The New Unionists of the late 19th century built trade unions as we know them by organizing the proletariat – the working class of the day. Similarly, today’s new unionists are beginning to organize the precariat – workers without security. To say this latter group represents the most rapidly growing sector in society entirely misses the point. The labour force has fundamentally changed. And according to many labour analysts, the real jolt is still to come:

“Most of the full-time jobs lost in this recession won’t come back. Most of the employees laid off in the past year won’t find permanent work. When the statistics catch up to the reality, people will be forced to confront the new normal.” [i]

Let’s start by looking at some facts and figures. Beware—this may become depressing! Please feel free to skip ahead at any point.

In 2004, the International Labour Organisation (ILO ) carried out the first ever global study of economic security levels. “An Economic Security Index (ESI) has been calculated for over 90 countries (covering 86% of the world’s population). …The report shows that about 73% of all workers live in circumstances of economic insecurity…”[ii]

And that was four years before the economic crisis!

To many labour analysts’ surprise, the rise of the precariat has been an international process. Let’s look at a few of the richer countries first:

In the USA: “One out of three workers worry about their own job security…. Only half are working the number of hours they want to work.”[iii]

In Japan: “The proportion of nonregular workers in the total labor force doubled to 33 percent in 2006 from 15 percent in 1984.” [iv]

In the UK: “51% of UK workers claim their career is the biggest worry for 2009, with more than 80% reporting job insecurity.[v]

In Canada: “37 per cent of work is part-time, short-term or casual.” [vi]

In Europe, almost half of young people are now on temporary contracts[vii]. As for Western Europe: “…between a quarter and a third of the labor force now works under temporary and/or part-time contracts, with peaks in UK, Holland, Spain and Italy.” [viii]

Even good old Sweden is feeling the rot: “Among employed persons who are not organized in a trade union the share of those temporary (sic) employed is 27 per cent. …100,000 more women than men have precarious employment and therefore run a great risk of becoming unemployed due to the crisis.” [ix]

Meanwhile, down in Australia: “42% consider their job as less secure than it was this time in 2008.” [x]

However, the growth of the precariat is certainly not restricted to OECD nations. Just this month the ILO and the World Trade Organisation published a joint report showing that 60% of the 2.7 billion workers in poor and middle income countries are ‘informal’[xi]. By this, they mean: “…unreported, often temporary employment in domestic service, construction sites, transport, small-scale peddling, seasonal farm labor and so forth, with variable earnings and without significant guarantees of minimum wage, workplace health and safety or other labor standards.”[xii] Furthermore, the data suggests a huge pay differential between precarious workers and the rest: “…(the figures) suggest that informal-sector workers earn about half as much money as formal-sector workers.”[xiii]

An earlier ILO report had found widespread insecurity in the developing world: “…in urban areas of Brazil, 51% of all households said they did not have enough income to cover their healthcare need. In Ghana the urban figure was similar, the rural was 62%; in Russia, the corresponding figures were 47% and 58%. … in Tanzania only 4% of men and women think their financial situation in old age would be good. In Ghana and South Africa, only one in every five expects it to be good. In Ethiopia, two-thirds of young and middle-aged people are worried about having money for their old age. The situation in Eastern Europe is equally bad. In Ukraine, four out of every five people expect their income to be inadequate in old age. And in China, only 6% of young and middle-aged people think their income security in old age would be reasonably good.” [xiv]

In South Korea: “…by early in the 21st century, 60 per cent of all workers (and 70 per cent of women) were in insecure casual jobs…”

In South Africa: “…over a quarter of the employed could be classified as in the precariat…” [xv]

In India: “Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) data suggests that employment through contractors constitute 23.08% of total organized workforce in 2003 compared to 11.03% in 1992.” [xvi]

“…The Russian Federation, Ukraine and other countries of eastern Europe continue to operate with enormous numbers of workers on unpaid or partially-paid ‘leave’, with very little prospect of recall to paid employment. One in four workers in Ukrainian industry is on unpaid leave at any one time, or effectively in disguised unemployment.” [xvii]

With all this we have seen a huge rise shift towards temp agencies: “…Adecco, with 700,000 on its books, is one of the world’s biggest private employers. Pasona… was sending a quarter of a million workers out to firms every day by 2007.” [xviii]

And let’s not forget that three billion of us, half of the earth’s population, live in the rural Third World, where the major occupation remains tilling the soil. What with global warming and a food crisis, you don’t get much more precarious than that.[xix]

Moving right along

It might be fair to say that the data above, taken together, creates a general overstatement. But sometimes we need a bit of volume and treble to make us sit up and pay attention. It is time we admitted that most of us have failed to grasp both the prevalence and significance of precarity at work.

