Oh, the Precarity! A Worker’s-Eye View

You finally find a job through an employment agency who seem halfway worthwhile, not like the others who you’re convinced advertise fake jobs in their windows to get the punter through the door, and then say: ‘sorry, that opportunity’s just gone’ or is ‘fully subscribed for interviews now’, and offer you something far inferior, if anything at all (but they’ve got you and will keep you on their books). The work comes in after the best part of a year unemployed, in which you attended meetings at a Job Centre week in week out for a month, only for them to then send a letter declining your Job Seeker’s Allowance due to there having been insufficient National Insurance contributions made on your part in the tax year that they assessed, despite the fact that that year you were a student, and struggling to find regular employment then too, and as such could not claim JSA – which would have assisted with the contributions – due to be being a student. You mightn’t have been in the desperatest of desperate need – but others are – but the catch 22 rather goes to highlight that wide gap (obviously not clearly enough marked, as people are forever falling down it) between the media image of the gratuitous ease with which anyone can trade in work for scrounging off the state and the paltriness of provision epitomised in the response to the inquiry about the refusal of benefit (a more adequate, less accusative and patronising term for which would surely be ‘assistance’): ‘you’ll be alright though, you’ve got a qualification.’

workers eye viewThe office of this job in administration – paid at minimum wage by the agency – is located on a floor above a company specialising in private surveillance, whose curtains were rather oddly always open (at least until the day after Corbyn’s leadership election, perhaps coincidentally) for passers-by to espy their spying on endless personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, no doubt probing claimants’ intimate snaps for that revelatory, indemnifying smile, and whose slogan, no kidding, was ‘turning suspicion into irrefutable evidence’, a conversion rate no doubt motivated by targets and incentivised by bonuses. Settling into the job over the first six or so weeks of the twelve of the temp-to-perm contract with the agency, you start to make a few friends, learn the craft, pick up the systems from the training, and then you get the old mid-shift lay-off by the agency, who are in dispute with the company you’re working for, claiming they haven’t been paying the agency; the retort being that a fair few of the agency staff they’ve been providing have been up and leaving after a day’s (paid) training, but no work, but ‘my name’s Paul, and this is between y’all’; that is, this dispute doesn’t concern the just-terminated worker, whose been used not even as a bargaining tool, but as a weapon of attrition, whose services have just been revoked, by the agency, to spite the company. The agency contact you with another job for tomorrow picking and packing in a factory double the distance of your previous bike ride commute – that is, hardly like-for-like – in a pathetic attempt to cover their asses, but one no doubt contractually sound.

The term for the working class today finding themselves increasingly in positions like this one – and each no doubt as idiosyncratic – is ‘the precariat’. The word is a conjunction of two terms: ‘precarity’ – being the precarious state that the working class finds itself in today; in relation to the fragility of agency and temporary work, zero-hour contracts, cuts to, and increases in waiting times for, working tax credits and unemployment benefits, etc. – and ‘proletariat’, the working class itself. Indeed, as Guy Standing defines it:

‘The precariat can be identified by a distinctive structure of social income, which imparts a vulnerability going well beyond what would be conveyed by the money income received at a particular moment. […] A feature of the precariat is not the level of money wages or income earned at a particular moment but the lack of community support in terms of need, lack of assured enterprise or state benefits, and lack of private benefits to supplement money earnings. […] The precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labour community. This intensifies a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do. [It] knows that there is no shadow of the future, as there is no future in what they are doing. To be ‘out’ tomorrow would come as no surprise[;] not all those in the precariat should be regarded as victims. Nevertheless, most will be uncomfortable in their insecurity, without a reasonable prospect of escape.’

The ennui that comes with the condition of belonging to the precariat is one being capitalised on by the endless rolling back of workers’ rights, in terms of regularity and regulation of working hours, pay and pay gaps, and of the ability to strike, all found at risk in the new junior doctors’ contract, for example. Indeed, behind Jeremy Hunt’s call for his own version of ‘Asiatic modes of production’ lays the deeply sinister agenda of ideological austerity, as much aimed at enforcing the austerity of workers’ ideas as it is at cutting material resources to society’s most precariously placed.

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