs reveal a widespread perception of the injustice of their relationship with the gym –  a sense of injustice that, as John Kelly argues, is the sine qua non of mobilisation.

Geraint Harvey is Professor in People and Organisations at Swansea University

Jia Li is Lecturer in International Business at Swansea University

Image credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons