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Session Overview
RS11_05: (De)Constructing precariousness: Theoretical and policy considerations
Thursday, 22/Aug/2019:
11:00am - 12:30pm

Session Chair: Annalisa Murgia, University of Milan
Session Chair: Renato Miguel Carmo, Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL)
Location: UP.3.212
University of Manchester Building: University Place, Third Floor Oxford Road

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The Precarious Concept of Precarity

Joseph Choonara

University of Leicester, United Kingdom

There has been an extraordinary rise in discussion of precarity in Anglophone academia. This paper traces the roots of precarity as a concept, emerging out of an earlier French sociological discourse, and then permeating through radical networks, informed by Italian autonomism, before re-emerging in the sociological writings of figures such as Guy Standing or Arne Kalleberg, whose main focus is precarity in employment. Precarity in this sense is viewed as a loss of guarantees of ongoing employment that were seen as characteristic of post-war job market in some advanced capitalist countries. The discourse of precarity assumes that this stability of employment has been replaced by a new contingency. However, it can be shown that, despite the far-reaching claims of the literature, precarity in employment is not especially widespread in the UK labour force. Here temporary employment is far from the norm and employment tenure remains extremely stable. This surprising result can be best explained by radical strands of political economy, particularly those rooted in Marxism. In this view, capital does not simply hire and fire labour power, it is also concerned with how can be retained and how it is reproduced in the long run, leading to contradictory imperatives. The resonance of the narrative of precarity nonetheless reflects a long “retreat from class” and the insecurities and manufactured uncertainties present in working life today.

One Council, Two Worlds: Diversity In Staff Experiences of Local Authority Restructuring

Laura Watt, Jill Rubery

University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Since 2010, as part of the austerity programme, UK local council budgets have been dramatically reduced. To cope, councils have tried to make the delivery of services more efficient through (amongst other means) staffing restructures and redundancies.

As demands for further savings continue, local government employees endure ongoing uncertainty around their jobs. This uncertainty goes beyond the risk of redundancy; those who retain their jobs must compensate for those ‘let go’ which can mean new and increased responsibilities, longer work days, and the pressure of delivering services with less expertise.

So how are local government employees managing this type of insecurity? And what effect does it have on other aspects of their life such as family and emotional wellbeing? This presentation draws on findings from a case study of a Greater Manchester authority which has undergone huge staff changes. Based upon semi-structured interviews with over thirty employees, it discusses how the remaining workforce manage new levels of precariousness at work.

Our findings show massive diversity in how staff experience restructuring. Some welcome a smaller workforce, regarding redundancies as a necessary way of removing ‘dead wood’ and thus reducing waste. Others, typically social workers, are at breaking point, unable to cope with a ‘cheaper’ and so less experienced workforce.

We explore possible explanations for these variations in experience, including the different effects restructures have on ‘back office’ versus ‘front line’ employees, the age and expertise of employees and how long they have been at the council. As a general point, one should not make generalisations about the effects of restructuring on employees; the experiences of those working even for the same council can be worlds apart.

Appropriating and Performing – Student-Migrant-Workers' Strategies of Countering Precarization

Olivia Penelope Maury

University of Helsinki, Finland

Research on precarization and precariousness is gaining width, reaching beyond a mere conceptualization of precarity as the counterpart to standard forms of employment. More broadly, precarization involves the processes of losing the grip over the future. The paper maps the precarious experiences of student-migrant-workers shaped in the intersection between the flexible and ‘hybrid’ (Armano & Murgia 2017) work settings they are involved in and the precarizing effects of the global border regime. The paper asks what strategies student-migrant-workers develop in order to subjectively counter the immediate effects of precarization.

The paper is based on a data consisting of in-depth interviews (N=33) with migrants holding a student-visa in Finland conducted in 2017-2018 with focus on the effects of the one-year student visa and its associated work limitations (25h/week) and requirements of sufficient means of subsistence (6720 €/year). The paper brings forth two strategies of handling the precarious situation emerging in the data; appropriating the tools of migration administration and performing the flexible student-migrant-worker in order to secure a successful visa-renewal. The paper suggests that these strategies are constitutive elements of the production of subjectivity of the student-migrant-worker, as the subjective drive to actively shape one’s own life, including one’s education and work aims, is confronted by the constraints of the Postfordist production system and the border regime, hence, despite resistance, resulting in the production of flexible labour-force to capitalize upon The paper contributes to the analysis of the multiplication of precarious subjectivities emerging in the context of contemporary Postfordist capitalism.

Precariousness In Relation: Collective Sense-Making As Cruel Optimism?

Kendra Briken1, Eleanor Kirk2

1University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom; 2University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

Our paper contributes to the debates around precariousness and its connected collaborative and affective relations (Neilson/Rossiter 2003). Distinguishing precariousness as relational, shared and ‘being-with’ with others, and precarity, the social positioning in regards to material resources (Butler 2004), we were interested in how workers themselves perceive what is seen as precarious work and life. How (if so) are processes of ‘othering’ constructed in workers’ narratives? What is their understanding of precarity?

Our aim was to overcome the reproduction of the individualizing moment engrained into neoliberal politics. We were interested in the collective sense-making of precarity, the shared understanding, and the relational lines of precariousness. Choosing group discussions within homogenous sectoral groupings (e.g. retail, logistics), reflects the partisan nature of our research, designed to create space for reflection on struggles and strategies, to develop ideas on what shared grievances and aspirations were. Local examples of action focussed the discussion on if and how the participants could similarly organise and act.

Our preliminary findings show that the lack of control over time in terms of when and how long to work, when and if being paid, in essence experiences of arbitrary dismissal and deactivation was the defining characteristic of precarity. Narratives included how workers constructed ‘others’ seen as more or less vulnerable. We experienced a strong sense of affective relations built in, around, and beyond work, in everyday life. Whether this is due to the social desirability in the group setting, justifying the meaning of work against the devaluating notion of precariousness, or if this is a sign of cruel optimism (Berlant 2011), is what the paper will also discuss with regards to collective organising.

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