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Precarious Work Isn’t New — It’s Part of How Capitalism Functions

Juan Sebastian Carbonell
Nathan French

Claims that the working class no longer exists often suggest it’s been replaced by a “precariat” who don’t get a regular salary. But this precarious condition has been the experience of most workers throughout capitalism’s history — and where we did get stable employment, it was because we organized.

Uber Eats delivery workers ride bicycles through the Kabukicho entertainment area on April 11, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty

Today, there’s a broad consensus that neoliberalism is making work more precarious. Indeed, for four decades and more, successive governments in developed countries have passed various measures to flexibilize the labor market. These measures increasingly allow businesses to use fixed-term contracts with a definite end date. Added to these are other measures that make it easier for employers to lay off staff.

In France, for instance, the creation of interim contracts dates back to 1972. This was meant to make it possible to substitute one member of staff with another in exceptional cases. Yet, over the years, it has become an instrument of flexibility in the hands of employers. When a company sees its levels of activity falling, it can choose not to renew temporary contracts. In so doing, it can get rid of some of its employees without having to enter a long and risky collective redundancy process.

In his famous book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing concludes that it is no longer appropriate just to speak of a division in society between workers and capitalists. What we are instead seeing, Standing argues, is the emergence of a precariat underneath the old proletariat.

This would all seem to suggest that the days where most big companies’ workforce was employed on open-ended contracts are over. Certainly, the appearance of delivery riders working for Deliveroo or Foodora or drivers working for Uber or Lyft — self-employed, in legal terms, but depending on these platforms for their work — illustrates the fragmentation of the salaried workforce and the rise of precarity.

Many studies have shown how harmful the effects of this are for individuals’ lives. Not only do they face difficulties in meeting their immediate needs — given their many periods out of work — but they also struggle to make preparations for the future, to rent a place to live, and to pursue education and work training.

It is clear that their precarious status undermines trade unions. Temporary workers are reticent about unionizing, for they fear that it means their contracts won’t be renewed. Precarity gradually eats into the unions’ own ranks: in some companies, the core of stable workers is gradually replaced by temporary ones. There are not no conflicts involving precarious workers. But they are relatively rare.

For some, like Standing, precarity also has other malign effects — with the rise of far-right populism in Europe and the United States counting among its direct consequences. For want of any real alternative, the destabilization of the popular classes would, it seems, drive them to look for scapegoats among those even more precarious than they are: migrants, the unemployed, LGBT people, and so on.

Yet by no means is this division — the separation of workers into a multitude of different statuses — actually something new. It has existed in various forms throughout the history of capitalism. We could even say that it is functional to capitalism’s very dynamic. Whatever period we look at, we always find that permanent staff coexisted with their temporary counterparts — and that regular employment had to be fought for.

The Permanent and the Temporary

Precarity is, in a sense, inherent to the very nature of employment contracts under capitalism. In principle — at the juridical level — a worker is free to negotiate the price of her own labor power, on an equal footing with her putative employer. According to this liberal conception, the employment relation — whether or not it takes the form of a contract — is thus a commercial transaction between formally equal subjects.

Naturally, this equality in law does not translate into real-life equality. Karl Marx made the critique of this “bourgeois” law one of the defining themes of Capital. The law that upholds “the freedom to work” — the workers’ freedom to sell her labor power and the freedom of the employer to employ whomever he wants — always leans in favor of the capitalist, because he can break the commercial contract binding him to his workers at any moment.

For an example of this precarious relationship, we might note that in France, at least up till the 1890s, all employment contracts were time-limited. The bosses thus had the right to fire their employees with no compensation. What changed from this moment was that contracts “without a fixed term” were created for the first time, as was compensation for layoffs.

Only later, over the twentieth century, did employment contracts become associated with a “protective” status. On the one hand, employers saw an economic advantage in keeping part of the workforce loyal. The rationalization of workforce management could be a way of reducing companies’ costs. Thus, it was useful for them to form a stabilized workforce and not have to constantly seek new hires.

On the other hand, through powerful struggles, the labor movement won numerous social gains, including a relative employment stability. Of course, this also took time. In France, often considered a heartland of the labor movement and of the welfare state, measures to protect workers from collective layoffs were introduced only in the 1960s.

In 1966, it was stipulated that employee-elected works councils should be informed of and consulted about any company restructuring plans, and in 1969, redeployment, early retirement, and redundancy compensation were introduced in order to limit the impact of restructuring. These measures sought to orient the employer toward solutions other than “straight” firings.

The idea of a stable, long-term job is, in fact, something relatively new, when we look at the history of capitalism as a whole. These measures were possible only due to the strength of the labor movement and the strong economic growth of the postwar decades. Once these conditions were gone, stable and long-term jobs in capitalism appeared rather more of a short-term “parenthesis.” Today, employment contracts are less and less associated with a protection from market forces. Both governments and employers use the vocabulary of the individual worker’s “mobility” and “liberty” to justify reforms to flexibilize the labor market.

