The term ‘precariat’ first appeared in the 1980s and was used by French sociologists. The term was derived from French and is a combination of the words précaire [‘insecure’] and prolétariat [‘proletariat’].

The term, however, was first popularised by Guy Standing, a British economist and a professor of the University of London. In this article, I would like to focus on his book A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. At the outset, it should be emphasized that the book was written from the left-wing perspective. For example, the author in many places supports the idea of treating immigrants as rightful members of society with the right to stable employment. Nevertheless, the position is worth reading because Standing brilliantly describes social pathologies created by modern capitalism and presents interesting solutions to overcome them.

The precariat consists of people who live off precarious jobs that are intertwined with periods of unemployment. As a rule, they experience uncertainty of the access to housing and public resources.

The precariat lacks de facto all of the work-related security that the old working class once fought for. Job instability is a permanent feature of global capitalism. That is because multinational capital demands flexible employment and can achieve it in any part of the world.

Standing states that the precariat is not a homogeneous class; he divides it into the complaining and the smiling, the latter of which accept their position. The first group consists of people expelled from working-class communities and families. Their parents and grandparents were labourers, and their position entailed skill and respect. That is why the complaining usually long for the past and wonder why life cannot be like it used to be. This group consists mostly of immigrants, ethnic minorities and asylum seekers. They compare their current situation to their experiences of ‘home’ or a previous, lost world.

There is also a third, rapidly growing variety of the precariat. It consists of educated people who have been promised a bright career based on personal development. These people are not working in the jobs they wanted to do and have little chance of working there in the future.

One of the factors contributing to the emergence of the precariat is the global restructuring of employment. For example, between 2008 and 2010, US-based companies cut 2.9 million jobs in that country and hired 2.4 million people abroad. In 2012, as many as 1/5 of Japanese production took place outside Japan. In the case of electronics, it was 30%, and in the case of cars, more than half. Currently, the migration of people is becoming global; it is, in principle, circular and short-term migration, rarely permanent. On the other hand, the OECD countries opted for a ‘rentier’ economy, attracting foreign capital through tax breaks. For example, in 2012 the income of corporations in relation to the total national income reached as much as 13.6%. However, this has not led to an increase in domestic investment or employment.

The beginning of the 21st century saw a sharp increase in poverty and insecurity. In the EU countries, at the beginning of the new century, the number of people at risk of poverty increased to ¼ of the population in 2011, i.e. 120 million. Thanks to social transfers, this ratio has been reduced to 17%. By people ‘at risk of poverty’ we mean people earning less than 60% of the average disposable income, people working for less than 20% of the statutory working week and people living in conditions of ‘deep material deprivation’, unable to meet at least 4 out of 9 basic needs (paying rent, a weekly vacation once a year, a car, a washing machine or a daily nutritious meal). The OECD countries are characterized by a wide social stratification. Thus, while most countries stagnated, stock markets continued to flourish. In 2012, the average value of shares increased by 25%. Additionally, the salaries and allowances paid to financiers also increased.

While states are focusing on helping banks and corporations, their citizens’ personal debt is increasing. One of the effects of this state of affairs is the development of payday loans, which push the precariat into even greater uncertainty. The largest British company that lends payday loans, Wonga, swears on its website that it only lends money to customers with a high margin of safety. In fact, however, in 2011 the company lost £ 76.8 (a sum equivalent to 41% of Wonga’s annual revenue) as numerous loans proved impossible to be paid off.

It should be emphasized that the precariat consists to a large extent of educated people. However, many graduates are not fully aware of what their qualifications are. For example, in 2012 in the USA, almost half of college graduates worked in places where their degrees were unnecessary. A similar phenomenon is taking place in Europe. In Italy, only 77% of university graduates find any job in the year after graduation (the European average is 82%), but they are usually overqualified for that job. The growing frustration caused by this is becoming a global issue.

In OECD countries, so-called ‘jobless jobs’ are proliferating, discouraging workers from sticking to this type of employment. While the true size of the precariat remains a mystery, it is possible to estimate the number of unstable jobs in many countries. For example, in 2011 in Poland 27% of adult workers, and 65% of those under 30, were employed under contracts for which the provisions of the Labour Code usually do not apply.

In addition, zero-hour contracts have become the norm. They oblige companies to pay only for the working hours commissioned from the employee. For example, in Great Britain between 2005 and 2012 the number of such contracts increased fourfold. Another social pathology are employment agencies and labour offices. Global players such as Adecco, Manpower and Randstad send hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to work every day. Those workers often end up with zero-hour contracts.

Another phenomenon that should be associated with the precariat is people leaving their career paths. A survey conducted by Berlin’s Trendence Institute in 2013 showed that the majority of business graduates, who are usually seen as highly employable, worry about their careers. 92% of them in Greece, 89% in Spain, 88% in Italy, 66% in Great Britain, 54% in France and 42% in Germany.

