At the symposium on Precarious Work and the Living Wage in our Communities at AUT today Guy Standing – the author of the 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class – talked about the way our labour markets have changed over the last few decades and the impact on workers.
The Precariat refers to the class of workers who have no secure work. For some – well qualified professionals for example – contract work suits them, they can shift easily between well-paid projects – although apparently good management advice recommends that these workers devote at least 15% of their time to learning new skills to ensure they are attractive to their ‘market’. He calls this the ‘commodification’ of workers.
Standing makes a distinction between them and other types of workers. He notes that with increased globalisation and an international trend to force wages down more and more workers in low paid work are finding their work is becoming increasingly insecure.
In New Zealand we see it in many ways. In reduced hours of work. Or spasmodic work. Or workers being permanently on-call. Or an insistence that workers become ‘self –employed’ and are subcontracted to work in their jobs – which is becoming a worrying trend in the home care sector for example – where the workers are responsible for their own health and safety, equipment and payment of taxes and ACC.
A classic example is the parliamentary cleaners. Mainly women workers of Pacific Island origin, most of these night shift staff have been trusted to work in parliament for years but are still on pay-rates that are just above the minimum wage. The contract that their employer holds with Parliamentary Services is fiercely negotiated to keep costs down and over time these cleaners have either had their hours reduced or their workloads increased. As one woman noted in the NZ Herald there are now three cleaners responsible for the work that used to be done by six.
Standing calls precarious workers ‘denizens’ not citizens. Their unsociable work hours and the requirement for them to work all sorts of hours to provide a decent standard of living are isolating. They rarely have access to collective agencies or rights. And the insistence that they are individuals – selling their labour for as much as they can get – means they have no ‘future shadow.’
Work relationships are transitory so there is no need to invest in them. This has massive negative impacts in terms of how people participate in society and their levels of reciprocity. Basically it can break down the social capital in communities – the ‘glue’ that holds people together.
Participation in our communities is a key strand for the Living Wage campaign too. The definition adopted by Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand is ‘…the income necessary to provide workers with the basic necessities of life. A living wage will enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.’
After a lot of research economists have determined the hourly rate that would allow a family of two adults (one working full time and the other part time) and two children to be $18.40 per hour.
We must lift New Zealand families out of poverty and into a decent standard of living. This is a sensible way to do it.