Precarity and the Rewards of Work: The (Not) Great Divide?

by Duncan Fisher

Here are some details about my work history and finances over the last decade.

What was I doing?

Providing help to students with additional support needs in further education colleges. Supporting individuals with visual impairments in the community. Giving educational advice to the general public on an outsourced government helpline. Supporting people with complex disabilities in a day centre setting.

How was I rewarded?

Zero hours contracts — check. Short-notice shift cancellations resulting in no work and no pay — check. Long-term agency employment in a single assignment — check. Persistent pay at less than 60% of the median — check. Accumulated borrowing from my mum to pay rent, bills and essential living costs adding up to thousands of pounds — check. Underemployment — check. Micro-management of my time, including “comfort breaks” — check. “Flexibility” that required me to be wholly inflexible — check. Redundancy — check. Severe constraint of leisure, holiday and social activities due to lack of funds — check. No sick pay — check. Inability to plan in the short-, medium-, or long-term caused by uncertainty over work patterns and income — check.

Is it acceptable for this work to be valued in this way? No, really, is it?

I now have a new job teaching and researching at the Teesside University. I have a contract for four years, a “graduate level” salary, a pension, sick pay, and comprehensive holiday pay. I have the certainty of knowing I will receive a certain amount of money each month, and that it will adequately cover my essentials; allow me to save a little, and to enjoy my leisure time. The “flexibility” point is key: I have gone from being paid hourly and having my time micro-managed to having significant autonomy and trust placed in me to manage my priorities in order to do my job.

I feel fortunate to be in my current position with better working conditions than I have ever previously experienced. However, now that I can compare it with what I had before my resentment about precarious work has only intensified. I hope to be able to use my experiences constructively, though, to help me relate to others likely to be engaged in precarious work. The doctoral research I am undertaking will focus on young adult social care workers, and their experiences of work (in)security. I hope the study will provide a clear picture of the nature of this work, and challenge the socially unjust characteristics of it. Finally, I hope the research can have policy relevance and inform practices aimed at promoting security through work.

Duncan Fisher is a Graduate Tutor at Teesside University. You can follow him on Twitter here.