Pandemic and Precarity: rethinking what it means to be precarious under COVID 19

Our new SPERI blog series examines the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of precarity; illustrating how pre-existing inequalities shape and extend risk

According to recent estimates, nearly 4 million UK workers have been furloughed as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Unemployment has increased to 2.5 million, 7.5 percent of the workforce, and economists are predicting the worst global recession for a century. The economic and social ramifications of the crisis are, to put it mildly, far-reaching. At the same time, the impacts of COVID-19 are unfolding in highly differentiated ways across the globe, at regional, international, and intra-national levels. Far from the “great equaliser”, the pandemic is tracing along existing socio-economic faultlines – of race, class, gender, geography – and is being shaped by the histories and contemporalities of uneven development. Against this background, this blog series examines the implications of COVID-19 for labour and (in)decent work, focusing in particular on precarious workers and the concept  of ‘precarity’. The series asks: how does the pandemic reshape understandings of precarity?  Who is (and who is not) rendered precarious? And what are the ‘new’ geographies and hierarchies of precarity arising from the pandemic?

The authors in this series use the concept of ‘precarity’—and the associated concepts of precaritization, precariousness and the precariat—in various ways to approach and engage with the unfolding political, economic and social impacts of COVID. Firstly, from a political economy perspective, the concept of precarity is used to draw attention to the creeping dominance of informal, temporary, and otherwise insecure forms of work in the global economy (Castel 2003; Vosko 2006). Precarious work has a long history and these modalities of labour are not necessarily new; especially across parts of the Global South. Yet neoliberalism is understood to have intensified and accelerated patterns of precarious work—a process of precaritization—articulated through sweeping shifts in the global organisation (and governance) of production and reproduction. According to ILO estimates, for example, around 60% of the world’s workforce are in precarious work, the majority of them women. In the UK, this is manifest not just in the growth of the so-called “gig economy”–in courier, driving, delivery work–but across many sectors of the economy in which zero hour and fixed term contracts leave workers with little sense of security or certainty. 

The blog series also examines the meaning of precariousness from a more philosophical perspective, drawing on Judith Butler’s work to conceptualise it as existential, an ontological state bound up in human mortality and vulnerability. Butler suggests that the social nature of human existence means that we are dependent on and made vulnerable to others. This vulnerability stems from the face that we might lose the very people with whom we have formed relationships but also because we are exposed to others and made vulnerable by them (eg. through the risk of violence) (Butler 2004). While Butler’s account of precariousness is not specific to the neoliberal era, it similarly recognises that precariousness is unevenly distributed—that the condition of being precarious is structured by hierarchies of gender, race, class, sexuality, and nationality, ability and age. By approaching precariousness as a common existential and social condition of life, Butler aims to find a starting point for ethical action in today’s world.

The current crisis has been met by governments with public health measures, enforced to varying degrees and ostensibly to protect from and prevent risk for populations, but often implemented in haste, chaotically and without due regard or sufficient pre-existing protections in place for those most vulnerable.  While the early impacts of such measures have been wide-ranging, a common strain across different contexts, including in the UK, is that different types of precarity (and precariousness) are coming to the fore. In this blog series, we explore their connection to longer histories of exploitation, exclusion, and discrimination, to the post-Fordist conditions that ‘make’ precarity, and to our inherent precariousness and our dependency on others.  

The blog series begins by demonstrating why race and class matter for understanding the impact of the coronavirus epidemic. In Part 2, Ellie Gore explores the racial and class-based dimensions of the pandemic in the UK; analysing emerging evidence on infection and mortality rates to illustrate the disproportionate impact of COVID 19 on Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups. The blog challenges the assertion from the UK government that COVID 19 “doesn’t discriminate” and instead uses the lens of “racial capitalism” to illustrate how the health and economic impacts of the pandemic are mediated by axes of inequality; particularly those of race and class. 

In Part 3, Natalie Langford argues that the outbreak of COVID 19 has exposed a pre-existing ‘hierarchy of precarity’ that shapes a highly differentiated distribution of risk to exposure. Recognising this, the blog explores the ways through which experiences of (in)security affect perceptions of risk to the virus; and how these come to shape the discourses and policies of the UK government in relation to the pandemic. The blog demonstrates the ways through which structures of precarity have, over time led to a de-valuing of precarious lives; uncovering a sinister necropolitics underpinning the initial decision to let the virus rip through society.

In Part 4 of the series, Nabeela Ahmed explores the ways in which existing forms of precarity – relating to citizenship, welfare access and labour – and precariousness are reconfigured in an increasingly bordered world under COVID. The blog is premised on the argument that many forms of precariousness arise from both the historical logic of national bordering and precarious citizenship as well as intensified forms of pervasive “everyday bordering” (Yuval-Davis, 2018) that have reached deeper into domestic, intimate and everyday life under lockdown policies. However the blog offers the provocation that the selective relaxations of certain borders have extended and exposed further risks of precarity (labour, citizenship, health) to those most vulnerable, This has redrawn and reinforced differential geographies and hierarchies of precariousness and precarity. 

Together, we hope these contributions can begin to shed light on how precarity and precariousness mediate individuals’ experiences of the pandemic. In particular, we highlight how the class, racial and gendered dimensions of precarity can lead to vastly different experiences of the outbreak. Furthermore, we illustrate the ways through which state actors either ignore or are unwilling to take account of how precarity exposes the population to existential risk; exposing a disinterest in protecting or securing the vulnerable and the precarious. In relation to this, we also demonstrate how the state is also highly dependent on the labour of the precarious; which shapes practices of bordering.

It is too early to speculate on how the pandemic may transform our understandings of precarity and precariousness in the future; but it is clear that the pandemic has laid bare the extent to which precarity is entrenched within neoliberal societies. With this blog series, we hope to provoke new debates on how precarity and precariousness may be challenged and overcome in a post-COVID age.