Is there a precariat?

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In recent times some have suggested that we have witnessed the rise of the "precariat". This new class of workers, who endure insecure conditions and low wages, are thought to have different interests to organised workers and little use for trade unions. Esme Choonara disagrees

Four years ago McDonald's attempted, unsuccessfully, to have the term "McJobs" removed from dictionaries. They were annoyed that McJobs were seen by so many as epitomising the main sort of work on offer, especially for young people: low-paid, low-skilled service sector work, often short term and with very little prospects.

Many now feel that the economic landscape is now dominated by McJobs and growing job insecurity. The growth of agency work, outsourcing and privatisation, coupled with growing job losses, has also added to a feeling that there are no decent permanent jobs left.

It is in this climate that the idea of a new "precariat" - a group of workers characterised by extreme insecurity - has become fashionable among sections of the left.

There have been some excellent campaigns across Europe over the past decade to combat insecure work. But the argument is not just about poor working conditions - it reflects a wider argument about the restructuring of capitalism and the ability of workers to challenge it. There is a common sense among sections of the left and the labour movement that 30 years of aggressive neoliberalism have forced many workers into increasingly insecure and "flexible" employment, rendering them atomised and powerless to challenge the system.

The precariat

Some even argue that neoliberal globalisation has altered capitalist relations sufficiently to create a new and distinct group in society: the "precariat" - insecure workers, often young, with no collective bargaining power, abandoned by the traditional forms of working class organisation, especially the trade unions.

The origins of a body of work theorising this new "precariat" can be traced back to French theorist Pierre Bourdieu who described precarity as a "new mode of dominance" resulting from restructuring of the economy that "forced workers into submission". Bourdieu argued that globalisation and fragmentation of the labour market had created a new generalised and permanent state of insecurity for workers. The idea has been taken further by Guy Standing, whose recent book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class argues that precarious workers now form a distinct social class with separate conditions and interests from other workers.

For socialists these are not just academic questions. They are central to the debate about whether the working class can still challenge the power of capitalism. So what is the reality? Is there a new "precariat"? How far has the world of work changed and how should socialists respond?

There are both continuity and change in our current situation. First it is worth stating that the majority of workers in Britain are still in full-time, permanent employment. Most of us still work in workplaces with more than 50 employees. And capitalists, despite their extreme sports of gambling large sums of our money on the stock exchange, still need workers to create wealth.

And it is important not to overstate the changes taking place in the working class. For example, the overall proportion of UK workers on temporary contracts - currently around 6.2 percent of the total workforce - has hardly changed in the last 18 years, and has actually fallen from the figure ten years ago, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Interestingly, however, what has increased in the last ten years is the numbers saying they would rather have a permanent job, a sign perhaps of the growing climate of fear around work.

In his insightful book, The New Capitalism? Kevin Doogan points out that the fear of insecurity often outstrips the reality. He quotes a study from the US from the early 1990s where 23 percent of workers questioned feared for their jobs, even though most of them were actually in secure employment and the redundancy rate among the workforce was only 1 percent.

It is undoubtedly true that many bosses play up the threat of job losses, relocation or cuts as a way to discipline workers. But there is nothing new about this. Capitalists have always attempted to use threats and divisions between workers to exploit them. Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a "reserve army" of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.

But the fact that the ruling class exploits workers' fears does not mean that nothing has changed or that workers have no reason to be fearful.

There are plenty of hard facts that explain why workers, especially young workers, feel insecure at the moment. Unemployment among under 25 year olds is now heading towards the million mark in Britain. Twenty percent of economically active 16 to 24 year olds are out of work. The figures are similar across most of the EU (with the exception of Germany and the Netherlands). In recession-ravaged Ireland, Greece and Spain, the youth unemployment rate stands at over 30 percent.

Threatened

Many public sector workers rightly feel threatened by the growing privatisation of public services by both the government and local councils. There have also been some structural shifts in work. For example there has been a steep rise in part-time work in Britain over the last two decades. The number of part-time workers has risen by almost 2 million since 1992 to reach 7.9 million at the end of last year. However, it's important to remember that part-time work is not necessarily insecure or short term.

