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Tackling the monster of precarious work

In his 2011 book The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class, Professor Guy Standing warned that unless the needs, insecurities and aspirations of those in precarious work, or as he termed it the new class of the ‘precariat’, were addressed as a matter of urgency then new political monsters will emerge.

According to Standing, who spend 30 years working for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and is a former advisor to the late Nelson Mandela, the precariat is a class of workers in insecure employment, who have a lack of control over their working lives and who suffer from crippling uncertainty.

He breaks the precariat into three separate but equally suffering groups – the ‘atavists’, the ‘nostalgics’, and the ‘progressives’. Standing says that each group is reeling from the aftershocks of years of deprivation and displacement and their predicament can no longer be ignored.

Standing spoke to SIPTU Health Campaigner Paddy Cole to discuss what the trade union movement can do to win back the franchise on hope for the precariat from the Trumps and the Brexiteers of this world.

He said: “The precariat is defined by three dimensions in terms of distinctive relations of production. The most obvious aspect is people who do not have an occupational identity or narrative to their lives, who work in unstable and insecure employment and people who have to do a lot of work that is not accounted for or respected.

“The second aspect is that the precariat has been suffering from stagnating wages that are more volatile and unpredictable, a loss of non-wage benefits and a loss of access to rights-based state benefits. They are living on the edge of unsustainable debt.”

The chipping away at ‘the commons’, the shared norms and spaces in our society, and the degree of economic uncertainty facing the precariat, Standing proposes, has resulted in a more stressful society, with many overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.

While this is receiving some attention, Standing believes there tends to be too much more focus on the workplace rather than acknowledging it as a much wider societal problem that has to be rectified by the state.

“The social income has been dismantled,” explains Standing. “If you are in the precariat you have a feeling of being a supplicant. You are losing your rights and are being treated in an undignifying way. The old proletariat’s enemy was always the boss. Now the precariat’s number one enemy is the state because it is the state that is dismantling the institutions and it’s the state that doesn’t care about the environment.”

Standing claims the State is a legitimate target for the ire of the precariat and that trade unions must adapt their vocabulary and imagery to these new realities.

“I think we need to re-orientate how we articulate our strategies on the environment which is a concern

for people in the precariat and how we reconstruct our social protection system.” On the subject of basic income, Standing is strongly of the opinion that it would serve to enhance collective bargaining power.

“Basic income would strengthen our ability to oppose repressive relationships and allow us to bargain stronger,” he said. “We are living in a time of chronic insecurity. There is nothing that makes people more timid than to be chronically insecure.

Therefore if we give people some basic security, some assurance that they will have some money in their pocket, come what may, they will be bolder.”

Until we recalibrate the welfare state that includes a basic income on top of a redistribution in what he terms “rentier capitalism”, Standing believes policymakers will only be fiddling around the margins of the problems facing the precariat.

“We have got to see the system as a challenge. We need a system that is redistributive, that gives people rights and that gives collective voice. If you don’t have a voice, you will always be insecure.”

Pressed on how the trade union movement can contribute to stopping any further rise of the political far right, Standing says the movement should come out strongly in favour of a basic income, strongly in favour of bargaining with the state in a frontal way and should play a leading role in the revival of ‘the commons’.

Listen to Guy Standing keynote address to TEAC Conference here ↓

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