Despite the changes in attitudes and policies nationally in relation to work during the pandemic (with the introduction of the furlough scheme, the Universal Credit uplift, the suspension of social security conditionality, the setting of mutual aid groups based on community cooperation, the option to apply for social security remotely and to have one’s application processed much more quickly, and the normalisation of remote and hybrid working), a year and a half into the pandemic the UK population has found itself being taken backwards again, to pre-pandemic living conditions – and worse. In this quick blog post (which is partly based upon the interviews that are part of this project) I argue that instead of cuts to social security and the forcing of more disabled people into (mostly precarious) waged work, what everyone actually needs is more time for rest and recuperation. Disabled precarious workers are already highly overworked, low paid and underpaid (often not paid for overtime work), and, crucially, a lot of the work undertaken by them is invisibilised, unacknowledged, and highly draining unwaged work.
Being subjected to disablement oppression and exploitation means being placed at the crossroads of never-ending contradictions – always changing, always in flux. Being classed, perceived, and/or diagnosed as ‘disabled’ means being deemed as ‘unproductive’, ‘vulnerable’ and, in certain contexts, ‘lazy’. One’s bodymind also becomes the object for scrutiny and bio-psycho-medical examination (at times with some ‘social’ circumstances taken into account) by an ever-growing plethora of professionals whose work is justified on the basis of offering ‘help’ and ‘sorting’ bodyminds in and out of the ‘disabled’ category, often on behalf of the state or employers. Their job, in other words, is to prove that one is not disabled. This is then followed by an expectation by the state for the person denied the status as ‘disabled’ (through the prism of the law) to enter the wage relation with employers and clients who do not see it as their duty to stop reproducing disabling barriers, expectations, practices, and environments.
Whilst legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 is well-known and includes human rights against disability-related discrimination, decision-makers often successfully avoid enforcing it within the sphere of gig economy work. One of the most commonly invoked reasons for not fulfilling their duty (as noted by participants in this project) is that precarious workers do not have the same employment status as the permanent, full-time employees; they are deemed to be only second-class workers whose contracts would end shortly anyway. Another reason invoked for refusing to offer accommodations is that they are too costly or difficult. Employers and other institutions may find changing their processes and the way they operate as ‘inconvenient’, and they may wonder if maybe the interlocutor is ‘faking’ their flare-up, distress, pain, and impairment – which often occur due to the disabling environment of the organisation.
While on the job, the precarious worker may or may not have their name remembered by their colleagues; they might just be called ‘the temp’ for weeks – will they even be remembered by colleagues after they’d left? The precarious worker will remember very well those who did show kindness and solidarity (those being often people with shared experiences of oppression), as well as those who did the exact opposite. At times, precarious workers find a job that is much nicer than the previous ones; however, they are told that they need to go somewhere else very shortly after the start date – without any clear reason.
Trade union branch reps may be helpful if one is lucky to have organised collectivities within their workplace; however, the precarious worker may be barred from joining a union either by their employer (illegally) or by the respective trade union’s rules. Furthermore, membership might be too costly, especially if the worker needs to join, say, three different unions due to the variety of jobs they hold. As such, it may often be impossible to receive advice from union reps and other trade union members, and legal support from the union’s lawyers – not to mention that it would be mostly impossible to access facilities time that grants one paid time off for union duties (and increased protection from union victimisation). That said, there are plenty of trade unions and reps who push against the restrictions mentioned above and go the extra mile to make sure that workers have not only the support needed, but also the means to become activists themselves.
