No One is Talking Precarious Labour. Why Not?

When it comes to labour on university campuses, a divide has emerged between tenure-track professors, and sessional (temporary) instructors.[1] Sessional workers are precarious workers. And they are far from the only precarious workers. In fact, precarity exists across the labour market, and it’s growing. Despite these facts, few Canadians outside of universities even know what “precarious labour” is, let alone identify themselves as precarious workers. So what’s the deal?

Let’s start with a definition. In essence, a member of the precariat is one is who is involuntarily, insecurely employed and/or underemployed. That definition can include a lot of people, so it is also helpful to define the “precariat” in relation to what Guy Standing calls “the salariat,” – those who are employed full-time, WorkerShanghaihave benefits and paid holidays, and are secure in the sense that there’s no foreseeable risk of a sudden loss of income (2011). The “salariat” represent workers in what used to be standard labour contracts, although as we’ll quickly see, the “standard” is no longer standard![2]

In contrast, precarious workers may be working contracts and/or part-time gigs to cobble together income from multiple sources. Part-time and contract work is much less likely to provide benefits, so these folks are also on their own when it comes to health, life and disability insurance. Sick days may cost needed income and the idea of a “holiday” or “vacation” just… well it isn’t really a thing like where you take three or four weeks off for the year. Precarious workers pretty much live chronically freaked out about where the next quarter’s (or even month’s) worth of income will come from.

Is this sounding like you? Or your spouse, or your kid, or someone you know?

Yep. There are a lot of freaked out people out there.

Who Are the Precariat?

Sessional academics are increasingly vocal about their precarious status, but they are far from the only precarious workers. Economist Guy Standing, who writes passionately about this stuff, estimates that, depending on the country, 25-50% of a workforce may be characterized as precarious. Yet collectively, we continue to identify ourselves as “middle class.” Recall our recent federal election, wherein all three of our major parties were hot and heavy for “middle class families,” because when it comes to class labels, few want to own either the responsibility of economic privilege, or the stigma of poverty.

This is kind of interesting, and it is the first of a couple of broad strokes I want to pull out of Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Do precarious workers constitute a social class? You have to get into some sociology here to really go hard, but the short version is that class has always been understood as a combination, more or less, of social status and economic status.[3] But precarious workers are a weird bunch because they may be more or less educated, and may have many different kinds of relationships to the labour market. The PhD working as a sessional instructor, your 28 year old degree-bearing barista nephew, and your pizza-delivering/forklift operating/Scentsy-selling neighbour who lost her manufacturing job 12 years ago: they’re all precarious workers.[4] For Standing, this diversity becomes a question of class consciousness, because historically, it took the consolidation of identity among the “working class” to get these folks to act collectively in their own interests.[5] His point is that rights and protections for precarious workers are unlikely if they do not see themselves as having common interests.

Everyone’s Problem

Precarious labour isn’t just about individual people who make it (or don’t). Sadly, I see a whole of ill-will out there. The educated-yet-under-employed are chastised for choosing the “wrong” career path, just as the poor are derided for not “bettering themselves” with school in the first place.[6] We scorn individuals instead of recognizing that there are objectively fewer good jobs to be had, and that these declines are linked to dramatic, global changes in the ways businesses operate. These changes have consequences for all of us (OECD, 2015; Standing, 2011; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010).

Standing calls the precariat a “dangerous class” because he believes that unchecked, social problems will come to affect everyone for the worse. The “precariat” aren’t just objectively more broke than the wealthy and/or well-salaried; they’re more likely to feel alienated and pissed off. And when you feel alienated and pissed off, Standing argues, you’re more likely to head toward political extremism. A “thinning democracy” is underway, he claims, in no small part because precarious work erodes workers’ investments in their communities and political institutions, replacing them with varying combinations of mercenary self-interest, exhaustion, and feral fear. Politically, things get funky: Standing points to growth of right-wing parties in Europe, xenophobia, and the all-around bad behaviour that seems to come out of having wretched-to-no prospects for social mobility.[7]

Precarity Has No Political Voice

A couple of weeks ago I took an Uber ride in a spotless car. The back seat was laid out with water bottles and mints. “Nice touch!” we thought. “Do you Uber full-time,” I asked? In the conversation that followed, we learned that our driver was taking Uber seriously as an independent business after being laid off from a labour position. He had a graduate degree. In his home country, he had managed a large research team for an NGO (non-governmental organization).

