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Less than ten years ago, a new word entered the world of work. By now, it has risen to stratospheric popularity with 400,000 Google hits, articles, books, lecturers and educational videos: the precariat. Many see the term announcing the existence of a new kind worker, precariat as a new social class formed by people suffering from a situation that is permanently precarious.
The neologism precarity in this way signals high levels of job and income insecurity, minimum wages, low status and being stuck at the bottom end of the working class defined by the working poor and the unemployed or unemployable and the Lumpenproletariat. Yet the precariat is a new class outside of these older well-known categories.
This new class of workers exists without any hope of permanent employment and the perks that go with it. This is next to no predictability in their lives. The members of the precariat have no chance of achieving the security given to most 9-to-5 workers with permanent employment that largely defined working conditions post-World War II for the proletariat in most advanced countries.
Unlike those workers, the precariat suffers from hopeless poverty, long hours and hard work accumulating no material wealth. The work of the precariat is dangerous, often without sufficient OHS protection, psychologically stressful, demeaning, indecent, humiliating and undignified.
The more traditional proletariat, consisting of industrial workers in the 19th and even more so in the 20th century, lacked their own means of production: the number of self-employed and independent laborers remains small—and as contractors have few means of recourse when the market falls or fails.
As a consequence, most wage-workers were and still are forced to sell their labor to make a living. Similarly and yet also somewhat different to the traditional working class, the precariat must constantly undertake extensive unremunerated activities that are essential if they are to retain access to jobs and to meager earnings.
Examples of such unpaid activities include having to continually search for new work and new jobs, particularly in what is euphemistically labeled the hospitality industry, such McDonalds or Burger King. Particularly in the so-called gig economy, the precariat is constantly and continuously forced to apply and re-apply for jobs. This is forcing them to prepare and update their CVs and resumes, be online and attend job interviews at very short notice.
The precariat must always be responsive to calls for so-called crowd-work. And yet they do so without being paid an actual wage for being on call. One of the core characteristics of the precariat is the condition of lacking almost any form of job security. This enforced short-termism includes intermittent employment and underemployment. The result is their defining precarious existence.
The emergence of the precariat also defines today’s workplace pathologies and the entrenchment of unacknowledged Neoliberal values. Just as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, employees and employers had an equal right to sleep under railway bridges, so in our time workers and managers are both free to do nothing for days or weeks, otherwise they will never receive a call-up.
British investigative journalist website Notes From Below offers a recent study From the Workplace. It scrutinizes the precariat and its role in modern capitalism while exploring the increased power that comes with neoliberalism. This gives management, employers and corporate apparatchiks new tools to be used to make workers work harder for lower wages and no perks.
Working hard is high on the agenda of Amazon warehouse operators like Amazon. Amazon is known to be an employer with a massive number of workers, all of them suffering under precarious conditions. Amazon’s 700,000 square feet (65,000m2) UK warehouse at Rugeley (UK) – obliquely labeled Fulfillment Center – employs 1,500 and shifts about 600,000 items per day.
Its workers – a word Amazon management avoids like the plague – are divided into five groups: receivers who unload boxes from trucks; preppers who open boxes and attach an Amazon barcode to each item; stowers putting them into storage; the all-important pickers who run through aisles picking items; and finally deliverers who sort items for individual orders and pack them.
Until Amazon discovered that they could charge workers about $6 for using their bus which takes workers from specific points to the warehouse, that bus was free. Once inside the warehouse, Amazon’s special regulations despotic management regime takes over. Its managerial regime strictly forbids what Amazon calls idling.
Any second of not working that cannot be excused through, for example, “running out of work” is noted and punished. “Going to the toilet”, as a worker said, ‘is not an excuse. Going to the toilet means being flagged for idling.” So there we are: back to the early Victorian Era!
To make sure that Amazon’s high speed work pressure is maintained, it uses two methods: firstly, managers – so-called “leaders” –patrol the corridors of the warehouse; secondly, CCTV cameras which are absolutely everywhere, control the entire facility. How would Charlie Chaplin have handled this new version of being a cog in the machinery of Modern Times (1936)?
Mishaps like going to the toilet or not moving for a few seconds instantly lead to being flagged, punished or even “released”. In typical Amazon obfuscation, this Orwellian term means being dismissed. Amazon is a place where nobody ever says, ”You are fired”.
Meanwhile working conditions are different at Amazon Mechanical Turk. The M-Turk is a crowdsourcing marketplace that makes it easier for individuals and businesses to outsource their processes and jobs. Yet the essentials of precariat are easy to detect everywhere. As one MTurk worker Sherry remembers, “I think on my first day I earned $2” Then Sherry continued “I was fooled by the fluffy ads that promised flexibility and good earnings.” Overall, Sherry says, she made $128 in my first eight days on Turk, which translates into a skimpy $16 a day.