The reason for this is the widespread transfer of work abroad, i.e. offshoring. This phenomenon continues to grow, increasing job insecurity and disrupting career opportunities or social advancement. An example of this is the offshoring of high-paying tasks in the field of accounting, financial analysis and computer programming. This gives rise to a kind of professional segregation – elites and the salariat in rich countries, and next to them, representatives of exported middle-ranking professions.

It should be emphasized that the problem of professional uncertainty also affects people employed in corporations in managerial positions. The average time of performing executive functions is constantly decreasing, and the group of temporary managers is growing. In the past, mainstream economic literature viewed managers as a key figure in 20th century capitalism. Today, however, management functions are outsourced. The class structure is also recreated within the managerial division; indeed, there is the elite, the proficians, the salariat and the precariat. The elite receives huge sums of money for their work. Whereas people who might descend into the precariat any day are struggling to stay in business.

There are many dangers associated with this trend. Temporary managers are employed for several months and are not responsible for the long-term consequences of their decisions. They are pressured to be ruthless. Companies often hire them to make unpopular changes and fire loyal employees.

The key to understanding the restructuring of social income is the disappearance of non-wage support that gave employees some security. However, these benefits are being received by the salariat, while the groups at the bottom of the social ladder are gradually losing them. A perfect example is Detroit, a city that is considered the epitome of the American dream and was the birthplace of industrial citizenship. But as the globalization deindustrialized cities like Detroit, the resulting loss of jobs meant that a growing percentage of labour costs would go into benefits for former employees. When the city filed for bankruptcy in July 2013, its mayor said it would seek cuts in healthcare and retirement benefits. The events of Detroit unfortunately are analogous to former industrial areas in many countries.

Standing notes that the sources of the current situation lie in the 1980s, when both liberal and social-democratic governments abandoned the solidarity-based foundations of the welfare system. This is perfectly captured in Margaret Thatcher’s battle cry, ‘There is no such thing as society’. Social policy has been dominated by the idea that it should target the poor. It was argued that various types of benefits should go only to them. Such thinking leads to dividing society into those who are entitled to those benefits and those who are not.

I take the position that there is a contradiction between guaranteeing everyone the right to live in dignity and the view that people in need should conform to the norms of behaviour established by the state. Interestingly, those who believed in limiting the role of the state were the first to demand more state regulation for those in need. Unfortunately, these regulations inevitably create poverty traps – situations in which many people have lost benefits in excess of the income they could get from the low-paid jobs available to them. Those traps inevitably led to an increase in the number of rules the breaking of which would result in losing the benefits, and to introducing penalties to combat two types of temptations: dismissing low-paying jobs and hiding low income so as not to lose benefits.

Politicians have often presented this problem as a conflict between ‘the hardworking us’ and ‘them’ – a lazy bunch of parasites that feeds on benefits paid for by ‘us’. For example, in a speech given in June 2012, David Cameron listed seventeen ideas for welfare reform aimed at saving the budget £ 10 billion. He began his reflections on this with the classic distinction between ‘those who work hard and do the right thing’ and those who receive benefits. He did not mention, however, that as many as 60% of people receiving benefits simultaneously have jobs and most likely put a lot of effort into living with a low salary.

‘If you are a single parent living outside London – if you have four children and you’re renting a house on housing benefit – then you can claim almost £25,000 a year. That is more than the average take-home pay of a farm worker and nursery nurse put together’., Cameron explained. However, he did not demand an increase of the wages of these professions.

Interestingly, that manipulation of public opinion was successful. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey by NatCen Social Research, most people believe that most unemployed people ‘could find a job if they wanted one’ and that benefits for unemployed people are ‘too high and discourage them from finding jobs’.

Modern utilitarianism demonizes youths as well. In the aforementioned 2012 speech, Cameron described an image of young people living on housing allowances. He took the position that housing benefit should be denied to anyone under the age of 25 because they had not yet contributed to society.

However, the reality looks different – millions of young people cannot ‘save up to move out’ because they belong to the precariat, they have jobs only sporadically and receive benefits irregularly. At the moment, young people are experiencing the highest unemployment and the most precarious employment. In 1990, youths were 50% more likely to be unemployed than others; in 2013, they were already three times more likely to be unemployed than others.

In his reflections, Standing comes to the conclusion that modern society needs a movement that opposes the Global Transformation. He listed five principles of justice:

1) The principle of difference in the area of security – a policy is socially just only when it strengthens the security of the most vulnerable groups in society.

2) The anti-paternalist principle – a policy is socially just only when it does not impose on selected groups such control that is not imposed on the majority of free groups in society. Neoliberals believe in the free market, but at the same time they put a lot of effort into building a strict regulatory framework to control the behaviour of the precariat.

3) The principle of rights before charity – a policy is socially just only when it strengthens laws and does not increase the discretionary power of those who deal with citizens’ affairs. Charity work is welcome, but at the same time it has to be marginal.

4) The principle of decent work – a policy is just only when it promotes the ability to undertake such work that gives the feeling of dignity and offers various types of rewards. It requires respect for all types of work.

