Some notes on precarious work

Here’s a few more notes on a point that seems to be made with increasing frequency: working for a wage has always been precarious. The current focus on precarity as a defining feature of our age is not unwelcome; indeed, its popularity shows that it clearly harmonizes with the everyday experience of many. The question is whether that everyday experience is so new; can a focus on precarity as novelty be crowding out important features of the transformations we’re seeing and what we can do about them?

Perhaps most generally, precarity is what it means to have nothing to sell but your labour power, to use Marx’s turn of phrase. Taken in this sense, precarity is wide-spread: today, the bottom 40% of Canadians today own a measly 2% of national wealth and the bottom 60% own just over 10%. The fact of owning relative peanuts gives precarity an important part of its meaning – it’s certainly nicer to live in a rich country, but the “outside option” remains the wage with all its attendant risks.

The fight against precarity is also the foundation of the welfare state. The welfare state provides a social wage in addition to the working wage and thus undermines precarity. Its genesis was an experiment in social compromise. On the one hand, it gave workers greater security – a springboard to potentially fight for more. On the other, it gave elites a tool to manage labour unrest, especially the wave coming out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the means to incorporate workers into new cycles of accumulation. For now, however, this experiment is sputtering. The last several decades have seen the breakdown of the compromise and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have brought precarity back to the fore, if for now in a more limited sense.

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An argument along these lines is crystallized and developed in greater detail in a recent article by Kim Moody. It’s a rare piece because it takes seriously the empirical data that shows modest rises in what most people consider to be precarious work, while at the same time building a broader perspective on precarity that links the present with the past. His comments, while based on the UK experience, apply more generally across Northern economies and are worth quoting at length: (more…)

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Victim or menace: Notes on the TFWP and political agency

The louder the debate about temporary foreign workers grows, the more it seems temporary foreign workers, especially those from the global South performing low-wage labour, are left in the din on the sidelines. While there have been stories about exploitation on the job and beyond, much of the focus is on Canadian resident workers, business owners and the Program itself as an object of “abuse”.

When migrant workers are present, they are often placed at two opposing end-points on a spectrum of agency. At times, they are described as helpless victims at the exploitative whim of businesses and government regulations. Other times, however, they are presented as taking away “Canadian” jobs, actively affecting the labour market outcomes of resident workers.

There is a contradiction between representations that depict either an abject passivity or a kind of near malice – sometimes even simultaneously. (more…)

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Temporary Foreign Workers demand justice

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has been increasingly in the spotlight the last few weeks. Many allegations have surfaced about the appalling living and working conditions faced by migrant workers. While much of the media coverage has ignored what is most important, my two guests on this week’s podcast are ready to offer some correctives.

First, Jason Foster speaks about the history of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and its role in structural changes to Canada’s labour market – changes that have seen working conditions and security decline across the board. Jason teaches at Athabasca University; his research has focused on migrant labour.

Second, Adriana Paz-Ramirez provides more of the perspective of migrant workers themselves and links their struggle for justice to labour solidarity as well as immigration reform. Adriana is a long-time organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers.

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The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and labour solidarity

Yesterday, I took a look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and how it helps enforce labour discipline on all workers, and low-wage workers in particular. Today, I want to explore the migration side of the migrant worker equation. The context of migration not only makes it easier for employers to exploit TFWs, it also serves to obscure the common core of labour solidarity that should be at the basis of responses to the greater labour discipline that the TFWP enables.

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The Temporary Foreign Workers Program and labour market discipline

While it is a truism that migrant labour built Canada, this same migrant labour has long been used to discipline domestic workers. Both facts are imprinted into the history of Canada. Today is no different and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is at the centre of debates about migrant labour. Often missing from the debate are the deep links between labour policy, (im)migration policy and the ways these interact to undermine the power and solidarity of workers. (more…)

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Re-making markets with unpaid internships

From political proposals to street protests, unpaid internships have been making news in Canada. Rightfully so, as there is a litany of problems with unpaid internships. For individuals, unpaid internships can not only be a form of outright wage theft, they also help entrench class-based privilege that allows some the luxury of forgo income in exchange for work experience. Unpaid internships also distort the labour market and contribute to lower participation and higher unemployment, especially among young workers. For firms, of course, unpaid internships offer some real cost savings. There could, however, be another reason why unpaid internships are popular: they help remake the terms of the labour market itself. (more…)

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Precarious workers or satisfied customers: a fine line for giant retailers

This post is an appendix of sorts to my article, “Fired by Walmart for Christmas”, to be published this weekend by Common Dreams. In the article, I describe the stresses and difficulties faced by Walmart workers during the holidays. Overwork, a climate of fear and barely-organized chaos make for taxing shifts at work. Low wages, insufficient hours and inadequate benefits stretch budgets and make it harder to find holiday joy at home. A Walmart Christmas could have easily been written by Dickens.

Here, I want to focus on an aspect of Walmart’s practices that stood out from my interviews with long-time Walmart employees and OUR Walmart organizers: the increased use of temporary workers and the greater degree of precarity experienced by all workers at the retail giant. The workers and organizers I interviewed all described a long-term shift in company culture. From the perspective of veteran employees, the company has gone from one that at least outwardly respects its workers to one solely focused on profit, even at immense cost to worker well-being. My interviewees all claimed this change took place during the transition in management after the death of founder Sam Walton.

Make no mistake: Walmart was always focused on cost-cutting. However, through a shrewd mix of charisma and good business sense, Walton was able to maintain a sense of community amongst his employees. He knew what he needed to do to keep costs down, but he also knew how to do it in a way that did not completely alienate and break his own employees.

In the two decades since his passing, Walmart has changed. Without Walton’s calculated approach to cost savings, working conditions have deteriorated. Wages, benefits and hours have all been reduced.  In addition, without Walton’s charisma, not even a veneer of respect for workers remains. Today’s Walmart employees are not only tired, poor and often on social assistance; they are also deeply disheartened and afraid. (more…)

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