11/09/2013 07:37 BST | Updated 10/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The Rise and Rise of Precarious Work

I shall not here divulge the employer, but whilst a student I was employed as a cash-in-hand worker in a small firm in the food service sector. Every morning in the holidays I would rise at four and commence work half an hour later; invariably greeted with the frenetic work schedule common in the sector and occasionally with threats of violence to my person. Though the weekly hundred pounds cash and the odd free bacon bap meant I found this in the short-term sufferable, persisting with my studies is not a decision I regret. I count myself fortunate to have been afforded a way out of such employment, but what is apparent is that increasing numbers of my fellow citizens are not. By this I do not mean that workers are being press-ganged into four am starts and force-fed bacon rolls, but rather that the twenty-first century employee's lot is ever more one of labour market precarity.

For whether such labour takes the form of fixed-term, agency, or undeclared employment, today's economy is increasingly characterized by insecure, exploitative forms of work. There is no better example of this tendency than recent disclosures of Sports Direct and McDonald's widespread use of zero-hour contracts. Such precarious contractual forms, that afford firms enhanced flexibility and workers diminished security, are more and more being availed of by firms under competitive pressure. This trend is also not merely limited to low-paying sectors. Precarious work is progressively spreading to white-collar occupations; the most egregious recent example of which was the University of Liverpool's proposals to fire its 3,000 strong workforce and re-employ them on inferior, flexible contracts. Though particularly advanced in English-speaking countries, labour market precarity is far from confined to the likes of Britain and the United States. Stricken by debt crisis and in some cases chafing under the IMF's yoke, countries in Europe's Mediterranean region are increasingly availing of precarious employment to stave off financial pressures. Such work also proliferates in countries as relatively advanced as Germany. The German trade union Verdi thus recently lifted the lid on the appalling pay and conditions endured by the country's agency workers; the union's investigations revealing the abuse of such labour in several sectors.

Precarious work and the employees vulnerable to it is thus a topic rapidly being registered on the public radar, yet two very important elements are often overlooked in this debate. The first is that there are good reasons for considering such work 'normal' in capitalist societies. The left recurrently accuse the right of selectively harking back to the 1950s in fields such as anti-social behaviour and family policy, yet this is a tendency they are to some extent culpable of in the socio-economic sphere. The jobs common in the post-war decades, permanent and open-ended with regular hours and decent conditions, are after all still held up as 'typical' in debate on this matter. This notion is problematic. The post-war decades were after all preceded by a century and a half of capitalism in which work was typically nasty, brutal and short in duration, and developments since the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s have merely pulled it back in this direction. We should in other words expect work in capitalist societies to be precarious; that is the nature of a system in which the employee is merely availed of as an object of value extraction.

The second is the problematic nature of the relationship between regular workers and their precarious counterparts. Emerging research, at the vanguard of which is an excellent recent edited collection addressing what the authors call labour market 'dualization', indeed shows that precarious work is often the by-product of the influence of workers with more secure livelihoods. Because such 'insiders' are typically well-organized and consequently able to secure generous employment and social security arrangements, conditions at the labour market's edges correspondingly deteriorate. Trade unions are complicit in this. Though many do a sterling job in campaigning for precarious workers' rights, most also represent 'insider' workers disproportionately and are thus instrumental in maintaining this status quo. Unions in continental Europe are particularly associated with this. Mercifully however, there is indication that precarious workers are mobilizing and becoming as organized as their securer counterparts. Workers in the US fast food sector, evidently as disaffected with the sector's inhumane conditions as I was all those years ago, indeed went on strike last week over their abysmal wages. Such developments suggest the stirring of a global 'precariat' class, and rather put to shame my own youthful torpidity.