Precarious work: a hidden labour reserve

Low-paid women workers on strike in Glasgow in October

The British government have flaunted high official employment figures, suggesting this is good news for workers, and the Autumn Budget was full of promises for ‘hard working families’ and ‘strivers’. But an overwhelming proportion of ‘jobs’ that have been created since the 2007/2008 financial crisis have been precarious, and this is extending to increasingly broad sections of the working class. This both contributes to poverty – around 60% of those in poverty today are in a family where at least one person works – and represents a hidden labour reserve, which shifts the balance of forces against the working class and puts downward pressure on wages. Tom Vickers reports.

While precarious work has been the norm for many people throughout capitalism’s history, for much of the twentieth century a section of workers within Britain were shielded from the worst effects because of the super-profits British capitalism plunders from other countries. Today the capitalist crisis has reached such intensity that this kind of relative privilege is afforded to fewer and fewer workers, and a growing majority are subject to varying forms and depths of precariousness. The growth of agency employment, zero- and short-hours contracts, the digital ‘platform economy’ and informal work are all part of this shift over recent decades but are not the whole story. Even technically ‘permanent’ employees have fewer legal protections than they used to against redundancy, and unionisation is at a historic low. A conditional and punitive welfare system terrorises workers into accepting poor conditions and low pay. Immigration controls strip rights from sections of workers, creating conditions for super-exploitation. The divide between ‘work’ and ‘not-work’ has become increasingly blurred, threatening to extend labour discipline to every waking hour.

The reserve army of labour, then and now

Writing in the 19th century, Marx argued that capitalism necessarily produces a relative surplus population, or ‘reserve army of labour’, as workers are displaced through technological change and increased mechanisation. Marx considered the reserve army to be so important that he described it as ‘a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production’, disciplining the active labour army through competition, forcing workers ‘to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital’, and determining overall wage levels, to the extent that, ‘the general movements of wages are exclusively the varying proportions in which the working-class is divided into active and reserve army’.

Historically, the reserve army expanded as new parts of the world and their inhabitants were drawn into the field of capitalist exploitation. Marx defines the reserve army by their availability for waged labour, ‘a mass of human material always ready for exploitation’, including the unemployed, the vulnerably employed (for example those in informal employment, who would be available for regular waged work), and the economically inactive. Defined in this way, estimates for the global labour reserve today range from around 2.4 billion to 2.9 billion, compared to 1.4 billion in regular waged employment. This is one of the great contradictions of capitalism; that while so many people’s basic needs go unmet billions of people’s creative potential is wasted. These figures do not include the spare capacity of part-time workers, who Marx also associates with the reserve army, describing them as ‘half-employed hands’. In 2018, around 26% of those in work in Britain were employed part-time, and more than 11% of these said they could not find a full-time job. 40% of women in employment in Britain work part-time and many are prevented from working full-time by a lack of affordable child care.

The vast majority of the reserve army today are resident in countries occupying an oppressed or underdeveloped position within imperialism, providing a pool of labour that contributes to poverty-level wages for workers and super-profits for multinational companies based in the imperialist countries. The WTO, World Bank and IMF predict further expansions in the global reserve army, driven by the expected replacement of more than 3 billion rural unwaged workers by 20 million modern farmers, with the remainder becoming surplus. John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues1 point out that when Britain went through a similar process of mechanisation between 1820 and 1915, half the net increase in the surplus population emigrated each year, totalling 16 million people. This was made possible through colonialism. No such opportunities exist today for the surplus populations from developing countries, and instead they create con­ditions for deepening exploitation in such countries.

The reserve army in Britain

Within Britain, precarious work has expanded at the same time as average wages have fallen. Between 2008 and 2018, real wages fell by an average of £24 per week. Analysis by the TUC suggests this is the longest period of declining pay for 200 years, last matched by the period in the early nineteenth century when Europe was ravaged by the Napoleonic wars.2 Sectors in which precarious work is particularly widespread – for example agriculture, care work, distribution, catering and retail – are also characterised by low wages. Groups disproportionately affected by precarious work – for example women, racialised minorities, and migrants – are also disproportionately low-paid.

