Friday 25 January 2013

Nowadays All Work Is Precarious

It has taken a while for me to start blogging again this year because of an overwhelming number of other priorities - not least a sudden threat that I could be made redundant in a couple of months time. At the moment this is just a warning that my employer may reluctantly have to let me go, but after 12 years working for the same charity, doing a job I really love, I know that once talk turns to possible redundancies, it's hard for it to stop. It looks increasingly likely that, at 45 and now with a physical disability, I'll be back on the job market in the worst period of unemployment for years. So let me begin the year by writing something personal.

I've been made redundant before and I've known plenty of others who have been through the same difficult process themselves. I've therefore learnt one of the most sobering realities: that no matter how invaluable someone thinks they are and how much they kid themselves their former employer will struggle terribly without them, it's very rarely true. Even after more than a decade in the same job, I know that if I am forced to leave this year then, internally, I will become little more than a fading memory within about six months - a name that pops up in some old documents or in the odd conversation. This is a bit sad but there is little point in bemoaning it - the fragility of the charity sector means a focus on struggling to solve immediate problems, not focusing on the past and anyway, years of experience count for most when organisations are growing or expanding - something that few, neither charities nor businesses, are contemplating with much optimism at the moment.

After about six month, the same will probably apply externally too, among the majority of the community groups and voluntary organisation I've worked with - and I have absolutely no problem with that. There are already more than enough so-called "community leaders" in boroughs around London doing little more than trading on their past achievements (often the ones who happily accept a gong for half-remembered 'service to the community'). That doesn't mean I'm not proud of some of the things I've been part of - the groups supported, the connections made and a number of the campaigns, especially the battle to try and save Wanstead Flats from Olympic ruin. But community activism, if it means anything, is about continued resistance to poverty and injustice in the present, about passing on skills and experience picked up over the years rather than resting on the comfort of old war-stories. We should always judge community activists by what they are doing right now: to quote an old Billy Bragg song, "by their actions, not their pretensions".

Anyway, I've been very fortunate to have someone pay me for years to try and make the place where I live a little better. If I am made redundant, I'd love to find something similar locally, but like everyone else, I'll settle for just finding a job and finding space for community activism in my spare time. Periods of recession and high unemployment have a tendency to make people feel more insecure - and more disposable. I recognise that, for me personally, the injuries I received when I was knocked off my bike in 2010 have tended to strengthened my general feeling that each of us could easily suffer deprivation, injury or even death because of events far beyond our control. However, the economic situation we are facing now does seem far worse than the recessions I remember in the beginning of the 90s or the start of the last decade. So many people are losing permanent jobs and instead facing part-time or short-term contracts with few benefits or are spending some of their time volunteering without pay, whilst welfare support for those in this form of work is becoming increasingly unreliable. What is missing too is that sense of belonging to a workplace - the basis for trade union organising, incidentally - and, in some cases I can think of, a blurring of the lines between everyday life and the constant search for insecure employment.

Increasing numbers - not just those on the lowest paid jobs but in all kinds of work - are finding that what unites them is not their working conditions but that work itself is becoming increasingly precarious. I'm sure the current government are not only happy about this but that it's a deliberate strategy: it means that those who just manage to avoid this descent into greater insecurity are more likely to remain compliant. But it also means that, in struggling to solve immediate problems, community activism may need to become more vocally critical of some forms of local charitable action - like the Big Society's replacement of paid workers with volunteers, or the rather dubious benefits of food banks and other short-term relief in tackling the real causes of local poverty. These are not really about resistance to poverty and injustice: instead, in my view, they run the risk of simply reinforcing the growing precariousness of our lives.


Simon said...

Really sorry to hear this; hope Aston can find a way to keep you or you remain doing good stuff in the borough.
Interesting reflection - and having similarly left my job in the botrough in June last year your analysis is pretty accurate.
Best wishes for the future whatever it brings!

Macuser_e7 said...

"Work itself is becoming increasingly precarious. I'm sure the current government are not only happy about this but that it's a deliberate strategy: it means that those who just manage to avoid this descent into greater insecurity are more likely to remain compliant."

A near-perfect summation of the Tories' economic and industrial strategy. The only bit missing is the role of debt - particularly mortgage debt - in keeping workers scared and insecure. It's not just your job on the line if you complain, it's your home.

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