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What the Fuck Is the ‘Precariat,’ and Why Should You Care?

Hint: you're probably in it, and it sucks.

Occupy Wall Street protestors. Photo via Flickr user Paul Stein

It's not news to anyone that the economy fucking sucks for pretty much everyone in the world who isn't a Koch. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, discussions about the 99 percent, wealth inequality, and the many related economic and social issues have been prominent. Those discussions, and the widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo underpinning them, have even leaked into the institutional political realm: an NDP government in Alberta, the Scottish National Party's surge in popularity, a staunchly left-wing government in Greece, and avowed social democrat Bernie Sanders is running—and is a credible candidate!—to be the US Democratic presidential candidate.

So it might seem that there's not much new to say about economic inequality; that we need to keep talking and working for change, but we already have all the critical information.

Guy Standing would disagree.

Standing, an economist and professor at the University of London, has done extensive work on economic inequality and how to fix it (he's also a founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network). Recently he's turned his attention to the growing numbers of precariously employed workers, and he's written two books about what he calls the "precariat."

Precarious work has been a growing portion of the labour force since globalization started taking off around the 1980s, but Standing says it really took off after 2008. And with the explosive increase in people who may be able to make ends meet today but have no long-term security, he told VICE that "we've seen a breakdown in the 20th-century income-distribution system, where profits and rental income are going to the plutocracy and elite. At the top, we've got a top one percent, who the Occupy movement portrayed. It's [actually] much smaller than that. But below them, you've got a salariat, people who've got long-term employment security.... But that group is shrinking. And the precariat, that's growing instead of the old working class, consists of people who are being told they must put up with unstable, flexible labour."

The precariat is similar to the blue-collar workers of yesteryear in that they earn less than what Standing calls the salariat, but they are unique in that workers in manufacturing jobs, for instance, tended to have job security, benefits, and often union protection (which played a large part in the presence of the first two). Today's precariat usually has none of that, and spans income and education levels, from sub-minimum-wage illegal migrant work and low-wage retail or service work to highly educated but contract- and freelance-dependent industries (like, ahem, journalism). Members of the precariat also, unlike their working-class forebears, have to put in an alarming amount of work that no one considers "work" or compensates them for.

"Because they're shifting in and out of short-term positions," Standing said, "they have to apply [for jobs], they have to keep up their CV, they have to send around their CV, they have to apply and apply again, and when they do apply for jobs they're often put through hoops of going through, you know, 15 procedures, like filling in aptitude tests, and going for interviews, and then going for more interviews."

Okay, so the precariat is a huge and still growing social class that spans the globe. According to Standing, estimates put the precariat at around 40 to 45 percent of the labour force in many countries, although he says recent research on Japan has concluded that it's more than half the labour force there. But what do we do about this bullshit state of affairs?

Luckily for the hundreds of millions of precariat workers around the world, Standing has also put some thought into ameliorating the massive, multi-dimensional inequality you face. His book A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens contains 29 demands aimed at providing the precariat with both the economic stability and political power to live comfortably and participate in society. Those demands include restructuring labour unions so that they can work for contract and other precariat workers; regulating flexible labour; ending means-testing for benefits; and reforming migration policies that are currently class-based.

One central demand Standing makes is for the establishment of a universal basic income. Having the Canadian government provide all citizens (or all residents regardless of citizenship status, if you want to get really radical) would allow people to live without fear of things like starvation and homelessness, and would actually, according to research done on the subject, lead to low-income people working more.

The current employment insurance system in Canada, which pays a portion of a person's last salary but ends payments once they've found work paying 20 percent more than their benefits, disincentivizes people from accepting work that might be temporary or with unstable hours. Getting a meager yet reliable amount from the government makes far more sense than taking a job whose hours you can't depend on—especially when you know that should your job end, it will be a month or more before you see any new benefit money coming in.

"In effect," said Standing, "the system for the precariat has a huge disincentive for people taking low-wage jobs and punishes them for doing so. That is thoroughly unfair."

In spite of the obvious unrest spanning the globe, most of the mainstream political parties worldwide have failed to address these issues in any meaningful way. "They're still opting to try to appeal to the concept of the middle class and are failing to understand the precariat," Standing said when VICE spoke to him a week ago, and that proved eerily prescient this week, when Justin Trudeau announced a tax break for the middle class.

There is still no serious discussion among the major parties in Canada of issues pertaining to the millions of part-time and "flexible" workers, and certainly no recognition that those workers form a distinct social class with distinct needs. However, the global shift toward recognizing economic inequality offers some hope for change. Whether mainstream parties begin to address precariat concerns or fringe parties attract unheard-of numbers of votes—as in Greece and, arguably, in Alberta—the centre, be it of the political spectrum or power, seems unlikely to hold.

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