New special issue on precarious labour from Work, Employment and Society

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[We are pleased to welcome Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Kate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney from Leeds Business School. They recently edited a special issue for Work, Employment and Society on precarious labour.]

The special issue In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers received almost 100 submissions, one of the highest in the history of the British Sociological Association’s journals. The call for papers was launched following the 2016 Work, Employment and Society conference organised by Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change at the University of Leeds. The volume of submissions reflects the level of academic interest in the topic and its political relevance. As workers’ power relative to capital has weakened, the use of the term has rapidly expanded. It is often used to describe a rise in contingent forms of employment (such as short-term or zero-hours contracts), but also to denote an increase in more subjective perceptions of insecurity among workers. There is therefore a risk of overusing the term, or stretching its meaning beyond recognition. We sought to address some of these problems in compiling the special issue.

In our introduction, we argue that it is more useful to think of ‘precarity’ not as the defining characteristic of a particular social group or class (as in Guy Standing’s notion of the “precariat” which is widely influential among many sociologists) but as a process of precarisation that encompasses increasing insecurity observable across a much wider range of employment contexts, and an increasing uncertainty through peoples’ life courses. The articles selected in the special issue identify different drivers of precarisation. Sometimes, it is driven through employer efforts to directly undermine workers’ job security. Companies may rely on outsourcing or forcing workers into dubious self-employment to secure more ‘flexible’ (read: insecure) labour sourcing (as shown by Moore and Newsome’s article). Governments themselves may also restructure their own supply chains leading to intensified insecurity for public service workers, or else normalise insecurity in the wider economy through changes to welfare systems (as discussed in Jaehrling et al. and Rubery’s contributions to our issue respectively).

Other contributions also show how restrictions on people’s wider rights as citizens can have profound effects on work. In different ways this is evidenced by two contributions on China: by Pun and Smith who examine the legal restrictions which subordinate the emerging Chinese working class, and in Choi’s study of Chinese taxi drivers forbidden from owning their own vehicles. It is also demonstrated by Simola’s discussion of “citizenship precarisation”: in which young university-educated intra-EU migrants’ access to benefits, health and social assistance have become increasingly conditional upon complex entitlement requirements.

Finally, it is also important to recognise a much more diffuse process of implicit ‘precarisation’, which is revealed in many studies of working life extending well beyond only those focusing on low-paid, low-skilled jobs. In our special issue, this is compellingly illustrated by Hassard et al., who show how company policies in pursuit of competitiveness have led to a much stronger perception of job insecurity among managerial professionals (along with a belief among younger managers that this was becoming the new normal).

Which actors are best placed to combat these processes of ‘precarisation’? First, we should not be defeatist about the role that can be played by workers themselves. Manky’s study of outsourced Chilean mine workers shows the surprising levels of industrial power they were able to wield given support from sympathetic political actors. Alternatively, Jaehrling’s study shows the value of direct political interventions (such as implementing clauses in government procurement contracts) in mitigating the consequences of supply chain restructuring. Ultimately, the special issue underlines the urgent need for a research agenda which is more empirically grounded and more imaginative in engaging with people’s security in work and the diverse ways in which it is being undermined.

The special issue In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers is free to access until 2 July 2018.

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