The term ‘precarity’ has gained significance in the social sciences, as a number of recently published international compilations illustrate. Responding to the neoliberal transformations of the labor market, precarity emerged as a category attempting not only to describe the prevailing conditions work (marked by the continuous losing of workers’ rights), but also to highlight forms of living and everyday experience characterized by uncertainty, vulnerability, and the sense of being disposable imprinted by neoliberalism upon workers and social subjects.
One of the seminal works about precarity as a political condition is Guy Standing’s The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class, published in 2011. In this work, Standing reflects on the post-fordist model of production and the emergence of a new class conformed by young people, old agers, ethnic minorities and women. Although coming from different backgrounds, all of them form part of what this author calls the precariat due to the lack of resources that guarantee their survival and, therefore, the continuous threatening of their existence. Before this, in 1999, Standing published a paper entitled “Global Feminization Through Flexible Labor: A Theme Revisited” where he discussed how certain conditions of the labour market previously reserved for women had become generalized. As he elaborates:
Not only do women workers receive lower wages in general, but they are more prepared to work for lower “aspiration wages” for well- known reasons. The erosion of minimum wage legislation, or of its implementation, and the sanctioning of a general lowering of wages are likely in themselves to lead to a substitution of women for men (…) Traditionally, women have been relegated predominantly to more precarious and low-income forms of economic activity. The fear now is that their increased economic role reflects a spread of those forms to many more spheres (1079).
In this way, the work of this author exemplifies the two kinds of discussions associated with the term feminization of precarity. The first one, as reflected on the idea of the precariat, is mostly statistical: it highlights the higher probabilities of women to work under precarious conditions, and the disadvantages that women, in general, experience when entering the labour force. The second one is not so much quantitative but qualitative; it reflects on how precarity started as a condition of women’s work and then became widespread, dismantling previous arrangements around work and masculinity.
Research about precarity has expanded, considering how this reality takes place in specific contexts and cultures. In this body of research, nevertheless, case studies and reflections focused on the gendered dimension of this reality are scarce. Despite the comparatively less attention that this topic has received, there has been some important efforts to analyse the way in which women experience and live precarity, focusing on how and why precarity is a reality that affects women in particular, placing them in the most precarious jobs available in society.
Although these reflections are important to grasp the interactions between gender and the economy, I suggest that they present some limitations regarding a dynamic and structural understanding of the relationship between gender and capitalism. In the term feminization of precarity and the research that follows it, there seems to be a confusion between the participation of women in the labour market and the gendered nature of the labour market itself. This approach allows analyses focused on how the economy affects women (namely: by placing them in more precarious jobs than men), but they do not analyze the interactions between precarity and gender in a broader sense.
I propose that, to understand precarity from a gender perspective, it is not enough to make visible how precarity affects women. It is necessary to go beyond this perspective if we want to take seriously the theoretical insights and political alternatives open up by feminist political economy. In fact, the main limitation of the perspective of the feminization of precarity is that it analyses precarity and women only in regards to the labour market and the dynamics taking place in it. By focusing exclusively on the labour market, it leaves out of the discussion what feminist political economists have proposed as one of the fundamental dimensions of the (deeply gendered) capitalist system: reproductive work as a feminized, outside the market, invisible and unpaid type of work that allows, nevertheless, the existence and reproduction of capitalism.
What would it mean, then, to theorise the interactions between gender and precarity in a way that does not preserve the analytic hierarchy of the market? To answer this question it is necessary to examine how precarity is related to the realm of reproduction. In this way it becomes possible to observe the ways in which precarity and gender are pretty much intertwined: reproductive labour, historically performed by women and one of the substructures of the gender system, has always been precarious. Without remuneration, without being subjected to any kind of recognition, placed on the margins of historical battles of the working class around better working conditions, reproductive work has been marked by vulnerability and exclusion. Imprinted by patriarchal ideology, this work continues being precarious even when distributed through the market in the form of paid domestic and care work, where not only gender but other axes of oppression like class and race crystallize.
To broaden the analysis of gender and precarity taking into consideration the sphere of reproduction would allow an understanding of precarity as a condition that is not only expressed in the deterioration of working conditions worldwide. The analytical framework of precarity studies could be enriched by considering how precarious lives are marked by the lack of resources that allow the reproduction and sustainability of living. These resources often surpass the realm of the market; its precarization is expressed in social phenomena like the crisis of care, new enclosures that privatize communal sources of reproductive elements like water, air, nourishing food, vaccines, among others. To elaborate theoretically and politically on the links between precarity, gender, and liveable lives would open up the possibility of interdisciplinary work where political economy could engage in conversation with the concept of precariousness in fields like philosophy and political science, and the analysis of it as an existential condition that could be at the basis of renewed democratic horizons.
Lastly, this expanded view of precarity and gender also provides an important clue for political transformation; it shows how social movements fighting precarization in the labour market, although powerful, are limited if they do not consider the precarization of reproduction and are not able, therefore, to provide a social alternative where the work of reproducing/sustaining life is not organized based on axes of exclusion, and where the resources needed for this essential task are guaranteed to every human being. De-centering precarity from the labour market is, then, a way to achieve a more comprehensive and complex understanding of this condition from a feminist perspective
Natalia Flores-Garrido is a Ph.D. candidate in the sociology department at Nelson Mandela University.
This piece is based on Flores-Garrido’s recently published article, “Precarity From a Feminist Perspective: A Note on Three Elements for the Political Struggle.” Review of Radical Political Economics, 52(3): 582-590.
Image: Women Carrying Cinder Blocks, https://www.piqsels.com/en/public-domain-photo-zwpdo