Often unions claim the postwar decades — in France known as the “Trente Glorieuses” — was a period in which precarious work was marginal. But was employment really that stable at the time? The economists Peter B. Doeringer and Michael J. Piore have shown that things were more complicated, and that even in societies with high levels of employment, certain sectors of salaried employees are not immune to precarity. In this analysis, the labor market is divided into (at least) two segments, a primary and a secondary labor market. In the former, salaries are higher and jobs are skilled, with relative stability. In the latter, on the contrary, jobs require little or no skill, have little stability, and are subject to a high rate of turnover.

The barrier between these two markets is quite solid — and movement between them is relatively difficult. Yet some industries are more vulnerable to precarity than others. For example, the auto industry is dependent on a seasonal work pattern. In times of crisis, hundreds of temporary workers (usually young and coming from migrant families) can be “laid off” overnight, only to return to the factory a few months later once car sales and production are on the rise again. And everyone, from bosses to unions and workers themselves, is used to this.

Similarly, new industries where unions are weak or nonexistent, such as the logistics sector, are also dependent on a “floating” workforce. Sometimes working conditions are so bad and wages so low that employers know that no one will stay longer than a few months.

This duality — some theorists talk of “balkanization”— of the labor market means that job stability and precariousness normally coexist in the market economy. There is nothing fundamentally counterintuitive about this idea. In France, it is estimated that today around 7 million people belong to the secondary labor market out of the total 32 million people who hold a job. Unsurprisingly, these workers are often young people, women, and immigrants.

Precarity Throughout History

Precarity is neither exceptional under capitalism nor new. Different forms of precarity have been present throughout history. In the 1930s, an employment contract did not always provide protection from being fired in the sales sector.

The French historian Anne-Sophie Beau notes that the Labor Code was only concerned with manual jobs. She shows that until 1936, the contracts of workers at the Grand Bazar de Lyon (a department store) could be broken at any time, without notice or compensation. Therefore, two types of employment coexisted; the titulaires who benefited from a month’s salary and eight days’ notice in the case of dismissal, and the auxiliaires who were paid by the day. Precarity was limited, starting in 1936, by the first collective contracts, but it did not disappear, given the elaborate strategies employers developed to circumvent labor law.

One can go back even further in history and see other forms of precarity. In the nineteenth century, when ironwork was still central to the economy of certain villages, forges and farms worked together. This established a division between the many “external” workers — often peasants employed only for simple tasks, in the winter — and “internal” workers such as blacksmiths, iron puddlers, and laminators, who benefited from employment all year long because they had a trade.

This division between permanent and temporary workers was present from the dawn of industrial society. Indeed, the society that was born of the French Revolution did not have a simple binary between workers and bosses. Rather, a subcontracting (“putting-out”) system was established in which the individual worker-“subcontractor” hired other workers — often but not exclusively from his own family — to take part in production. On the one hand were manufacturers, with machines and raw materials, and on the other hand were worker-entrepreneurs who received raw material and subcontracted work for “their” workers, to be carried out either at home or in a factory.

As the sociologist Claude Didry reminds us, this system of subcontracting existed a long time — and it was very much present in the French mining industry until the end of the nineteenth century. This is described in Émile Zola’s famous novel Germinal. At the beginning of the novel, we see a butty (as this subcontractor role was known in the coal industry) hire Étienne Lantier, the protagonist, along with others to work in the mine. We see throughout the novel how the butty competes with other butties over the price of coal, which in turn puts pressure on workers and lowers wages.

Digital Platforms

Petitions and strikes worked to demand the abolition of subcontracting — in France, it was officially abolished by the Revolution of 1848, though as we have seen, it continued until the early twentieth century. Today, some draw parallels between this practice and the work arrangements of employers like Uber, Deliveroo, and Amazon Mechanical Turk. For employers such as these, a formal or informal contract is agreed over that day’s work (such as the delivery of meals, driving of cars, or translating) each day. In the past, it was the worker-entrepreneur who organized the work of other workers. Today, this role is filled by a digital platform.

The fact that precarity is not a new problem does not mean it isn’t growing — or that nothing can be done to curtail it. The struggles of precarious workers are often surprising in their determination — and appear where we do not expect them. These struggles are often initiated without the support of labor unions, but later end up finding valuable support within them. In France, Uber drivers first organized themselves into professional associations before joining various labor unions. The same was true of meal delivery workers who unionized after a series of strikes. Precarious workers are not a threat to unionized workers, or somehow separate from the working class. Rather, they’re helping to transform the landscape of trade unionism.