Meanwhile, young people in Italy, Spain and France have been reporting sightings of a character known as San Precario. He/she is the patron saint of the precariat. Apparently San Precario has appeared to believers at union rallies, supermarket openings, film festivals, temp agencies, and even on the catwalks of Milan Fashion week. There can be little doubt as to San Precario’s divinity; as well being able to change gender, he/she has the power to appear in several locations at once (especially on May Day).

In a way, it is not surprising that San Precario should manifest to young workers first. Verily, they have copped it hardest. The 2005 invitation to EuroMayDay reads like the launch of a new manifesto:

“So the proletariat eclipsed the petit bourgeoisie as producers and wealth creators, and now the precariat threatens to do the same to the proletarians. …While the traditional centralized industrial proletariat continues to exist, it plays an increasingly lesser role in the overall forces of production, while the role of the contingent, precarious worker continues to increase.” [xx]

The end of “labourism”

With the luxury of hindsight, we can see that certain organisations have been trying to wrestle with this problem for many years. The trouble was, they didn’t have a shared vocabulary. Rather, they had a number of words and new phenomena to juggle, and they couldn’t see the wood for the trees. The ILO, for instance, has had ‘atypical work’ on its agenda for years. Together with NGOs, they have also tried a number of strategies to address the ‘informal sector’. In the meantime, unions have experimented with various structures to organize ‘freelancers’, ‘temps’, ‘casuals’ and ‘part-timers’. Alter-globalists have protested against ‘McJobs”. Japan has lamented the rise of ‘freeters’. Academics have fenced over “post-Fordist” production, with some proclaiming the advent of ‘post-industrial’ society. And workers themselves have become painfully familiar with terms like ‘under-employment’, ‘short term contracts’ and (above all else) ‘flexibility’. It is no wonder that depression, stress and anxiety are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries.

Seeing all this as part of a single phenomenon – the end of labourism – is an option which many of us might not like to consider. We have assumed that there is a ‘typical’ mode of working – a template from which we are slowly departing. The venerable Eurofound described this standard as: “full-time, regular, open-ended employment with a single employer over a long time span. …with standard working hours guaranteeing a regular income and, via social security systems geared towards wage earners, securing pension payments and protection against ill-health and unemployment.

In fact, this standard model is more like a 20th century anomaly. Nor did it ever really secure global dominance. Although it was central to policy-making and industrial relations, it is doubtful that it was ever really the dominant mode of work.

‘Labourism’ equates work with formal paid employment. Our rights, social benefits, labour laws and unions have been shaped around this model, and the assumptions that went with it As a result, care workers and own-account workers were marginalised in the 20th century. Labourism is also at the heart of our difficulty in understanding the precariat. The many faces of the phenomenon make it seem nebulous to us, difficult to define and discuss, and almost impossible to strategise around. We have become so convinced that labourism is the natural regime that we can only assume that we ought to be turning “atypical” workers into “typical” ones. This is the guiding spirit behind the ILO’s ‘Decent Work’ campaign.

The standard model is also crumbling from within. Much has been written elsewhere about how the ‘job for life’ has become a thing of the past. By way of a single example, in the US younger baby boomers have held an average of 10.8 jobs from ages 18 to 42[xxi]. Even ‘typical’ employment is becoming insecure. The precariat is becoming the rule, not the exception.

This is the problem with the global campaign for ‘Decent Work’. It is like earlier campaigns for ‘the right to work’. It is an admirable sentiment, and it deserves all our support, but we need not be under any illusions. Rights don’t make a lot of sense unless someone somewhere has corresponding duties.[xxii]

The labourist model is a thing of the past. Today, if we were to tote up the world’s precariat, care workers, own account workers, unemployed, subsistence farmers and ‘detached’ workers, we would have to admit that most of the world’s workers represent a round peg being forced into a square hole[xxiii].