Like employees at the Amazon warehouse, Amazon Turk workers like Sherry are often located in rural America where wages are low and career opportunities are not much more than a figment of the neoliberal mind-set or HR-managers on Crack Cocaine. No one working for Amazon dares raise an objection or join a union: there just aren’t alternatives in these Post-Modern modern times.
Instead of real job opportunities, Turk workers acknowledge, somedays they worked 2 hours and on other days ten hours and occasionally as high as fourteen hours. You never knew from day to day what you would be called up to do—or how much you could therefore earn. How could anyone make a family budget, rent an apartment or plan anything at all? Not long after starting at MTurk, Sherry realized, as Turkers we need to stop being fooled by the so-called flexibility of Turk and recognize that we are humans and deserve to be treated as such.
Highly similar stories emerge from the delivery industry – another place that employs the precariat. One bike rider Alex said, I started at the bottom, earning just $250 for a five-day week of 47.5 hours. Typically for the precariat, couriers are kept on “sham contracts”. Yet the reality of this relationship is actually more akin to a classical old-fashioned employer-employee relationship.
Couriers have minimal flexibility and are often punished in the form of wage deductions for not showing up to work. One the other hand, they are fully integrated into the business, but not as equals or as contractual partners. Management holds direct sway over them. Workers have next to no say on the rates they are paid.
Eventually, conditions for the bike riders became so bad that they formed a trade union. Together with their trade union representatives, they went to the UK employment tribunal with claims of bogus contracts. Meanwhile, their union by hitting 50% membership at the plant created statutory recognition.
At the same time, however, the employer backed down in court. This was the first union recognition in the gig economy. After successful rounds of collective bargaining workers received improved pay and conditions.
Alice, a bike delivery rider in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, tells similar stories. There, too, local ads promised “Earn up to ₤23 per hour, completely flexible”, and “Be your own boss!” Reality proved to be quite different. Alice remembers, the job hooks you in with promises of good pay, flexibility and freedom but ultimately you are at the whim of the company. Pay fluctuates outside your control. There is a highly sophisticated algorithm that dictates who gets orders.
One way of managing, e.g., favoring and punishing, riders is through “boosters”. Boosters are profitable local areas and specific times, like downtown on a Friday at dinner time. Of course, the company wants riders to go to so-called “booster zones” but it – the company – decides who gets there and who does not. Officially, algorithms make those decisions.
Workers soon realize that algorithms are not much more than managerial whims and caprices put in mathematical formulas. Put simply, algorithmic formulas do what management tells them to do. And management does not like trouble-makers, i.e., union members or anyone who thinks for him- or herself.
The Coronavirus pandemic already had its impact when Alice noticed, during the end of March 2020, I was logged in for over sixty hours just to make $140, a miserable $2.30 per hour. During the lockdowns, it became ever more noticeable that the power balance is skewed against the couriers. Alice explains, if a restaurant manager does not like you, they can flag your account on the system. This means having your account suspended, either for a few days or forever.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the precariat. Despotic management is accelerated through taking out middle management in favor of management algorithms. In the case of Deliveroo this allows management to engage rarely with riders. Silence is a powerful way of shutting down debate.
Meanwhile conditions had been worsening even before the Coronavirus pandemic. Alice claims, I was no longer earning $8.50 per hour plus $0.40 per order and even this was reduced to $6 flat. Eventually, a minimum of $5.50 was put in but this soon became the average pay. Remember the old Wobbly song?
Shall we still be slaves and work for wages
It is outrageous
Has been for ages?
This earth by right belongs to toilers
And not to spoilers
At the same time, the precariat entered other workplaces, as Sam, a newly appointed sub-editor for a weekly financial trade magazine, recalls, the magazine was free to subscribers as the magazine was paid for by ads and advertorials. These are articles written by advertisers disguised to look like news reports written by journalists.
It is advertising made to look like journalism. This comes on top of the fact that many articles are pre-formulated corporate press releases also made to look like real articles. So who needs trained and experienced reporters or editors? In due course, Sam had nothing serious to do and was dismissed.
Increasingly, the precariat is also found in higher education as well as in schools when, for example, a teaching assistant receives as wage between $85 and $115 a day – this is no longer uncommon. At the same time teaching assistants are often hired only for one academic year of eight months. As for the rest of the year. Well, Nobel Prize winner Anatole France described the situation at the end of the nineteenth century, proclaiming The Red Lily,
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike
to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
More common, however, is to find members of the slave-wage earners, the precariat, in the hospitality industry. One bartender in London reports. South London Bartenders Network, a wildcat strike in 2018 won demands for union recognition, fixed-term contracts, and the rehiring of unfairly dismissed staff. The system can be challenged and the law made to do its duty, but it takes a lot of courage.
