From Proletariat to Precariat

Guy Standing’s book “The Precariat – a new dangerous class”, presents a brilliant and incisive account of how precarious work has become the new normal in the workforce. However, after reading it I was left with the feeling that today’s global labour market is a brutish, cold and indifferent place.

In the context of labour market, the concept of “precariousness” is usually used in contrast to the “standard employment relationship” which underpins the major forms of legislated employment protections enjoyed in Canada. Proletariat is an outmoded Marxist terminology that was used to describe working class of wage earners, especially those who earn their living by manual labor or who are dependent on daily or casual employment to make a living. Precariat is a newly emerging sub-class of Proletariat except without organized labour power.

Precarious work is loosely described as contingent, vulnerable, non-standard, atypical and fragmented work. Although these terms do not necessarily mean the same thing, the term “precarious work” is use here to capture certain features of job insecurity. These features of insecurity are often said to include low wages, lack of benefits, an atypical employment contract with a greater risk of illness and injury.

To bring home this issue, we have witnessed over a relatively brief period of time, more than fifty percent of the Ontario’s labour force degenerated in this new proletarian sub-category of workers befitting the term “precariats”. They are in real terms not proletariats because they have little or no labour power to mobilize or negotiate with capital; therefore they are left to teeter on the brink of relative poverty. Recent research done by McMaster University and United Way tell us that barely fifty present of people employed in GTA and Hamilton areas have permanent full- time jobs that provide benefits and some kind of job security. The rest of the workforce is working in part time, in various precarious work arrangements including on demand and temporary situation.

Although this state of affair does not seem alarming enough to warrant much attention from Ontarians;  if current trends continue, it will most certainly have deleterious effects on the economic health and social well-being of our families and communities. On the personal level, the stress and anxieties associated with being precariously employed are likely to undermine the mental health of a large swath of workers; engendering feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt and a host of other social angst.

Some social commentators tell us that these work conditions are just temporary spin-offs of economic globalization; others say they are tell-tales of economic injustice. What is certain, is that average income of workers is falling like a meteor in the night sky, while corporate profits have been rising like the sun in the eastern sky. But where is the government in all of this? Have they traded their role as fairness regulator for that of indifferent by-stander? Where are the trade unions? I know they have become a tooth-less jaw, but have they lost their voices as well? Who is to protect the rights of the most vulnerable in the new labour market? Where are the public policy safeguards against the callous disregard for health and safety, human rights and dignity? With the precipitous decline in unionization, archaic labour laws and an evidently pro-employer policy oriented government posture, precariats are left without a friend in court.

More needs to be done to preserve our workforce from economic insecurities, human capital degradation and the de-skilling effects of precarious employment. In this regard governments have been glacial in their policy response to challenges relating to labour market changes; especially when compare to policy initiative aim at supporting and subsidizing businesses often at the expense of taxpayers. We are constantly reminded that Canadian workforce is the country’s most valuable asset. How does this statement stock up with current realities? This assertion is increasingly being tested for its validity, if not its currency, as this new economic environment evolves.

We need therefore a new employer/employee psychological compact, not just a re-balancing of relations in favour of employees, but one that is equitable. This would require firstly, a revolution in the way we think and feel about how we treat with each other as human beings. Lets’ start with commonsense and compassion.


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