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The catastrophe of precarious work: Elizabeth Cotton challenges Guy Standing

Elizabeth Cotton, 21 February 2013

The debate about regulating precarious work is a defining one in the field of employment relations, challenging established management practices and questioning the entire contents of business school libraries.

Despite the trend of flexibilisation and development of global production systems being in evidence since the 1970s, the precarious work debate is a relatively young one, in part trying to understand this process of externalisation.

Externalisation is the trend of obtaining labour from outside a corporation’s boundaries, linked to the strategy of outsourcing and contracting out. This involves what is sometimes called a triangulation of the employment relationship, no longer a neat binary affair, with the introduction of a third party.

Along with this profound change in the employment relationship come other externalisations -- projections of risk and duties away from the principal employer on to others. This process of externalisation is seen graphically in the growth of private employment agencies (PrEAs), providing temporary agency labour mainly to other huge companies.

The employment agency industry reached US$203 billion turnover in 2009, with Adecco, Randstad and Manpower representing some of the largest multinational companies in the world. Over 30% of the global agency industry is controlled by just 10 multinational companies. Clearly, they are not going away.

Academic discussions about this externalisation of labour are currently framed within a debate about ‘precarious’ work. Part of this debate is characterised by the writings of Guy Standing, arguing that neo-liberal labour market flexibility has led to an increase in precarious work, defined by labour insecurity, lack of social income and work-based identity. This change is building a “class-in-the-making”, a “precariat” representing a potentially dangerous new underclass which will over time reject existing institutions and demand autonomy to create new social and workplace organizations.

Despite the lack of evidence of a global and revolutionary new class emerging from changes in work organisation, Standing’s ‘precariat’ formulation has caught our attention. On some level, most of us can identify with the fear of social unrest during a global recession, threatening old structures and a world where people work safely 9-5.

However, it is important not to confuse an emotional reality of insecurity with structural insecurity of the employment relationship. For example, we often mix up job stability, defined as length of job tenure, with job security, a much more complex and ‘messy’ idea involving perceptions, probabilities and anxieties.

Our sense of job security is not just about the job – it’s about what we think would happen if we lost it, involving other factors such as changes in welfare, occupational change and casualisation. Just ask an investment banker from Barclays.

In response to claims of the creation of a dangerous new class, Kevin Doogan argues that this “transformation thesis” (precarious work = creation of a precariat) involves significant generalisations and misconceptualisations about the scale and nature of the changes that have taken place. We haven’t all become precarious to the same degree at the same time.

Doogan argues that this over-generalisation has resulted in a substantial gap between public perception and real labour market changes, grouping together different types of employment arrangements, only some of which have inherent instabilities. He even goes as far as to say that if we take the example of part-time work in the UK and USA, we’re seeing an increase in security for groups typically hard-done-by in traditional employment relations (read women with kids).

One of the problems with framing our thinking about the future of employment relations within a broad definition of precarious work is that it has a catastrophising tendency. In a context of global recession and flexibilisation of labour, the problem of precarity is too big to take on. We’re all doomed.

This not only causes a catastrophisation of the problem of externalised labour, it serves to obscure concrete steps that can be taken to reduce labour insecurity. For example, Standing grandly “airbrushes out” trades unions describing them as old school labourists only interested in traditional membership. This is playing to the crowd, and those groovy middle-class kids interning as revolutionaries.

This isn’t just about being rude, it’s pretty disastrous for working people to ignore probably the most likely source of support for genuinely insecure workers. It’s also inaccurate, denying the existence of the largest membership organisations in the world and failing to explain over 100 years of work by unions in precarious sectors like construction and agriculture.

To be sure, trades unions were late to the game, and continue at times to drag their heels doing the much needed job of organizing. But that’s not always because they are old blokes, rather that organising externalised workers is inherently difficult and sometimes we don’t raise to the real challenges in front of us. We’re all guilty of that.

To remove trade unions from the strategic discussions about precarious work with a broad ideological sweep of the hand not only denies the reality of trade union work with 'non-standard' workers, but it also misses important opportunities for much needed change at the level of the workplace.

A second problem with Standing’s formulation of class-based precarity unified by a utopian ideology is that this sets the basis of agreements very high, calling for the development of a utopian political identity.

Even if we are encouraged to think this political project could be achieved (and as an old person I can't begin to imagine how many rainy Tuesday night meetings that baby is going to take), a real question remains whether it is in fact necessary. Do we really need to agree on ideology to address the working conditions of a growing number of  non-permanent and non-direct workers? Wouldn’t we be better just trying to secure basic standards?

A few months ago a global union federation, Industriall (enormous with 50 million members), signed an international Temporary Work Charter with Volkswagen. The agreement commits Volkswagen to limit the use of temporary work to a maximum of five per cent of the workforce, along with the principle of equal pay and access to training for contract and agency workers.

This is not sexy, it's no revolution. But it commits one of the largest multinational companies in the world to putting a limit on insecure work.  At the risk of sounding naïve, that’s a pretty good regulatory outcome for contract and agency workers.

  • Elizabeth Cotton is a Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University Business School. Her academic background is in philosophy and current teaching and writing includes precarious work and employment relations, sustainability and mental health at work. She has worked as an activist and educator in over thirty countries, working with trade unions and Global Union Federations at senior level.  Some of this work is reflected in her co-authored publication, Global Unions Global Business, described as “the essential guide to global trade unionism” (2nd edition  published by Libri Publishing 2011).  Elizabeth is also Director of a not-for-profit, The Resilience Space, providing online and face to face education for anyone interested in building their resilience, and writes a weekly blog.

  • You can read more about precarious work in an upcoming book Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Working, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, in May 2013. Series Editors: Tayo Fashoyin and Michele Tiraboschi; Guest editors: Malcolm Sargeant and Martina Ori.


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