5) The principle of ecological limitation – a policy is socially fair only when it does not cause ecologically harmful externalities. It is unacceptable to create jobs that increase pollution.

However, after presenting the overall program, the author moved on to the details. He took the opinion that the key to improving the fate of the precariat is recognition and appreciation of all forms of work, not only the one that is paid for. It is unacceptable that people are expected to perform activities related to paid work in their spare time. The contemporary policy, on the other hand, is characterized by making as many jobs as possible, no matter how pointless and degrading activities they are related with. There should also be incentives to move on from complicated recruitment procedures. Software used to analyse applications must comply with ethical codes. It should be kept in mind that looking for work takes a lot of work. Automatic filters, on the other hand, filter out many qualified candidates before any real person proceeds to select among those who remain. And the selection is only the first step. In the case of positions meant for university graduates, it is typical for them to go through many time-consuming stages and stressful interviews and tests.

Another element of the program should be regulation of flexible employment. For example, internships, which for many are the beginning of precarious employment, should be regulated. Additionally, zero-hour contracts should be abolished. An employee under this type of contract is in a gray area, they are not earning, but they are also not receiving any benefits. It is a disaster that a large number of agreements of this sort is convenient for governments because such agreements lower the unemployment statistics.

Undoubtedly, the precariat needs a voice in the form of various types of communities and professional associations. In the neoliberal model, the precariat is expected not to have agency. The state treats them as people who need to be assessed, reformed, sanctioned, pushed, trained, taught how to be ‘more responsible’, etc. Moreover, everything must be done to eliminate poverty traps and the so-called precarity traps. Governments today discourage precarious workers from taking up jobs and then present them as ‘lazy’ and as ‘idlers’. At the same time, the average tax rate as well as marginal tax rate for high earners as well as for middle earners were reduced, as it was argued that these groups needed more motivation to work, save and invest. At the same time, social benefits were transformed into a system based primarily on checking how rich or poor someone is.

Even before the age of globalization, social insurance was the pillar of all social security systems in Europe. Under these systems, those who were at low risk of experiencing unfortunate events (unemployment, accidents, etc.) subsidized those who were at high risk of that. Those systems worked fairly well, but only as long as most people paid their contributions. However, as labour markets became more flexible, the number of people entitled to full benefits decreased due to intervals in paying social insurance contributions. Social security mechanisms got into trouble when the salariat realised their income allowed them to exit the system. Therefore, soon afterwards, benefits were to be provided only to people in need of financial support. But here lies a problem: how to measure poverty, how to determine who is poor? If an unemployed person receives £100 a week as benefits for unemployed people and then goes to work in a low-paid part-time job (that is also worth £100 a week) and loses the benefits, then the profit from taking up the job is zero. This situation is an example of a poverty trap and should not happen.

Another element of the program should be education reform. Nowadays, education is aimed primarily at preparing people to be employees. It is often forgotten that education is not only a means of ‘powering business’, but also a kind of path to wisdom, a means of stimulating curiosity and creative thinking. Not everyone can or wants to get a job in the City of London, society also needs philosophers, poets, archaeologists and historians. The globalization of education detracts from the traditions of great education centres. Each university places a slightly different level of emphasis on each subject and on various forms of teaching. Nowadays, however, curricula are becoming more and more uniform.

Standing advocates for a universal basic income. Its amount should be sufficient for survival, but not for complete safety. The ethical argument for this type of solution is that the wealth of each member of society is primarily the result our ancestors’ efforts. However, we do not know exactly ancestors exactly made a greater or lesser contribution to this wealth. Perhaps some of them suffered unjustly and could not pass on wealth to their descendants. Then there is the economic argument: social security systems could function quite well if the majority contributed to the insurance fund and if people were faced with an equal likelihood of an accident. Nowadays, however, individualism and flexibility are making the results increasingly uneven. Part of the labour force is unable to pay sufficient contributions.

Is universal basic income financeable at all? Yes, but only if the money meant for subsidies, tax credits and resource-based benefits gets reallocated. Additionally, a universal basic income could generate more tax revenues as it would induce more employees to shift from the grey area into the tax system.

There is no reason to believe that a universal basic income would make people lazy. Most people will not be satisfied with it, as many psychological studies and public opinion surveys show. On the other hand, it’s the liberal practice of granting income-related benefits that seems to be an incentive not to take up a job. This is because transitioning from receiving benefits to working in a low-paid job is irrational.

There is no doubt that the improvement of the difficult situation of the precariat should be one of the basic goals of the National Radical Camp. Liberal propaganda has succeeded also in Poland. Each of us has undoubtedly encountered the opinion that only lazy people are affected by problems such as unemployment and homelessness. The reality, however, is much more complicated. This is because nobody can be expected to take up a low-paid job or a job one is overqualified for. It is imperative that the legislation provides every Pole with the possibility of stable employment. It is also worth to consider the idea of a universal basic income. There are numerous arguments for the possibility of this solution proving useful in practice.

Małgorzata Jarosz

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