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The meaning of precarity

Following a near 25% fall in earnings for the self-employed between 2008 and 2012, Chris Bambery considers the increasing propensity of precarious work and its implications for organisation.

Amidst growing concern, even among mainstream economists, about the lack of improvement in living standards for all but top earners, one fact got missed out: earnings for the self-employed fell by nearly 25 percent from the start of the financial crisis in 2008 to 2011-2012. Earnings for those in full time work fell by eight percent over the same period. These findings come from the think tank the Resolution Foundation, which examined wages data used by the Bank of England and found it excluded the self-employed, and thus underestimated how bad the fall in wages has been.

If you are reading this and you are in full time work don’t mop your brow in relief and think “there but for the grace of God go I”. Instead look around you at work and see how many of those alongside you are self-employed, part-time, agency staff or unpaid “interns”. One crucial effect of such precarious workers is to drive down wages and conditions for all and to make it more difficult to take any form of collective action. Two fifths of all new jobs created since 2010 have been among the self-employed. These are overwhelmingly people who want full time work but cannot get it. A report published earlier this month by the Institute for Public Policy Research points to a “remarkable” growth in self-employment in the UK in recent months. Spencer Thompson, chief economist at the IPPR points out:

“When compared to other European countries, the growth in self-employment in the UK is remarkable. Between the first quarters of 2013 and 2014, the number of self-employed workers rose by 8 per cent, faster than any other Western European economy…”

Britain’s labour market is beginning to resemble those of the poorer members of the European Union:

“The UK, a country that for many years had internationally low levels of self-employment, has caught up with the EU average and, if current growth continues, will look more like the Southern and Eastern European country (sic) which tend to have much larger shares of self-employed workers.”

One of the problems facing the left is that they tend to focus on those who make up their core membership – older, fulltime workers who are active in trade unions and are overwhelmingly employed in the public sector. To see why this is problematic take a snap shot of the recent protests over Gaza or those taking part in the Radical Independence Campaign’s mass canvasses. The chances are they will be younger and in non-permanent jobs. Many will also be trying to complete their education at the same time.

The left has struggled to appeal elements of the working class outside of it's traditional base

The left has struggled to appeal to elements of the working class outside of its traditional base

Ask around about the reality of work facing friends and family members. When I did I found people who have never completed probation, months after starting a job, lots on three month or shorter “rolling” contracts and few who expect to hold down their job for a long time. Precarity in work is matched by precarity in terms of housing – few will ever be able to buy a house. This is not confined to the private sector. Academia is already overwhelmingly precarious. The numbers of supply teachers, agency staff and self-employed staff working in the public sector is growing.

Stirling Smith points out that this is a global phenomenon:

“This phenomenon is not confined to the UK. The number of temporary and part-time workers in Japan now make up over 30 per cent of the workforce, and tripled between 1999 and 2007. The use of contract labour in Indian manufacturing increased from 13 to 30 per cent between 1994 and 2006. In South Africa, labour brokers now supply over half the workers in many major unionised manufacturing companies, where they typically receive one-half or less of the wages and benefits of permanent workers but work alongside them performing the same jobs. The number of dispatched agency workers in China has doubled between 2008 – 2012, from 30 million to 60 million workers.”

The silly thing to do would be to deny that these changes are going on and assert that we are still living in the 1970s and that organised labour’s hour will come some time soon (it’s being a long time coming!) or to try and claim that arguing that the composition of the working class has changed represents an attempt to deny the potential of the workers to change the world. These people are part of the working class, working alongside their permanent counterparts. Of course capital will try and play the two groups off, when was it ever different? But they have common interests. However, because they do not value their job, or have no long term hopes for it, most will not join a trade union, even if one exists in their workplace (in the private sector that would be rare now). In truth for most people under 40, trade unions will have had little impact on their lives.

The anti-war movement was able to mobilise millions of people, many of them precarious workers

The anti-war movement was able to mobilise millions of people, many of them precarious workers

The fact that most don’t particularly value their jobs, or have high hopes for it, increases volatility. These workers are very likely to have taken part in other forms of social protest or to have accessed anti-capitalist views via social media, the internet or books. They are watching Gaza and are fuming, watching Ferguson and feeling sympathy. If the left wants to break out of its spiral of, for the most part, decline and irrelevance, then one thing it needs to do is to address how it can start to engage with these workers. It’s a question too for the unions. The obvious answer is to start with their concerns!

Chris Bambery, an author, journalist and broadcaster, is a member of the ISG based in London. He has had two books published this year - 'A People's History of Scotland' (Verso) and 'The Second World War: a Marxist History' (Pluto).

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