Author's Response to GTI Roundtable Debating the Precariat

Guy Standing

Thanks are due to all who commented on my essay. This response will focus on a few key arguments and recurring themes.

I want to begin by rebutting Ronaldo Munck’s claim (backed by William Robinson and Bill Fletcher) that the precariat is a “Northern-centric” concept, inapplicable to the “Global South.” I first conceptualized the precariat while implementing a “labor flexibility” survey in 3,000 industrial enterprises in Malaysia in the 1980s, and then refined it in similar surveys in the Philippines, Indonesia, and what was then Bombay. I refined the ideas while director of the International Labour Organization’s technical work in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and conducted the first analysis of a national precariat in South Africa, where I was research director for Nelson Mandela’s Labour Market Commission.

Subsequently, I had the privilege of working for over a decade with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India, a union of two million women outworkers (i.e., employees who perform their work at home or at a place not normally considered a business premise), with whom I implemented three basic income pilots covering thousands of people. But perhaps most revealing is the recent research on the precariat in China (cited in footnote 2 of my essay).

Based on my work and research on the “Global South” over thirty years (, I believe the charge that the precariat concept is “Northern-centric” reflects a superficial reading of the argument. Obviously, the precariat and the emerging global class structure are more pronounced in some countries. That has always been the case with class structures.

Nor is the policy proposal I advance—a universal basic income—a Northern-centric solution, as Azfar Khan reminds us. As it happens, I have been involved in basic income pilots covering thousands of people in India and Namibia, besides analyzing moves in that direction in other developing countries. The evaluation surveys of the Indian pilot showed a series of transformative changes—improvements in nutrition, health and schooling, better sanitation, emancipatory breakthroughs for women and the disabled, greater cooperative work activity, and reductions in the power of landlords and moneylenders. We found similar effects in Namibia.

Another claim by Munck, supported by others, is that the precariat concept I develop shows a “complete lack of understanding of contemporary labour or of the labour movement’s organisations and strategies.” To the contrary, my research and experience as a union member for most of my life have led me to view worker organizations as vital. I have addressed numerous unions around the world, and worked with many, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and SEWA. At the same time, we must avoid a kind of “laborism” that idealizing unions. Consider the following examples that reveal conventional labor’s inherent failings.

First, for a decade, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) refused to accept SEWA as a member, blocking it as a worker body in the ILO, even though it was fighting for the rights of women outworkers and had two million members. I acted as an intermediary, as SEWA activists struggled against excommunication and the sexist bias of the unions that argued that SEWA did not represent “employees.”

Second, I recall with distaste being invited to discuss the new unions in Eastern Europe with the then-president of the AFL-CIO. Between expletives, his message was that I should stop working with them, although I knew them to be individuals who had bravely stood against tyranny and for worker rights. The leader of the world’s biggest union confederation showed lack of class solidarity, to put it mildly.

A third example occurred when I addressed an international group of union leaders at a study retreat. I posed the question, “Why have union leaders been among the most vehement opponents of a guaranteed, universal basic income? After all, it is about giving everybody basic security.” Although the chair tried to prevent discussion, one leader said, “I think it is because we think that if people have income security they will not join unions.” I pointed out the immorality of that sentiment, adding, “Fortunately the premise is wrong. People who are chronically insecure are less likely to join a collective body, for fear of retribution. If they have basic security, they are more likely to have the courage to fight for rights.”

Fourth, recently a decision had to be made on building a third runway at Heathrow that will mean planes flying over low-income neighborhoods in East London. Nobody denies that it will intensify noise and air pollution, endangering lives and child development. But one group lobbied feverishly (and, sadly, successfully) for the runway on the grounds that it would create jobs. Yes, the unions. Other examples abound of how unions have shown disregard for environmental degradation. Jobs or the environment? No contest.

How do we move past such laborism? My essay advocates a guaranteed basic income for all, but that, of course, is not itself a sufficient solution, as several commenters pointed out. For successful transformation, two meta-securities are needed: basic income (for without economic security, nobody can feel in control of their lives) and strong collective organizations to represent our interests, for without these we are always vulnerable). We need a synthesis of the best elements of the craft guilds that industrial unions helped to destroy and the best elements of trades unions. Moreover, to reach the precariat, unions should focus on “collaborative bargaining” not just “collective bargaining.”