Agency work has also increased. There are now somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million agency workers in Britain. Recruitment agencies have become a huge industry in themselves, with a combined turnover of more than £29 billion. Of course there are many different sorts of employment agency - some recruit to fill permanent posts or headhunt individuals but many fill temporary vacancies with short-term, low-wage contracts.

Those most disadvantaged in the labour market are concentrated in higher numbers in agency work. Young people and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately more likely to be working through an agency. Agency workers are paid on average around 6 percent less than their equivalents in permanent employment.

It is easy to see the attraction for employers - they don't have to provide the same employment benefits for agency workers as permanent staff, and can hire and fire their agency workers much more easily. One of the effects of introducing temporary or agency staff into a workplace is to increase the insecurity not just of those workers, but of the existing permanent workforce.

But there are also limits to how far agency work can replace directly employed staff. In order to get the most from their workers, many employers also find they need a stable, trained workforce that they can control directly. One striking feature of the economic crisis has been that many employers have tried to hold on to well-trained and skilled staff. For the bosses, these workers are a commodity that they have invested in through training. So in many workplaces in both the private and public sectors you see a mixture of both permanent and temporary staff.

Manufacturing

Alongside the argument that there are no permanent jobs any more lies the idea that there are no "real" jobs any more either. By real jobs, people usually mean the manufacturing or skilled manual jobs that for a time provided the large battalions of working class militancy - in the car plants, mines, and steel industry for example.

It is true that manufacturing has declined in Britain - but we should not overestimate this. Manufacturing still accounts for 8 percent of the workforce, according to the ONS. It is also worth noting that one of the trends behind the "downsizing" of manufacturing is that by using newer technology, fewer workers are often needed for the same level of production. So manufacturing output in Britain actually reached an all-time high in 2007. This means that, while there are fewer manufacturing workers than 30 years ago, each worker is relatively more powerful. Many jobs classified as part of the service sector include what we would think of as traditional working class jobs: bus and rail workers, post workers, hospital porters, delivery drivers.

Some things have changed, however. Public sector workers have moved to the core of the organised working class in recent decades - with teachers, lecturers, civil service workers, council workers and health workers among those set to take part in the momentous strikes planned for 30 November.

There has been an expansion of some new industries in Britain. Supermarkets are now the second biggest employer in Britain. There are over 1 million people now employed in call centres. Despite a trend towards low pay and high turnover, not everyone who works in a supermarket or a call centre is in "precarious" work. Recent government research found that the average length of employment for an individual at a call centre is three years, with many working for several years longer than that, undermining the notion that it is an entirely transient, short-term workforce. Unorganised workers are not necessarily "precarious" workers.

Throughout its history capitalism has constantly restructured itself. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto how "all that is solid melts into air". Capitalism is a very dynamic system of production, though a barbaric one, in which the drive of competition means the constant searching for new industries, new markets and new ways to make money. As the incessant search for profit pushes capitalists to invest in new industries and technologies, so the composition of the working class is altered.

So changes in capitalism have brought about repeated changes in the nature of work - the sorts of jobs people do and how they do them. This development has been punctuated by repeated cries from both the establishment and sections of the left that the system has changed beyond all recognition, usually accompanied by the argument that emancipation based on working class self-activity is out of date.

For example, in 1973 US sociologist Daniel Bell helped to popularise the notion of a "post-industrial society". Ten years later André Gorz published a book called Farewell to the Working Class, which argued that changes to capitalism meant that the working class no longer had any power. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama famously argued that we had reached "The End of History", as neoliberalism had totally conquered the planet.

Capital is not all-powerful. It is met with resistance everywhere - from Spain to Greece to the Middle East, to Britain. Far from globalisation creating footloose multinationals that travel the world looking for cheap labour, most multinational companies are still overwhelmingly based in their domestic markets. Seeking sales abroad or carrying out international financial transactions may be relatively easy, but moving production is a difficult, expensive process. Money may be moved with the click of a mouse, but capital is invested in factories, offices, machinery and (often highly trained) workers. Uprooting these things is often more of a hindrance than a help to companies' profits.

Big companies also rely on the support and protection of their domestic government to further their interests. Threats of relocation abroad are often out of proportion to what capitalists actually do. And where there is significant relocation, for example in the car industry, bosses have found that they have relocated struggle with them, as workers in each country they move to have organised themselves.