The network’s strategy hinged on community unionism as an alternative to tried-and-tested model of traditional union organizing. It linked the bartenders’ trade union to the networks of the local community. Meanwhile in the corporate press, the precariat and poverty are taken as the new standard. Worse, this is even touted as framed a fair price to pay for access to a romanticized lifestyle involving socializing, drinking and drug-taking.
In reality the precariat in the hospitality industry is exposed to bosses who play favoritism, operate unethically micro-aggression and hand out privileges to some. All this is manifested along the lines of discrimination by gender, race, age and sexuality. Poor behavior is tolerated for some workers, while swift punishment for others.
In addition, one bartender caught in the system reported when working in London’s suburb of Brixton, we were getting paid nothing … instead of proper pay, we got vodka, coke, weed, etc. This was always on offer. So, then, you’re drinking all the time.
For Jacek, a chef, things got so bad while working for a catering service company that, as he reported, the floor manager walked out with us. Twelve hundred customers waited for the main dinner. The company quickly agreed to the demands of the workforce by paying an immediate bank transfer into the accounts of all their workers. Staff even received an envelope with money at the end of their working day. Chef Jacek continued,
During the ten years of working in gastronomy, I have worked with many chefs. I met about 150 to 200 people in various restaurants … many of them drink, take drugs, are damaged, exhausted, stressed, have damaged nerves … there are shattered personal lives.
Hospitality worker and kitchen hand Darek added, harassment, insults and aggression are integral parts of working in London’s gastronomy. Beyond that, British labor law favors employers – not employees just as intended by neoliberalism and installed by the British conservative party over many decades. This systematically engineers macho-management. Another restaurant worker Michal comments, In London, if someone wants to get rid of someone from work, they are often overloaded with duties … nobody will help you at work either, because everyone is afraid for their own ass.
Finally, life in the precariat also defines the work of a door supervisor, also known as a bouncer. Nick says, about 60% of my income comes from this job with the rest coming from odd jobs like removals and gardening. Like many other precariat worker, Nick is self-employed, that is, no one looks after his interests and he has to confront the boss face-to-face.
Of course, the Coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on Nick’s working conditions. He pointed out, on Wednesday 18 March my boss told me via WhatsApp that my door supervision shift had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. No explanation or apology. Nick was one of the hundreds and probably thousands of security and bar staff that found themselves suddenly unemployed.
Jane, who works in a call center which she calls “the factory floor of the 21st century,” had more luck during the Coronavirus pandemic. She was able to keep her job. Why? you may well ask. Well, in 2019, Jane joined the Industrial Workers of the World trade union. Jane eventually became a union representative, In Jane’s call center, her job was to deal with customers in the area of car and home insurance; but it was also to look after her fellow employees.
To make working life just that much more tense, management had explicitly required, “NO MISTAKES MUST BE MADE!” But even before that, Jane experienced the almost standard abuse suffered by many workers of the precariat. Her initial training was rife with personal insults, yelling, humiliations and generally unacceptable and degrading behaviors displayed by managers. Some workers cried and one fainted during the training, Jane adds. That led to her decision to join the union.
Once workers had gone through the training, the pay was just a few Euros above the minimum wage. Instead, they got rewards like gift cards for certain shops. Yet there was neither a pay rise nor was there any chance of a promotion. Instead, the job meant long working hours and unpaid overtime. And pretty little cards for gifts she didn’t need or want.
Unlike many workers of the precariat hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, Jane was able to start working from home when the Coronavirus pandemic hit her workplace. Of course, this came with another torment. Her boss managed to use technology in such a way as to control workers even more. They created a very stressful atmosphere even in the very homes of workers. Welcome to the world of flexible despotism.
What all this indicates are three things. Firstly, in the working conditions of the precariat, it is not uncommon to find key elements of flexible despotism – the despotic use of flexibility to make workers work harder and harder and to use flexibility as an instrument of punishment and harassment.
Secondly, reports from today’s workplace show that the life of the precariat means, managerial abuse, extremely high levels of job stress and income insecurity, poverty wages, and the illusion of being self-employed.
Worse, the precariat is no longer an insignificant part of the working class. Today, even schools as well as academic workers on short-term contracts are exposed to the working conditions of precariat.
Overall, it appears that the precariat is not making it through the Pandemic crisis: in fact, the opposite is the case. The precariat is growing. Workers of the precariat are just surviving and their ever spreading working conditions continue to be unjust and inhumane.