There are eight million stories in the naked city. Or a lot of stories anyway. And none of them are getting political traction. I had a tough time voting in our federal election, because for me, questions around unemployment and underemployment ought to be high on the minds of our policy makers and politicians. Yet they are not. Politicians are not going to respond, however, so long as we’re still thinking old-school: as if the secure full-time job is still the norm, as if fighting our neighbours and friends for scarce good jobs is okay, as if we are all, indeed “middle class.”[8]

I am not middle class. I am a precarious worker. So are many of my friends and colleagues. So is my Uber driver, my daughter, and the dude scanning my groceries at Superstore. We can’t talk about the social consequences of a problem until we name the problem. And that isn’t gonna happen here until we lay off the wishful thinking and increasing irrelevance of the “middle class” label, and start recognizing that precarity is a much more useful way of characterizing the present realities of many, many Canadian workers.


OECD (2015). In it together: Why less inequality benefits all. Paris: Author.

Standing, G. (2011). The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury.

Vosko, L. (2008). Precarious employment and “lifelong learning:” Challenging the paradigm of “employability security.” In D. W. Livingstone, K. Mirchandani & P. Sawchuk (Ed.), The future of lifelong learning and work (pp. 157–170). Rotterdam, NY: Sense Publishers.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. London and New York: Penguin Books.


[1] Some public awareness about sessional labour came to light in early 2015, as media covered strike action by TAs and sessional instructors at York University and U of T. Alongside strike news, some more in-depth pieces like this episode of The Current described the working conditions of sessionals – most notably the low pay they receive for the same work as their tenured colleagues, and the insecurity they experience, not knowing from one term to the next whether they will have teaching contracts. More about working conditions for Canadian sessional instructors: Hyslop, K. (2015, September 21). ‘Sessional’ Instructors: Return of the Penniless Scholar? The Tyee. I also recently blogged about the impacts of sessional teaching on undergraduate student learning.

[2] The OECD states that almost half of employment growth since the 1990s has been due to “non-standard work,” that is temporary, part-time and self-employed work (2015, p. 137).

[3] Classes have always existed, and have been labelled and characterized differently over time. You can think feudal systems in which the “classes” were royalty, knights, aristocracy, and peasantry. Artisan classes emerged before industrialization. After the industrial revolution, Marx divided classes into capital-owners and proletariat based on whether you owned stuff, or worked for someone who owned stuff. My second-favourite sociologist Max Weber reconsidered class by looking at its symbolic dimensions, not just the economic/material characteristics that Marx used. Weber got us into looking at class as a combination of occupational status, education, autonomy over one’s labour conditions, and overall relationship to market economies. It is really, really tough to measure and define social class, so some of Standing’s critics question whether there is, or can be a “precariat” class.

[4] Vosko (2008) observes, however, that precarious status disproportionately occurs among social groups that are otherwise disadvantaged: visible minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and older workers.

[5] You can read a few highlights from Canadian labour history in this CBC article. I do believe that lots of anti-union folks would have to be more thoughtful if they looked at labour history and began to appreciate some of the god-awful conditions that people work under when they do not have protections through the state and/or labour unions. Certainly the same observations can be made about working conditions in developing countries. Remember the Joe Fresh factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013? Yeah.

[6] The “if you are poor you must deserve it” argument.

[7] I must confess that I find Standing a bit alarmist, but he’s coming from a Euro perspective where tensions are running high in relation to immigration. Canada’s state certainly seems more muted. This Globe and Mail article summarizes Standing’s argument.

[8] Or for a readable, slightly different take on the “middle class” label here’s Canadian economist Miles Corak. His blog is great, and very clear for lay readers.


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