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(2019-2020) Not Hired, On-Boarded: Precarious Employment and Shaping the Neoliberal Subject

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Naomi Harris, Ruth Jackson, Esther Kinn, Oscar Tambini, Nichola Valentine, Toby Walkland, Isabella Walls 

In this blog we are going to use Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ to examine how precarious employment is shaping the neoliberal subject within contemporary British society, questioning the distinction between the Global North and the Global South. Foucault defines biopower as when:

‘the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a… general strategy of power’ (1977:1). 

It is, in other words, when whole populations and individual citizens are shaped through policy enacted over bodies. By controlling definitions of acceptable health, work, family, and so on, the state and other actors create an image of the ideal worker that citizens are obliged to embody in order to earn and exist. Precarity is part of this image. Precarious employment is characterised by uncertain (‘flexible’) hours, low pay, and non-existent benefits. While it is not new by any means, it is increasingly common and, coupled with the shrinking capacity of the welfare state due to austerity, has left workers especially vulnerable (Pettinger 2019).  

In the wake of the New Labour amalgamation of two aspects of the British welfare system, benefits and finding employment (the creation of the Jobcentre), the responsibility to escape and reduce unemployment has fallen increasingly on individuals who are also expected to shoulder more of the financial and social burden (Foster 2017). Since this shift, the growth of the charity sector has filled in many gaps left by a state that no longer provides as secure a safety net as before. This trend has only become more pronounced since the Tories took power in 2010 as evidenced by the increasing use of foodbanks (Mould 2014) to stave off ‘household food insecurity’ (The Trussell Trust, 2019). 

Precarious employment is enabled by the state’s lack of policy to protect and help vulnerable workers. In Cycles of Poverty, Unemployment and Low Pay (2010), Chris Goulden demonstrates that ‘repeated broken spells of employment, including  temporary contracts’ and ‘working irregular hours’ are some of the main reasons behind recurrent policy. Delays to working tax credits and child benefits are also “particularly problematic” (8) as parents must choose between working long hours in order to pay for childcare or staying home on (reduced) benefits to care for children themselves. The lack of childcare available outside a ‘typical’ working week (i.e. the evening and at weekends) causes difficulties for parents in precarious employment while irregular hours mean that families struggle to plan ahead or save. The result is that families often have to choose between precarious employment and benefits – in some cases they may be financially better off on benefits than employed. Staying at home and surviving on benefits are characteristics embodied by those living in poverty that condemn them as ‘scroungers’.

Ken Loach’s film ‘Sorry We Missed You’ (2019) is an excellent portrayal of the impact of precarious employment on family life in the UK. The film follows a traditional working class nuclear family who are reliant on precarious employment contracts. It highlights the economic instability caused by zero hour contacts on the household and the subsequent cycle of in-work poverty that leaves people living below the breadline, struggling to make ends meet. Overworked and underpaid parents leave a vacuum of support in the types of informal work that often goes ignored when discussing precarious employment (Pettinger 2019). The charity sector, the generosity of friends and families, informal reciprocity are then left to fill the gap be it childcare, housework, financial support, emotional labour or hunger. The levels of precarity that are thrust upon people by these ‘flexible’ jobs have seen a rise in the use of food banks and charities within the UK, with 58% of those in poverty in the UK now being from a working household.

What we see here is a biopolitical reconfiguration of what it means to be a healthy, working citizen: away from a somewhat collective definition rooted in the preservation of the family towards a more individualistic one. The ideal British citizen is now one who puts work before life. Those who do not are punished both financially and socially. They are also increasingly reliant on private entities (either for profit or charity) to perform essential functions of family life (e.g. childcare) or provide what was previously state support.

This type of job insecurity is a global issue, and parallels can be drawn between zero hour, ‘flexible’ employment within the UK and the working conditions of the catadores (rubbish pickers) in Rio de Janeiro. Kathleen Millar examines how Brazilian catadores engage informal, wage-less work at a rubbish dump. Because they are not recognised as self-employed, they remain outside the official employment system and do not receive the wages, benefits, or legal rights that come with it. This leaves them particularly vulnerable as their work is extremely hazardous. However, picking rubbish is ‘one of the most stable sources of income in their lives’ (Millar, 2014: 39).  Millar argues that being removed and then reintroduced to wage-labour creates increasing precarity as catadores now need the autonomy of labour provided by the rubbish dumps, despite the work being highly dangerous. Catadores’ social lives and obligations have been so thoroughly restructured (an example of biopower) that they can no longer survive within the formal system. While this demonstrates how remaining outside state employment regulations allows ‘the flexibility, space, and power for groups to defend their interests vis-a`-vis the state’ (Millar, 2014: 32), we should not romanticise this as freedom but recognise it as symptomatic of a neglective state.

Parallels between the zero hour, ‘flexible’, employment within the UK and the working conditions of the Catadores shows the narrowing gap in what can be considered a crisis between the Global North and the Global South. That we recognise the crisis and abject poverty that Catadores represent for Brazil but seem unable to conceptualise the same crisis in the UK represented by Care Workers or Delivery Drivers demonstrates that a reconceptualization of poverty and the scope of humanitarian work is in order. The charity sector has been instrumental in the response to this humanitarian crisis, as austerity continues to shape domestic policy. Funding to youth work services has been substantially reduced with a 69% reduction in government funding over the last decade. Over 83% of local authorities have had to reduce their funding for youth services by half (Bulman, 2019). Locally, one particular charity shares our concern of the consequences of austerity in Manchester. Manchester Young Lives is an organisation that aims to cultivate young people’s full potential and in the last year alone have created 58,625 opportunities (, 2019).

Works Cited:

Bulman, M. (2019). Youth services ‘decimated by 69% in less than a decade amid surge in knife crime’. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019]. 

Foster, J., 2017. Engagement and alienation among Manchester’s unemployed. Anthropology Matters, 17(1).

Foucault, Michel (1978) Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. 

Goulden, C. (2010). Cycles of poverty, unemployment and low pay. [online] Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019]. (2019). Youth | Manchester Young Lives. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019].

Millar, Kathleen (2008) Making trash into treasure: struggles for autonomy on a Brazilian garbage dump. Anthropology of Work Review, 29(2), pp.25-34.

Mould, C. (2014). Food banks are filling gaps left by jobcentres and the DWP. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019].

Pettinger, Lynne (2019). Informal Work and Everyday Life: What’s wrong with work? 113-133 Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Sorry We Missed You. (2019). [film] Directed by K. Loach. United Kingdom: Route Publishing.

The Trussell Trust (2019). The State of Hunger. [online] pp.1-29. Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019].