New Unionism

If arguments around the changing world of work are not new, neither is insecure working. Many industries have seen repeated battles against casual and temporary conditions. The struggle against casualisation on the docks, for example, was a key part of the wave of struggle known as New Unionism that swept Britain in the 1890s. Dockers were hired from a pen for half a day at a time, leaving them insecure and impoverished. The New Unionism brought those previously considered "unorganisable" - unskilled, migrant and women workers - into the union movement in a dramatic and combative way. But like anything won from capitalism, gains can be reversed, and generations of dockers have repeatedly fought against a return to casualisation.

The notion that "precarious" workers form a distinct and separate group suggests that they have separate interests from other workers. This relies on the idea that there is a group of non-precarious, secure employees who are privileged over the precariat. Guy Standing calls this group the "salariat" - those who have secure employment, sick pay and pensions and are often employed by the state. This is a treacherous argument, echoing the complaints of Tories about "gold-plated" public sector pensions.

And the suggestion that there is a fundamental divide between precarious and non-precarious workers is nonsense. For a start there is no permanent divide between the two sectors: many workers will have part-time or fixed-term temporary work at some time and permanent contracts at other points in their lives. And in a recession, as we have seen with the swingeing cuts to public services, all workers can find themselves in a more or less precarious position.

So how should socialists organise around precarious work? There are two main traps we can fall into. The first is to see those in more precarious work or new industries as unorganisable. Some 25 years ago former GMB union secretary John Edmonds argued that there was a new "servant class" of workers who the unions could not reach, arguing, for example, "We must accept that within the next decade the trade unions are not going to be in a position to force contract cleaners, for example, to pay reasonable pay and conditions through traditional trade union organisation."

He was wrong of course, as proved by the successful battles by outsourced cleaners who have won the London living wage at a number of universities in the capital in recent years. Several unions including Unite and the RMT have made serious inroads into organising cleaners and shown that low-paid migrant workers on part-time contracts working for an outsourced agency can get organised and win.

We should remember that no section of the working class is unorganisable. Today's GMB, like the Unite union, is attempting to organise part-time bar and restaurant workers. Activists in the CWU and other unions have made several serious attempts to unionise workers in call centres. The factory occupations by sacked workers at Visteon, a company outsourced by Ford, also showed that outsourced workers can still have power. The workers won a deal from Ford, despite not officially being employed by them. According to much left orthodoxy their struggle should never have happened.

Inspiration

Activists should continue to look for ways to organise in un-unionised workplaces and new industries. And the struggles of younger workers, such as those against employment attacks in France, or the movement of indignados in Spain, can spark huge protests and strikes that pull in and inspire wider sections of the working class.

But there is a second danger - that we see the newer, "precarious" workers and industries as the only place worth organising. This reflects a deep pessimism about existing organised workers. Of course trade unions can be slow to move into action, particularly in places such as Britain with long-established union bureaucracies. Yet in the past year, from Greece to Tunisia and Egypt, mass strikes have shaken governments and toppled dictators. Workers have social weight because they are central to production. By going on strike, organised workers have the power to bring capitalism to a halt and in doing so lead other groups - such as the unemployed and students - in a struggle against the ruling class.

What is key is building unity between workers, by ensuring the whole union movement takes up the battle against temporary contracts, low pay and insecure working conditions. We have to build unity between permanent and temporary or agency workers. In many industries - the postal service, councils, education - this is a very important issue in preventing the bosses from dividing and weakening resistance.

In higher education, for example, one in ten workers (and an astonishing 70 percent among researchers) are on temporary contracts - an issue the UCU union is campaigning to stop. We also have to stop the ruling class from driving a wedge between those who are working and those who are sick or unemployed, and between young and older workers.

We have to reject the notion that neoliberalism has rendered the working class powerless - either among the newer, less organised sections or among organised workers with permanent contracts. As we enter into a massive united public sector strike over pensions, it seems like a strange time for some to be writing off the power of organised workers. The pensions battle is shaping up to be a decisive confrontation with the Tories and the ruling class. A victory for public sector workers would make all the battles against privatisation, insecure working conditions and for union rights easier to win.