The above are just some of the many problems that disabled people face in the gig economy. And yet, Job Centre advisors often tell social security applicants/users that if they didn’t accept to undertake precarious work, they would be sanctioned (with devastating implications to them and people around them). The claim that the £20/week Universal Credit cut is easy to overcome by working two more hours per week is not only factually incorrect (as per FullFact’s report), but it also fails to acknowledge the following contexts, which shape people’s livelihoods:
- increased outsourcing of public services,
- commodified and medicalised social care,
- the absence of a National Service for Independent Living and of autonomy for disabled workers more broadly,
- low wages and low bargaining power for precarious workers,
- the underfunding of the NHS,
- delays and problems with accessing Access to Work and the weakness of the Disability Confident scheme,
- workplace managers’ refusal to implement reasonable adjustments and flexible working arrangements (especially in the gig economy),
- the active creation of extra work and barriers within institutions (which require extra time-, emotion-, and energy-consuming bodymind resources),
- the sudden or gradual creation or exacerbation of impairments, mental distress, chronic illness, and neurodivergence-related pressure through waged and unwaged work,
- prejudice against disabled and proletarianised people, and the effects of different forms of oppression (such as cis-hetero-patriarchy and white supremacy) in their current capitalist form,
- the prevalence of the individual model of disability throughout the entire society, at all levels of its organisation and the unnecessary bureaucratic work that is demanded of disabled precarious workers (not least through the social security system),
- the unpaid time spent on the job and while searching for other roles,
- the work one has to do simply to keep their access to social security,
- the personal care and attending to oneself and others that disabled, neurodivergent people, and people with chronic illness and mental distress do, for free, on a daily basis, in the absence of adequate social infrastructures and material resources,
- time, energy, and resources needed to recover from the work already listed above,
- the lack of money and resources to rest and recover,
- the direct and indirect barring of access to social spaces,
and so much more.
Disabled precarious workers undertake invaluable and enormous amounts of work, for free – the state, capital, and employers benefit from this work – directly and indirectly.
What disabled people, people who are lowest paid, and society more generally deserve is a completely different system which does not place exploitative waged work on a pedestal while having a free ride on the unwaged work done by those who are priced out and pushed out of services, social infrastructures, and social participation. This is work that should be done collectively: well-resourced, with adequate training and an understanding of the need to dismantle the individual model of disability as well as the current restrictive institution of work. Such a change would necessarily need to lead to the freeing up of disabled and proletarianised people’s time, the reduction and abolition of work that is not socially useful (especially disciplinarian bureaucratic work such as that related to welfare conditionality), the transformation of the way in which we live our lives, and an emphasis upon human flourishing and collective autonomy.
Many people would like to do work that is valuable to themselves and to society overall, but the means for them to undertake this work are absent – a point that was made also by Manchester DPAC’s member, Dom, whose youth work job had been taken away from him. When I interviewed research participants about what they’d rather do if money were no object, many told me that they’d do exactly the work that they’ve been doing up until now, but they would reproduce different social relations and different ways of relating to people on the basis of meaningful recognition of everyone’s full humanity. This is in stark contrast to the way in which currently, waged workers are approached by employers and the state through the prism of productivity and the surplus value that can be extracted from them. Other participants indicated that they would instead undertake work that is different from their current jobs (jobs which some deemed to be socially useless). The commonality among all interviewees is that they would like to be able to participate in society much more, and through many more means than those available at the moment: through work such as (what is understood to be) care, education, research, advocacy, peer-to-peer support, stewarding the environment, creating through the arts, and other domains of activity. However, there is little prospect for these workers and many others to undertake such meaningful and much needed work. At the same time, we all know that there is a shortage of workers in so many sectors; working conditions are becoming more and more precarious and contracts are shorter and shorter, with little to no access to sick pay and other statutory rights; many trade unions are still failing to centre and support the struggles of gig economy (and) disabled workers and are failing to organise in solidarity with unemployed people; there is no way for social security and service users to collectively bargain for better social security and services; training is often either completely denied to low paid and precarious workers, or it is done out of their own pockets (with enormous sacrifices!) – and the list can go on.
Why is the UK not looking to create resources and time and resources for rest and recuperation from work, instead of pushing for cuts to an already inadequate social security that is a lifeline for millions of people and precarious work? Given all of the work mentioned above that is undertaken by disabled (and proletarianised non-disabled) people, decision-makers and society ought to acknowledge that most* unwaged and all low waged people are already overworked and deserve a funded and well-resourced break from work, to start with! We need to reject the gloomy politics that equates busy-ness (imposed high workloads of unwaged work) and precarious waged work with social participation and worth. The totality of work that needs to be done to reproduce society could and should be distributed differently, so that (the now well-known) ‘essential work’ and unwaged work are shared more evenly, with more resources and support, and with a real, material recognition of their role in sustaining society.
* I am excluding here the unwaged elite.
Image credit: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/raindrops-1173811