The TUC estimates that 3.2 million workers across Britain and the north of Ireland have insecure employment, taking forms that include zero-hours contracts, agency, casual and seasonal work, and low-paid self-employment. Including all those who could lose their job at short or no notice, the figure rises to 7 million people, more than one in five workers. Agency employment has increased by 40% over the last ten years, to over 800,000 workers, and is predicted to exceed one million by 2020. Self-employment has grown from 3.23 million in 2000 to 4.81 million in 2017, representing 15% of the workforce, and including around 1.3 million accessing work via online platforms. Much of the increase in self-employment is accounted for by ‘bogus self-employment’, where workers are tied to a particular employer but are denied the protections they would be allowed if they were recognised as workers. For example, many Amazon orders are delivered by ‘self-employ­ed’ couriers who do more than 200 deliveries per day in some cases, all for the same company, yet have no contract. Other examples include Uber private hire taxi drivers, who won a legal ruling in London in 2016 that recognised them as workers, but the company continues to dispute this. A similar legal dispute brought by Deliveroo couriers in London in 2017 found in favour of the company, despite riders being expected to wear the company uniform – the IWGB union is continuing to pursue further legal action. The category of self-em­ploy­ment also includes other areas of low-paid and insecure work such as cleaning and child-minding. Such conditions fit Marx’s description of the ‘floating’ form of the reserve army, comprising workers ‘sometimes re­pelled, sometimes attracted again’, as part of the cycle of capitalist production or because of technological change. Such conditions force workers to be constantly on the lookout for additional or alternative work, representing a labour reserve for capital just as if they were unemployed. This in­creases competition between workers and creates a regular churn in the work force that makes it easier for employers to cheapen costs by recruiting new workers on worse terms, rather than having to renegotiate terms with existing employees.

Marx also identifies a ‘stagnant’ form of the reserve army, involving the maximum of labour time while minimising wage rates:

‘part of the active labour-army, but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it furnishes to capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour power. Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation.’ (Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 25)

This might include work performed within the home for piecework rates, cash-in-hand or informal work such as the many hand carwashes staffed almost exclusively by migrants, zero-hours contracts, certain kinds of ‘self-employment’, or labour within prisons and immigration detention centres. According to a survey of businesses by the Office for National Statistics in 2017, 6% of all jobs worked during the survey period, 1.8 million, were performed on a ‘zero-hours’ basis. Added to this is an unknown number of contracts where the worker was not given any hours during the survey period, and a further group of ‘short-hours’ contracts, where less than eight hours per week is guaranteed but more may be demanded, thought to apply to several hundred thousand workers. These estimates for zero-hours contracts are higher than estimates based on surveys of workers, the difference potentially explained by the same people holding more than one zero-hours contract simultaneously and workers missing from household survey data because they live in shared houses. Zero-hours contracts are more common among young people, those employed by big employers, and sectors including Administration and Support Services, where 23% of people were on zero hours contracts, accommodation and food (20%), and construction (11%). 25.3% of people on a zero-hours contract who were surveyed by the Office for National Statistics in 2017 said they wanted to work more hours.

A TUC report on the retail, logistics/deliveries and higher education sectors, published in January 2018, found many workers feeling trapped in insecure work, with fluctuating and unpredictable pay, regular extraction of unpaid labour in various forms. The net effect on labour relations is that:

‘Insecure and precarious work tilts the employment relationship heavily in favour of the employer: managers have discretion over the allocation of hours to workers, and the withdrawal of hours/contracts is used as a mechanism of control, which can lead to serious abuse.’3

This is contributing to a wider shift in the balance of forces, against the working class. By demanding total availability, often at very short notice, the capitalist extends labour discipline to every hour of the day, while a lack of guaranteed hours enables the capitalist to only pay for the absolute minimum of labour time, according to fluctuating levels of demand. The consequent lack of control for workers over their time, and the unpredictability of both hours and income, makes it difficult to plan anything, creating isolation and demoralisation.

Building resistance

Workers are resisting, and unsurprisingly the most oppressed sections of workers are amongst the most determined. In recent months, strikes have been mounted by women council workers in Glasgow, Uber drivers in Nottingham, Birmingham and Lon­don, and hospitality workers from McDonalds, TGI Fridays and Wether­spoons in several cities, coordinated with strikes by fast food workers on four continents. Most of these strikes in Britain have been small scale, and mixed in their demands and organisation, but they show a growing willingness of precarious workers to organise and resist.

As the ruling classes make the working class pay, for the costs of the capitalist crisis and for Britain’s declining international position, conditions can only get more precarious. The problems of precarious work cannot be solved solely by action within the workplace. The state creates structural conditions for precarity and so must also be resisted. This means building alliances between struggles against precarious work, struggles against welfare cuts and conditionality, and struggles against immigration controls that divide the working class. Real economic security for the working class will only be possible when workers control the means of production.      


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267, December 2018/January 2019


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