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This page was published on 31/05/2007
Published: 31/05/2007

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Last Update: 31-05-2007  
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EU research investigates transformation of working life and the rise of the extreme right

Concern about the rise of extreme right-wing parties has brought together partners from seven EU nations to study the reasons behind this phenomenon. Most commentators had postulated that right-wing extremism usually manifested itself among those sectors of society unable to adapt to social change – the so-called ‘modernisation losers’. European social scientists established the SIREN project to determine employment’s influence on the worrying trend.

Feelings of injustice in the workplace can contribute to right-wing extremism, EU research confirms. © Gregory Maxwell
Feelings of injustice in the workplace can contribute to right-wing extremism, EU research confirms.
© Gregory Maxwell
Little research had previously been undertaken to determine whether these attitudes resulted from changes in the labour market or in the individual’s working life. Research had assumed that the growth of right-wing extremism was linked to voters’ socio-economic characteristics – i.e. was more prevalent among the unemployed or low-skilled blue-collar workers or those with comparatively low education levels.

SIREN adopted a different approach. Project participants studied individuals to discover how people explained and coped with changes in their social and economic life and to assess the extent to which changes in people’s working lives would make them more receptive to right-wing extremism. The work involved two different fields of research: the changes in working life, labour market development and social security with analyses of political orientations and right-wing extremism and radical populism.

Nearly 280 interviews were carried out with people from different social backgrounds and with differing political orientations in order to ascertain how they viewed and coped with socio-economic changes in their employment prospects. This was used to gauge workers’ assessment of technological change, the internationalisation or privatisation of companies, of changes in working conditions and the resulting changes in their employment prospects and living standards.

A massive survey was then undertaken involving 5 800 telephone interviews on individuals’ perceptions of socio-economic change and their receptiveness to right-wing populism. The interviews confirmed that socio-economic changes affecting workers played an important role in explaining the rise of right-wing populism. The survey found five attitudes that made workers receptive to extremism: prejudice against immigrants, nationalism, authoritarianism, social dominance and political weakness.

The interviews uncovered strong feelings of injustice that legitimate expectations regarding work, employment, social status and standards of living had been frustrated by company restructuring, redundancy, etc., with a general view that ‘hard working people do not deserve to be treated this way’. Political attitudes were found to be moving to the centre and the right, with opinions previously defined as ‘extreme right’ now seen as the centre or the ‘respectable right’ of the political spectrum.

The research demonstrated the need for greater public debate concerning problems resulting from social inequality and socioeconomic change. Because the workplace can be so crucial in determining people’s views and in encouraging right-wing attitudes, the partners recommended taking measures to improve workplace morale, eradicate social inequalities by working towards equal pay for men and women, and to avoid expanding the low wage-sector to fight unemployment.

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