You can see them bright and early every morning lining up along the streets of Austin: outside the Home Depots, along Cesar Chavez Street in East Austin, close to homeless shelters near downtown.
They are mostly young men from Latin America. They wait for the pick up trucks of construction contractors, landscapers, and other employers who need day laborers to pick them up and take them to a job site.
On the surface, it may not look like it, but these day laborers have something in common with the graduate students who teach most of the undergraduate courses at the University of Texas.
The United Nations calls the kind of work that both perform “precarious work,” that is, work that is poorly paid, insecure, and unprotected.
Other kinds of precarious workers include temporary employees, contingent workers, home workers, domestic workers, migrant workers, part-time workers, and anyone who works in a non-standard job that differs from stable, full-time employment
Precarious workers comprise a large share of the workforce in the US. Estimates vary depending on who is classified as a precarious worker, but when temporary workers who have worked for an employer more than a year are included in the count, the precarious workforce in the US totals 29 percent of the entire workforce.
Precarious work was the dominant form of work in capitalist economies prior to the late 1930s. “Untill the end of the Great Depression in the United States, most jobs were precarious and most wages were unstable,” writes professor Arne Kalleberg of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After World War II, work in the US became more stable, and the precarious workforce shrunk.
But that changed in the 1980s as “management’s attempts to achieve flexibility led to . . . corporate restructuring, which in turn led to the growth of precarious work.”
Kalleberg estimates that between 1975 and 1998 the temporary workforce, which doesn’t include all precarious workers, grew by over 700 percent.
The growth of the precarious workforce accelerated in the 1990s as demand for higher profits grew.
Companies like Unilever, the world’s third largest manufacturer of food and home care products including Lipton, Slim-Fast, and Vaseline, promised investors 20 percent to 30 percent rates of return on investment.
To deliver on its promises, Unilever in the early 2000s reduced its permanent workforce from 300,000 to 148,000, replaced permanent workers with lowered-paid precarious workers, and outsourced between 15 percent and 25 percent of its production.
In Pakistan where the company packages its tea products, Unilever has a workforce of 7,000, but only 323 are full-time permanent employees.
Like its corporate counterparts, universities in the US rely more and more on precarious workers. In 2008, 68 percent of undergraduate teaching was done by non-tenure track instructors and part-time graduate students.
In addition to being paid far less than tenured or tenure-track teachers, precarious instructors work from semester to semester on a contingency basis.
The growth of the precarious workforce has major consequences for all workers. “Precarious work has contributed to greater economic insecurity, and instability,” writes Kalleberg. “Economic inequality and insecurity threaten the very foundation of our middle-class society.”