The precariat is a new social class being formed by people who have an existence without predictability or security. This is the phenomenon that fuelled Trump’s success and drove Brexit and a global phenomenon. It demands that we all think in new ways about how we work and lead.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is an American piece of legislation which guarantees firms from across Africa preferential market access to the US markets in order to boost exports for Africa and reduce prices for the American consumer. It made headlines last year when negotiations for South Africa’s continued participation in AGOA (which brings in around seventy billion rand a year) came down to a heated discussion over whether or not we would allow tariff-free imports of US chicken portions for our supermarkets.
I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of AGOA itself, just to raise this point. Access to cheaper food – especially something as healthy and low fat as chicken protein - should be a good thing. The latest figures from StatsSA found that 13.1% of the population say that they go hungry on a regular basis. So making food affordable is, surely, a good thing?
So why are things so bad in the poultry industry that workers and their bosses are united in protest over AGOA and other trade deals? In January this year the Farming and Agricultural Workers Union and the South African Poultry Association joined forces to head to Pretoria to plead for the state purchase of chicken farms in KZN. Farms are losing money and closing. Already they have lost 5 000 jobs.
The irony is, that by reducing the cost of chicken, thousands of workers and dozens of farms face closure.
Instead of increasing “food security”, access to cheaper chicken will actually reduce it. That’s called the law of unintended consequences. But I think that there’s an even bigger picture. I think the South African chicken workers are just one example of a globally growing new class of worker that has earned the name “the precariat”.
The term precariat was popularised by the writer Guy Standing in a 2011 book called “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”. He describes the precariat as “an emerging class of people facing insecurity, moving in and out of precarious work that gives little meaning to their lives”. Trump voters. Dispossessed, disenfranchised and disillusioned American workers seeing their livelihoods evaporate to Mexican and overseas factories or Mexican and other immigrants.
In spite of the massive trade and social benefits that globalisation has produced, it has also created this - a new global class of people who live precarious lives of anxiety, doubt, poverty and embarrassment, often doing work of little social consequence. We have missed this and its lurking dangers.
Global spread of protests from Greece to Brazil to Japan to Turkey show a growing self-awareness among the precariat. They include miners losing their jobs through automation, the car workers in America made redundant by factories in Mexico and graduates working in low-paying jobs such as at McDonald’s and car washes.
When Pick n Pay began trialling self-service tills in September last year, unions were quick to object on the basis of fear of future job losses. Similarly, last month truck drivers went on a go slow in Pretoria to demonstrate their fear of renewable energy – which will not require large amounts of fuel to be moved around the country in trucks.
Some of the time, these fears are unfounded – as Henry Ford pointed out. His production line caused just as much concern over jobs as automation and robots do today. Other times, the fears are real. In Europe and the US, we’re seeing economic recoveries and reduced unemployment, but not in traditional full-time jobs.
I’m not a sociologist, an economist or a politician, I’m the dean of a liberal and progressive business school. But to me one of the defining differences between the precariat of today and the proletariat of yesterday is that in days of old, the business classes needed workers on-side.
There simply weren’t enough people to man the labour-intensive factories and 100% employment was a reachable goal, in many European countries at least. So proletariat leaders – or trade unionists as we like to call them - were able to win concessions, guarantees and the stability of closed shop workspaces because they wielded power. Today’s precariat doesn’t have that power. We are at the mercy of global forces driven by technological disruption. These people need new solutions.
Most people, when they talk about the precariat, aren’t thinking about chicken workers in KZN. They’re thinking of taxi drivers, auto workers, cleaners, machine operators, labourers and even middle class professionals, like journalists and computer programmers, who are finding their line of work “disrupted” by software and automation in the “gig economy”.
The most famous is, of course, Uber. The platform which allows anyone with access to a suitable car to set up as a taxi driver. What these disruptive services have in common is that they create an online marketplace without traditional barriers to entry, and they disrupt or get around existing regulations.
According to leaked reports, Uber lost around three billion dollars – nearly forty billion rands – in 2016 alone. And it can do that, as long as its backers believe it will be successful at some point in the future. No wonder workers are scared about the gig economy. It’s destroying the social order.
We can’t stop progress. We can’t unmake Uber. We can’t ban smartphones or unplug the internet. We can’t stop the mines being mechanised. You can try to create the illusion of security, but you can't stop the forces of globalisation, digitisation and change.
And not everything about the gig economy is bad. It can offer better wages. Hundreds of software developers in this country are making a fortune gigging for US and European countries. Uber drivers are earning more than taxis. Domestic workers can earn a better daily wage through “hire a cleaner” apps than pitching up for the same employer every day. And what have they got to lose? Domestic workers rarely have any job security, sickness benefits or chance of promotion – and often aren’t even making basic wage – yet make up nearly 8% of the workforce here.
“We need to be arming every citizen in the country with something that gives them the ability to think creatively and critically in the digital age. Something that focuses on personal development and building the confidence to be relevant.” This is from former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke’s autobiography.
He, obviously, is talking about specific issues in the social fabric of South Africa, but his words are relevant to the global precariat as a whole. For the precariat has a unique opportunity in history in that skills and knowledge are easy to acquire. YouTube alone has more How To videos than we could get through if everyone in this room made a pact to sit down and watch one after another until the day we die. Massively Open Online Courses, MOOCs, are providing university level education anyone can take part in, for free.
What we need is the knowledge of where to find the right skills, the confidence to adopt them, the innovative instinct to adapt them, and the critical ability to work out which is going to give us, as an individual, the most value.
Entitlement won’t save us. Skills will.
For the truckers in Pretoria, now might be the time to become Uber drivers, or learn to build windmills or fit solar panels. At Henley we talk about all this in terms of developing yourself based on activism and effort, by being bold in action and holding yourself to a higher standard of capability. Action is the key word: but can act your way to a new kind of thinking, discovering things through trial and error. You can’t think your way to a new way of acting.
Intellect and hard work will get you into the game; skills, innovation, passion and ethos will win it. Everything is growing and changing every day. We need to build, build, build our skills.