Precariat: a word in search of a meaning?

It seems strangely pointless to try and assign an exact meaning to the word “precariat”, given that we invented the term so recently[xxiv]. Besides, it suggests its own meaning. It is derived from precarious + proletariat – ie workers without security. However, it is worth noting here that such workers need not be poorly paid. This is one of the issues which has confused the discussions. Some freelancers are highly paid… however they can only find work one week in five. Others bring home a reasonable income by combining three or four income streams… however at any one time half of this work may be under threat. People used to have similarly earnest debates over the meaning of “proletariat”. Some sections of the working class were, after all, relatively highly paid. Some people, including Marx, held that the proletariat included salaried workers (or at least some of them). Others disagreed. Heated words were exchanged. Yadda yadda yadda. In the meantime, the proletariat continued to grow and change. The nature of work gradually transformed. And despite the ILO’s lofty pronouncement to the contrary, labour has long since become a commodity. It is bought and sold on the market, and whether the protagonists are waged or salaried, most working people are only too familiar with an increased pressure to produce measurable outputs… be they corn cobs, car tyres, billable hours or doctorates.

Union responses

Most unions have tended to see the precariat in terms of its constituent members, rather than as a whole. Over the last ten years there have been some innovative attempts to organize freelancers, care workers, agency workers, self-employed producers and subsistence farmers. For instance:

  • Canada’s largest media union has set up a union for freelance workers (more).
  • The U.S. Freelancers’ Union has grown phenomenally (more), and has developed a whole new model of membership.
  • Agency workers are now fairly well organised in some countries, notably Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden[xxv].
  • In the UK, BECTU offers freelancers legal advice and online services (more).
  • In Italy, three union federations have created structures internal structures to protect and represent atypical workers (more).
  • Two Dutch federations have been signing up the self-employed (more).
  • In India, SEWA has recruited about 700,000 self-employed women members (more).
  • Spain and Georgia both have unions for the self-employed. Germany’s Ver.di offers freelance workers a support hotline.
  • In Australia, 35% of APESMA members are self-employed (more), and this is the fastest growing sector in the union.
  • The global union UNI recently set up a Freelance Network (more), along with a charter for unions who work with the self-employed (more).

Susan Hayter, senior ILO industrial relations expert, recently reported on efforts made to apply collective bargaining tools to improve the terms and conditions of employment of non-regular workers: “In Europe, some collective agreements covering temporary agency workers place limits on the duration of temporary contracts, after which workers become eligible for an open ended contract. In Chennai in the Tamil Nadu region in India, a growing number of collective agreements include provisions to make contract workers permanent when a vacancy arises. In Uruguay, recent agreements in the manufacturing sector also include measures aimed at regularizing employment. In countries such as Argentina and Korea, industry/ sectoral agreements have been instrumental in ensuring wage parity between regular and non-regular workers.”[xxvi]

This year, 75 unions affiliated to the European Metalworkers’ Federation agreed on a four year strategic bargaining agenda to address the consequences of precarious work. Other regional and global union federations have been considering similar initiatives.[xxvii]

Unions have also been a strong voice in the development of the ‘flexicurity’ model, whereby government seeks to provide a social framework which actively seeks to balance flexibility and security.[xxviii]

Closer to the ground, the fracturing of workplaces has led local unions to employ such marketing techniques as direct mail and cold-calling to try and locate new members. There have also been many experiments with Web 2.0 and social networking tools such as FaceBook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr and YouTube. In fact the labour movement has even developed its own social network: Union Book[xxix].

Does this change go deep enough to meet the needs of the precariat? A member of the New Unionism Network recently described these initiatives as: more of the same, only more so. Time will tell if he is right, but in the meantime I would suggest a simple test. Imagine that you are a young temp, referred by an agency, who has just landed 26 weeks work in (insert name of any industry your union represents). There is no union presence in the workplace. Now, what are the chances that you will end up becoming a union member? If your union does not have a concrete strategy in place to shorten these odds, then it needs one in a hurry. And if it doesn’t think it needs to bother, you might as well pack up and go home.

An opportunity for new thinking?