In developing my book A Precariat Charter, one point crystallized regarding how the precariat could be a vanguard for social change (which William Robinson erroneously claims is absent in my analysis). In exaggerated form, it is this: the proletariat’s primary antagonist is the employer, the boss, the capitalist; the precariat’s primary (but not only) antagonist is the state. That became clear in Occupy movements and in the further evolution of precariat movements. All transformations begin with recognition of common identity and interest, and with understanding the nature of the enemy. This is a necessary first step on the road to transformation. The precariat knows that the immoral regulatory practices of social, economic, and labor market policy are directed at it, and that this is where the morally weak underbelly should be critiqued.

Robinson’s comment that workers around the world have been subject to what “Standing and many others, myself included, have identified as unstable and deregulated labor relations” shows a lack of understanding of my analysis. One of my central claims, right or wrong, is that there has been no “deregulation.” Indeed, a reasonable hypothesis is that, in the evolution of capitalism, never has state regulation been more comprehensive or directive. And this is directed primarily at the precariat.

To George Liodakis’s comment, while I am unsure how I have “a communist vision,” I strongly disagree that “relations of distribution are always attendant to specific relations of production.” It is a key to understanding the different material interests and tensions between the salariat, proletariat, and precariat that while all three classes experience wage labor as part of their “relations of production,” they have very different structures of social income. The first group receives a large and growing part of their income from capital, the middle group a rising proportion from the state, and the precariat none of the former and a shrinking share of the latter. This is why it is vital to define class by reference to all three dimensions—relations of production, relations of distribution, and relations to the state.

Alison Tate and Evelyn Astor, who are both with for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), note that the ITUC “rejects the idea that increasing unemployment and precarious employment are inevitable.” If they mean to associate the idea of inevitability with me, they are mistaken. In fact, I reject the term “precarious employment” and think that, with the dominant state regulatory policy, low open unemployment is more likely than high. Concealing unemployment has been a feature of social democratic support for workfare, as exemplified by Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare act, the Hartz IV reforms made by the Social Democrats in Germany, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s regime of tax credits and means-tested benefits in the UK.

It is revealing that the labor movement in general has done very little to challenge workfare, but has persisted in promoting laborist social security. Tate and Astor advocate support for ILO Convention 102 on Social Security, but, as I have underscored elsewhere, that Convention may be the most sexist and laborist of all labor Conventions. Passed in 1952, it defines the “standard beneficiary” as “a man with wife and two children,” further clarifying that “the term ‘wife’ means a wife who is maintained by her husband.” The fact that representatives of the international “labor movement” support such paternalistic policy is sad. The precariat would be deeply disadvantaged if Convention 102 were put into effect.

Moreover, in clarifying what the precariat is, it is important to distinguish this new class from the so-called “informal sector,” a term I reject. This commonly used phrase mixes up petty production, a labor reserve, and a lumpen “stagnant” population, allowing some observers to depict it as the focus for development, others as a reflection of developmental failure. The precariat does not correspond to any of that. It is the core “active” feature of global capitalism, providing “flexible” labor. But for critics of existing capitalism, the beauty of it is that it is a dangerous class, and it is this which is overlooked by leftish critics who mistake the meaning by focusing only on the downside. It is dangerous precisely because it is not the proletariat and not a “proto-proletariat” or a lumpen category.

Critics also often presume I am writing about “precarious labor,” another term I have come to detest, and that the precariat is just a bunch of victims, wallowing in insecurity. But I tried to convey the dialectical character in the essay, building on my previous work, stressing why the growing part of the precariat is emancipatory. The proletariat and their laborist representatives want decent labor. But the beauty of the precariat is that its growing part does not suffer from the false consciousness that decent labor is the answer to a sensible existential question. Its progressive part wants liberation from labor. This is why it is so important to differentiate between work from labor and leisure from recreation.

I will end this response by pleading for a new conceptual vocabulary. Too many critics of the precariat and the proposed class typology seem determined to stick with nineteenth-century words and notions. Millions of people with secondary and tertiary schooling are surely puzzled or alienated by being told they are in “the working class.” And to be told there is a united working class, or that it soon could exist, strikes many as risible.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, co-founder of Basic Income Earth Network, and author of The Politics of Time.

Cite as Guy Standing, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Debating the Precariat," Great Transition Initiative (October 2018),

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