Notes From the Margins…

The Zone of Precarity

  • July 19, 2011
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Last night a friend of mine told me that his 20-year-old son has just been sacked from his job at PC World, where he had been working for the last two years. His son had been working variable 12-hour shifts, and the weekly shift schedule was not announced till the last minute, making a ‘social life impossible’ as my friend put it.

It came as no surprise to hear that trade unions were not allowed by the company.   The inability to know when you will be working from one week to the next is another consequence of the phenomenon known as ‘precarity’ or ‘precarisation’ that has become increasingly prevalent in the ‘post-Fordist’ capitalist economy.   In an article on ‘Precarity – the Causes and Effects of Insecure Employment’, Klaus Dorre, a sociologist at Frederich Schiller university in Jena,  defines precarity as

a  living situation that is not only characterised by material deficits, insecurity, adverse working conditions and lack of recognition, but above all by dwindling possibilities for people to make long-term plans.

Dr. Dorre also notes that

Post-Fordist working society has now become divided into zones of varying levels of security. Although the majority of employees are still to be found in a zone of integration with regular working conditions and a more or less intact social safety net, there is in fact another zone that is growing all the time the “zone of precarity”.  This zone is not only characterised by insecure working conditions, but also by a social safety net that is wearing thinner and thinner all the time.

Precarisation is a process whose impact increases the further down the economic ladder you go.    The bottom layer of this ‘zone of precarity’ is often occupied by ‘illegal’  migrant workers, who not only have no rights in the workplace, but no right even to be in the country – an absence that makes it easier for employers to do what they like with them.

Such conditions are worth bearing in mind the next time you hear politicians or the rightwing press criticizing public sector resistance to ‘reform’ – a code word which almost always means privatisation – as some kind of unfair monopoly or reactionary protection of vested privilege viz a viz the private sector.

In September last year the CBI  unveiled a series of measures ‘ to sustain businesses and jobs during the recovery’.  These included ‘ embracing more flexible working, blocking regulations that will cost jobs and changing industrial relations legislation ‘ and also

Retaining the individual opt-out from the maximum 48-hour week under the Working Time Directive, which allows staff to choose to work longer hours, for example to earn extra money to support their families.

Interesting to know what factors will influence this ‘choice’.   Labour flexibility has been a key component of the UK economy for many years, and can be positive phenomenon for employees and employers – when it stems from mutual agreement and negotiation.  But as a recent TUC report on ‘Family-Friendly Rights: Transforming Britain’s Workplaces’ noted

Without consideration for workers and consultation with trade unions, flexibility can result in casualised or long hours, unpredictable and unsocial hours and exploitative working conditions.

In the current crisis, this outcome is unlikely to worry CBI or the government, who clearly have other priorities, such as limiting the right to strike.  Without that ability however, and without an effective organization in the workplace to enforce it and represent their interests,   the zone of precarity is likely to widen until we all find ourselves living and working in it.



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1 Comment

  1. Anton

    19th Jul 2011 - 1:51 pm

    Good article and my sympathies to your friend’s son! I wonder if its worth considering the following analysis as a complimentary piece:

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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