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Editorial: C-19 crisis throws precarity of work into sharp relief

IT IS an ugly word: precarity. It has an international currency, but rendering it in Italian, French or Spanish makes its sound no better.

The word is universally understood because the economic and political system in vast swathes of the capitalist world in which millions of the self-employed work offers little security of employment.

The myth is that self-employment offers those with more marketable skills personal autonomy and that the independent-minded autonomous professional in a fluid market economy has the optimum freedom to prosper.

The reality is that if you are waiting on a street corner for a van to take you to the potato fields, a contract worker in a “fulfilment” centre, a cleaner in an office block, a spark on a construction site, a temp in an office, a delivery driver or courier, a plumber dependent on the Yellow Pages, a jobbing journalist, or even a locum doctor, a cab-rank barrister, a start-up tech specialist or singleton professional of any kind you are one of five million who live in precarious times.

And you are one week, or even one day, away from having no job, no work, no income. Nothing, niente, rien, nada.

Except of course for such social safety nets that exist. In our country this boils down to universal credit, which millions of people are today discovering that which beleaguered claimants already know — that it is not enough to live on.

This is a system designed to beggar the benefit-seeker. Drive workers to use up such resources as they have saved until the moment when the gap between what they have and what they need becomes unbridgeable.

This term “benefit” carries the distinct whiff of charity. But unemployment pay, pensions and social-security payments are not benefits. 

They are payments to which we are entitled because we contribute taxes and national-insurance deductions from our pay. 

We are entitled to them for living and working in an economy supposedly based on a mutuality of duties and rights.

But this social contract has been broken, dismantled bit by bit as the balance of power has tipped even further in favour of the exploiting classes.

The post-second-world-war compromise with which our rulers staved off more profound change resulted in a few decades in which workers in developed capitalist countries had a measure of employment security and the essentials of a welfare state. 

This has been eroded by Tory, coalition and New Labour administrations, each enraptured by market myths.

These are exceptional times and the government has been forced by the pressure of events to implement policies which in its most fevered moments it cannot have imagined.

First the 2008 financial crisis and now the Covid-19 pandemic show that Thatcher’s notion that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families” is not even true when qualified, as it was by her, to insist that no government can do anything except through people, and that people must look after themselves first.

When maintaining family life is only possible on two incomes, and when this leaves no margin for saving, then we cannot rely on people looking only after themselves first.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is compelled, against ruling-class orthodoxy, to concede a minimum of income security to meet the social cost of defeating this coronavirus emergency.

That is the price the system must pay for the maintenance of stability. But when the reckoning comes, when this crisis is over, the working-class and labour movement must find ways to win both job security and income security for millions of working people.

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