We began this discussion with a respectful nod to the New Unionists of the late 19th century: the folk who brought us trade unionism as we know it (roughly speaking), by recruiting unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers, male and female, instead of protecting a skilled elite. They were responding to qualitative changes in the nature of work. The new unionists found a way to offer voice to a new kind of worker; workers who would never find a home within craft-based unions. In fact, this latter group of skilled worker had a lot to lose, and tended to see the emerging class as a threat. Does this sound familiar?

With the labourist model in retreat, unions today need to take a similarly radical step. Those that don’t will continue their slow drift into irrelevance.

As HUCTW organizer Kris Rondeau once put it: “This is about us, not them”. Unionism is about building human relationships, not developing a client base. The precariat has everything to gain from coming together in solidarity. Unions need to be developing frameworks (eg occupational networks) which encourage the precariat to become involved and organize themselves. The alternative, a unionism which withdraws into 20th century traditions, will see many unions go the way of those earlier craft bodies. And the middle ground, based on helpdesks, contract advice and insurance services, can only slow the decline. Such an enormous new force as the precariat has little to gain (and unions little to offer) from a menu of services anchored around the word “help”.

On the bright side, the advent of new social networking tools (including the rise of mobile phones in developing countries) provides us with an ideal platform[xxx] to build this new solidarity. The fact that such tools are often free, and that the young have already mastered the medium (indeed, practically taken control of it), gives us the opportunity to build work-centered networks and associations on top of existing union structures. These might be initiated by a core group of union members, but if they are to address occupational issues properly, they will inevitably involve a growing cohort of the precariat.

For instance, a group of members of a service workers’ union might set up a care workers’ network. The agenda is theirs to define, but might include such things as the collection and sharing of data on pay rates, nationwide standards monitoring, lobbying over workloads, addressing problems within the industry’s culture, setting up exchange schemes, and working with occupational networks from other countries… whatever they see as relevant. Naturally, people could remain involved with the network if they became unemployed, or were reduced to part-time or contract work. Temps and staff provided by agencies could also become involved (if the group so decides), along with trainees, volunteers and/or retirees. Remember, this is about networking. It is not about setting up new structures or branches. It is informal, inclusive and dynamic.

This may just prove to be the 21st century equivalent of the radical inclusiveness of the earlier new unionists. Such occupational networks would help unions to develop a more concrete presence in the workplace, and within working relationships. Such a shift would also raise interesting questions about new types of ‘associate’ union membership.

Furthermore, once working people have more voice in the way work is organised, they will inevitably develop alternative views on what ‘the market’ requires. There is absolutely no reason that profit should be the sole end. Guy Standing cites a simple illustration of this:

“…left to themselves as individuals, fishers compete against each other and deplete fish stocks, since short term profits dictate what they do. Collaborative bargaining would tend towards the preservation and reproduction of fish stocks and would promote professional standards that would act to constrain individualistic competition.” [xxxi]

He goes on to argue that developing networks and a new citizenship around occupation takes us beyond the employer-centric trap of 20th century labourism[xxxii].

This would be the beginning of a fairly major shift in thinking for some unions. Essentially, the rise of the precariat and the parallel development of social networking technology leads unions closer and closer to a single watershed question: To what extent are we willing to entrust organizing to the members?

by Peter Hall-Jones, November 2009



[i] Job insecurity: the corrosive new normal by Carol Goar, Toronto Star, Canada, Oct 07 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[ii] Economic insecurity is a global crisis, International Labour Organisation, 7 Sept 2004. See–en/WCMS_075583/index.htm. Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[iii] From Job (In)Security to Opportunity? by Carl E. Van Horn, Business News New Jersey, 22 September 2008, Vol. 21 Issue 39, p14-14.

[iv] Precariat’ workers are starting to fight for a little stability by Toshihiko Ueno, Kyodo News, Japan Times Online, 21 June 2007. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[v] Strong sign of employee insecurity by Chris Hawkins, Human Resources (09648380), Apr 2009, p8.

[vi] Job insecurity: the corrosive new normal by Carol Goar, Toronto Star, Canada, Oct 07 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[vii] Precarious Employment and Flexicurity – the perspective of a (trade union orientated) user of statistics by Karin Pape (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing and Global Labour Institute) Geneva, Oct 2008. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[viii] See Precarity (Euromayday), Wikipedia, Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[ix] Precarious employment is most frequent among women by Landsorganisationen i Sverige, 12 Mar 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[x] Oasis of enlightenment a mirage by Leo D’Angelo Fisher, BRW, 3 Sept 2009, Vol. 31 Issue 35, p49.

