The nature of labour today

by Hettie O’Brien

The Deliveroo cyclist stealthily navigates gridlocked traffic, transporting takeaways to urban addresses at the touch of a button. Her bright turquoise uniform has become a ubiquitous sight in many cities, a visible sign of the shift from traditional employment to short term contract jobs that are paid by the hour or the task. For some, flexible labour is an opportunity to fit paid work around their schedules, or top up existing incomes with extra shifts. For others, flexible labour simply places workers at greater risk, with erratic wages and few, if any, employee benefits. Witness, for example, recent strike action by Deliveroo drivers, or last year’s lawsuit over whether Uber drivers are entitled to a minimum wage. This emerging model of work has profound social, political and economic consequences. This week and next, In The Long Run contributors will analyse the rise of precarious labour, and debate appropriate policy responses.

The International Labour Rights Forum defines precarious workers as “those who fill permanent job needs but are denied permanent employee rights.In essence, this marks a departure from a tradition where full time staff are typically guaranteed a set number of hours and entitled to benefits such as holiday and sick pay. In comparison to its corporate counterpart of yesterday, the new on-demand model is radically slimmer, outsourcing service delivery – such as cycle couriers and cab drivers – to a raft of flexible and independent workers who are classified as “short term” and “independent contractors.”

There’s some conceptual sophistry at play in classifying these new relations between employer and employee. Uber, for example, defines itself as an application provider rather than a taxi service, allowing it to claim that it does not ‘employ’ any drivers and therefore is not obligated to pay its drivers a minimum wage. While UK judges considered this defence “faintly ridiculous,” the Institute for Economic Affairs, an influential centre-right think tank, argues that Uber is no different from sharing platforms such as eBay: these companies, the IEA held, are in the business of providing a platform, and while the engineers and designers who build and maintain that platform are employees, the drivers and retailers who earn money on it are not. This simplification overlooks an important fact: Uber represents a larger source of primary income for many of the drivers that use its platform than Ebay does for sellers. Drivers’ take-home pay, and whether it meets the minimum wage, is a crucial question of livelihood.

In part, the rise of independent and flexible contractors is a consequence of economic competition and international trade, which have put pressure on employers in the developed world to reduce labour costs. Yet this is not the whole story. As Arne Kalleberg argues in his contribution to this series, precarious labour is as much a socio-political shift as it is an outcome of globalisation, deriving from the transfer of risk from employers and governments to employees. To borrow a phrase from the sociologist Nikolas Rose, precarious labour responsibilizes the individual. Traditional employee entitlements have become outmoded by the expectation that people can find a job easily and quickly, topping up their existing salaries and finding new forms of employment to fit around their lifestyles. Greater responsibility is ascribed to the individual to be flexible, self-activating and entrepreneurial, and to expect less from their employers or the traditional welfare safety nets of the state. The flexible worker is independent, his smartphone a conduit to the circuits of capital arming him with a host of new apps that harvest his skills on demand.

If a counterpoint to the flexible worker exists, it is in the image of the inflexible dependent who, in the new orthodoxy, lacks the ability or initiative to be a self-starter in this new world of work. Tracing the etymology of dependency, Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon argue that this term has become a stigmatised concept synonymous with poverty. Included within the category of dependents are those who are elderly, physically or mentally ill, or full-time carers. If flexible work shifts risk onto the individuals, those individuals who are less adept at coping with risk will become exposed, laid bare by an absence of employee rights and the social safety nets of old. For the most vulnerable in society, precarious labour poses the most direct risk.

Precarious labour has profound implications for the wider economy too. In her contribution to this series, Alice Martin of the New Economics Foundation points out that the UK in particular is a wage led economy, relying on consumer spending to boost overall economic growth. Less disposable income and short term flexible contracts are not conducive to planning long term purchases and future investments. She suggests that precarious labour has wider implications for the health of the UK economy.

Finally, precarious labour has political effects for the state and electoral politics. In her contribution to this series Bridget Anderson examines the interrelations between migration, precarious labour, and the notion of kite-marked British jobs for British workers. The chimera of a rosy past of traditional employment offering economic security and upward mobility was seized upon by Trump, whose embrace of coal and steel production and American jobs for American workers transformed a protectionist illusion into an electoral strategy. Conditions of economic and employment insecurity speak to the unrest that spawns populist leaders, rising to power on the promise to make nations great again through a return to retrograde industries and impossible recreation of historic conditions. As Kalleberg argues, there will be no return to a nostalgic past of clearly defined career narratives and jobs for life. The challenge, therefore, is to find contemporary solutions to address the inequalities and injustices resulting from precarious labour.

Judith Butler describes the precarious existence as exposed and bare, where life itself is placed in the hands of others. Rather than lament precarity as the unfortunate child of economic competitiveness and globalisation, the contributions in this edition argue that we can, and ought, to do something about it.

About the author

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Hettie O'Brien is a freelance writer and researcher who is currently studying for an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at Newnham College, Cambridge.
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