Friday, 1 April 2011

Precarious working...

Over the past couple of weeks a friend of mine, Grace Harrison, and her friend Rachel Cloughton, have been running an art project in a reclaimed arts space called Alternative Strategies. For two weeks there have been lively debates, discussions, screenings, and workshops around the subject of self-organised learning:

The project intends to expose the many alternative educational platforms active in the city, bringing together groups and individuals with art as its departure point.

Many local arts groups and organisations have been involved in the discussions and workshops, and the subject of how we can educate ourselves seems now more pertinent than ever in a month when many universities have announced that they will charge the maximum capped fee of £9,000 a year for their courses.

I went along one night this week for the discussion on 'precarious working'. Precarious working is usually defined as the kind of work that is by nature insecure (it comes without a permanent contract or rights), poorly paid, comes without benefits, gifts its labourers no rights, and cannot financially support a household. Examples of precarious working can include work under zero-hours contracts, fixed-term contracts, and enforced self-employment. I was interested in this because I define myself as a precarious worker: although I'm in employment, I don't have a permanent employment contract, and haven't had one for a few years.

Precarious working can benefit the worker, as it gives her greater autonomy. But it's more likely to benefit the employer, as it means their workers have few or no employment rights - for example, right to redundancy payouts or maternity or sickness benefits, and little protection from stress or harassment at work. The effect of precarious working upon the worker is to give her no security, no 'safety net' - many precarious workers will force themselves to go into work when they're really not fit to work, because they won't get sick pay and can't afford to take the day off - and to make her feel isolated and alone. It's cheaper and easier for employers to offer this kind of work; it means less responsibility for them, and - if you want to be a cynic - it often means they can treat their employees poorly, and minimise the risk of being sued under employment law.

It was an enlightening discussion, and the people who participated were a diverse bunch. Less did we discuss the benefits of 'precarious working' (I think we were all agreed that precarious working is generally pretty lame), than its existence being a symptom of a larger problem.

There's a lot wrong with public sector cuts, and if I wanted to I could type about it all day; but I'll leave that for now, and come back to it another time.... needless to say, though, that one of the effects of the cuts has been to force millions out of work. Mass unemployment has a depressing impact on the labour market in any system. The effect of it is that those who want to work will gladly do it beneath their level of skill, experience and qualification, for less money than their skills demand, and sometimes for free. One of Tuesday's attendees summed it up well by saying: "What does an unemployed academic do? He just goes away and works harder somewhere else."

The drive to work isn't confined to academia, though. Lots of us will go on working regardless of the expectation to be paid for it. Writers, for example - yes, you lot, writers, I've seen your 39p royalty cheques - artists, musicians, and newly-graduated students who need experience. If we're not 'working', we're 'preparing for work' by training, studying, or doing an internship - and yet the points at which people are reimbursed for their efforts become rarer and rarer.

So what can we do? One of the conclusions of the discussion was that the concept of a union for precarious workers could be problematic. Many of the large unions that exist have histories in manufacturing, or in certain industries and sectors. If precarious workers are in a union at all - and many only join when they feel their job is in danger - it is in one aligned to their sector. It might be that there's little awareness amongst precarious workers that they have more in common with other precarious workers than more securely employed workers in their own sector; and there isn't an existing union specifically for precarious workers. Yet all were agreed that one of the effects of precarious working is to make the employee feel alone. We wondered whether precarious workers would feel able to band together in their places of work, to collectivise their resources and gain strength in unity. A lot of those attending were left with a lot of food for thought about how precarious workers could do this in their workplaces.

Someone told a heartening story about mill-workers during the industrial revolution. The term 'cottage industry' comes not from a person owning their own business and working for himself, but from people who were forced to work at home for the local millowner. Such workers had to pay to borrow looms from the factory owner, and often weren't paid for their work until it suited the factory owner. Angry homeworkers banded together with other angry homeworkers to hire many looms, and held them to ransom until the masters paid. Or, if they had hammers, they smashed them up.

I should state, by the way, that I do not agree that smashing machines with hammers is a good solution to the problem of precarious working. We are no longer in the 1800s, and I like machines, especially laptops. It is merely an illuminating tale about the possibility of strength through collectivisation.

Again, I should thank Grace for all the work she did at Alternative Strategies, and to Art In Unusual Spaces in Leeds. They have supported a lot of really interesting exhibitions in Leeds recently.

Currently reading

The Shadow of a Smile Kachi A. Ozumba
They Knew Mr Knight Dorothy Whipple

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