[xi] Globalization and Informal jobs in Developing Countries – A joint study from the International Labour Organization and the WTO, by International Labour Organisation, November 2009. See–en/docName–WCMS_115087/index.htm. Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xii] Sixty percent of developing-country workers are “informal”, Trade Fact of the Week, Democratic Leadership Council, 11 Nov 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Fact Sheet No. 1: Income insecurity: neglected aspects of poverty and inequality, by ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme, 30 Aug 2004. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xv] From Work after globalization: Building occupational citizenship, by Guy Standing. Edward Elgar press, 2009. p.114.

[xvi] From Wage Inequality and Job Insecurity Among Permanent and Contract Workers in India: Evidence from Organized Manufacturing Industries by Amit K Bhandari and Almas Heshmati, The Icfai University Press, 2008.

[xvii] Economic Security for a better world, Socio-Economic Security Programme, International Labour Office, 2004. For a summary, see Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xviii] From Work after globalization: Building occupational citizenship, by Guy Standing. Edward Elgar press, 2009. p.75

[xix] After the New Economy by D. Henwood, D., New York: New Press, 2003, pp.184-5.

[xx] 2005 Call of the EuroMayDay network See Downloaded 1 Nov 2009.

[xxi] Frequently Asked Questions: Number of Jobs Held in a Lifetime, by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, last modified 5 Aug 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xxii] I am indebted to Guy Standing for making this point so clearly in Work after globalization: Building occupational citizenship, by Guy Standing. Edward Elgar press, 2009.

[xxiv] Although the first usage of the term is unclear, it has only gained currency in English in the last few years. In Italy in the Winter of 2000 attempts to mobilize precarious workers saw the use of the slogan: “Stop al precariato”. In French, the word précariat was used in l’Humanité in October 2004, and in German a ZEIT magazine article in April 2006 began: Job, Geld, Leben – nichts ist mehr sicher. Eine neue Klasse der Ausgebeuteten begehrt auf: Das Prekariat. To all intents and purposes, the word appears to be a 21st century neologism.

[xxv] Temporary agency work and collective bargaining in the EU byJames Arrowsmith, European Industrial Relations Observatory, 28 May 2009 See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xxvi] Negotiating for social justice: Collective bargaining in times of crisis by International Labour Organisation, 19 Nov 2009. See–en/WCMS_117793/index.htm. Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xxvii] EMF launches common demand on precarious work by Anital Gardner for the International Metalworkers Federation, 19 Nov 2009. See Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xxviii] For a good introduction to this debate, see, 4 June 2007. Downloaded 22 Nov 2009.

[xxix] See

[xxx] For a brief review of these tools and some thoughts on how they might be used by unions, see Union Networking by Peter Hall-Jones, April 2009, at Downloaded 22 Nov 2009. According to Andrea Mitchell, writing for the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader blog in South Africa in July this year:

  • Facebook currently has over 200 million active users;
  • MySpace had 76 million users at the end of 2008;
  • YouTube has just under 100 million users, racking up 5.3 billion video views per month;
  • Twitter has over 14 million active users, and grew by over 1000% between March ’08 and March ’09.

Perhaps the most successful political use of this technology to date has been the Obama election campaign. Adviser Scott Goodstein said: “…Our goal is to make sure that each supporter online, regardless of where they are, has a connection with Obama”. Obama had profiles on more than 15 social networks, including Facebook and MySpace. The count for this success: 3 million online donors, 5 million “friends” across 15 social network platforms (3 million on Facebook alone), nearly 2000 official YouTube videos watched more than 80 million times, with 135,000 subscribers and 442,000 user-generated videos on YouTube. (See . Downloaded 22 Nov 2009)

[xxxi] Work after globalization: Building occupational citizenship, by Guy Standing. Edward Elgar press, 2009. The quoted section is from page 279.

[xxxii]. ibid. “In sum, occupational citizenship will require a combination of international associations, national associations and informal networks.” page 276.