Scattered Notes on Precarious Work

March 7, 2017

Note: This essay is in no way meant to speak for everyone facing precarious labour. I recognize that I am drawing mainly from personal experience. This essay is instead, a personal attempt, at working through some of my own issues with precarity and uncertainty. 

Death and an uncertain future stalk the working class.

Last month I worked as a poll supervisor for a by-election held by my labour union. We are a union representing Teaching Assistants, Contract faculty, and research assistants – in other words, the precarious labour of the neoliberal university. Our jobs are contractual, our pay is often very low, and our hours can be longer than they should be. Because the pay is so low, it is often necessary for graduate students working as TAs, like myself, to take on other work in order to make rent. This is how I found myself taking on various tasks within the union during my time at the university, for the honorariums that would help me feed myself.

One morning, a woman approached our polling station after seeing our union’s logo on the table. She was a member and had questions about her pay. I took her to one side and explained that this was a table to vote in the by-election, but that someone more knowledgeable than myself could help her at the union office. We spoke for nearly thirty minutes. I have replayed my conversation with her in my head a thousand times since.

Her eye contact was intense and unfaltering, as if she was just so grateful to have someone listen to her, even if they could not help her. Her eyes clung to mine, as if looking away would somehow cause me to lose interest in what she was saying. She was small and quite thin. She had a nervous smile stretched tightly across her face. Her hands were completely worn and cracked, skin peeling, faintly shaking from the stress. Although her tone was confident and measured, she looked as if she was struggling to hold herself together.

She told me that she was a graduate student in the sciences. She hadn’t been paid in months. She had a scholarship through a private organization (not government or university, something more common in the hard sciences). This outside organization, unaccountable to the university, was months behind in delivering the promised funds. Her supervisor and the Faculty of Graduate Studies had been of little help. I listened to her concerns and advised her to speak with a union staff member as soon as possible. She thanked me sincerely taking my hands in hers and then left.

I can’t stop wondering what has happened with her. I keep telling myself that I should have taken down her contact number so that I could check back up on her. To be honest, I think that part of the reason I didn’t was that her situation scared me. My own PhD funding ends in April. I am now looking for work. I could feel her legitimate desperation sliding into my own skin with the approaching uncertainty coming my way.

I have been living pay-check to pay-check for the last several years. I am used to scrounging for short term work, editing papers, working elections, and other small jobs for extra money. But I am not alone in this hustle.

A waitress at my local cafe, a woman with a Masters degree in a professional program, recently complained to me about her fruitless six-month search for a job. She has spent all of her time off looking for work and the rest of the time working her low-paid waitress job. So many people I know are looking for work or bouncing from short-term contract to short-term contract. Nothing is permanent. Everyone feels very tense and very unsure. Housing prices and rent have skyrocketed in the city making the situation worse with each passing day.

Precarious work is the new norm under the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. Jobs are increasingly contractual and short-term. Wages have stagnated. Benefits and pension plans are a rare perk. Freelancing is expanding across various sectors of work, offering a flexible schedule and the ability to work from your over-priced home as perks. But freelancing is just a fancy word for uncertainty.

In Toronto, the danger that can be associated with freelance work was brought home to many of those involved in leftist politics, when our friend Ali Mustafa, a freelance photojournalist, was killed in Aleppo Syria in March of 2014. Ali was in Syria because he felt it was important to draw attention to the plight and resilience of the Syrian people under the murderous Assad regime. He paid his own way. He made only marginal funds from the photos he was able to sell to Western news outlets. At the time of his death, by a regime barrel bomb, he did not even have enough funds to cover his flight home to Toronto. After his death, his friends came together to fundraise in order to be able to afford the high costs of shipping his body back for burial.

The experience of raising funds to bring Ali’s body home to his mother was one that made clear to me the dangers of precarious work. Of course, Ali’s death is most immediately the result of an intentional act carried out by a dictator intent on massacring the people in his country who have dared to stand up and demand freedom. But at the same time, the utter lack of protection offered by his absent employer (he was affiliated with French news AFP at the time), and the extreme undervaluing of his photography that earned him so little that he could not save enough money to get home, put Ali in a position that was very different from established war zone reporters. After his death, his employer never got in touch with his family, never offered funds to cover any of the costs of repatriating his body, and never released any public statement on his death.

For me, the past three years since that time have felt like stumbling from one near disaster to another. My mother, who has long suffered from chronic depression and bipolar disorder went through the long process of getting onto long term disability. Every rejected application for short term disability in the process, every claw back of funds “mistakenly” overpaid, every level of intense scrutiny by an unfeeling and suspicious insurance company into every aspect of my mother’s life would send her into spiral of self-hate, substance abuse and crippling depression that would see her confined to bed for days at a time.

It was during one of these break-downs, approximately a year after we lost Ali that she tried to “sleep for days” in her words, after taking several of her Xanax pills. I do not want to go too much into details but this experience has created an edge inside me that has not dissipated in time. When I sat, a couple of months later, with a friend rightfully despairing a long and failed job search, I could not help but fear that she may try to harm herself as well. I held her hand and cried with her as I tried to tell her how talented and amazing she was, but deep in the back of my mind I was terrified. I knew that this fear was mine, that it came from inside me and not from her words or actions, but I could not stop myself, even with this knowledge, from projecting my fears onto her.

This uncertainty running through so many of our lives is even worse for older workers. Since Ali died, I have watched as his mother and step-father have lost contract after contract for their small janitorial business. I have watched as companies have offered them lower and lower rates until they were forced to sell off their house. My own father, after working in the mining industry for over forty years, lost his job last year after the company he worked for decided to close the branch he worked at. This happened a few months before Christmas. He didn’t tell any of us until after the holiday was over. He didn’t want to ruin it for us.

With each job lost, with each friend I console after a failed job search, with each friend I talk-up pre-job interview, I feel the shadow of uncertainty stalking closer. The deepest parts of that shadow are places of death. The reality of death and violence in the lives of the working class is something that I feel following me wherever I go. I fear its menacing figure looming over us in the background at all times. And yet I know that we are resilient, that we find ways to get by, that my fear is as much psychological as it is material. But dismissing the psychological dimensions does little to diminish the threat of violence and death that lurks sometimes further away and sometimes closer to working class lives.

Over the past few years, I have watched more than one friend turn temporarily to sex work because they could not find any other way to pay their bills. I have cried with them over their bruises and the horrible things said to them by clients.

In the last few months alone, two friends of friends have been lost to opiate overdose. Another close friend has been struggling with opiate addiction for over two years now. I fear for him. I fear for those around me who have turned to substance abuse during hard times at the same time as I understand the relief that substances can offer.

One article I read recently put it succinctly, that for those living pay-check to pay-check, one minor disaster, such as getting a high parking ticket, can ruin your life. Being unable to afford even minor fines can mean losing a vehicle, housing or employment, or all of these in the worst cases. A friend of mine who is a frontline worker in the shelter system, an extremely low-paying and precarious job, told me that one former-employee recently laid-off at the shelter was now reduced to using the same shelter to stay in.

I feel myself tensing whenever I remember this, as if I can somehow diminish the impact in my body by clenching my fists and jaw, by being physically ready to react at all times. I also want to hold all of my friends and family members close to me and tell them how much they all mean to me, even in the most mundane moments. I smile when I greet them. I laugh at their jokes. I tell them about the banalities of my day. But inside I am always afraid of who I will lose next.

I know that all of this cannot be easy on my mental health. But although I draw on personal examples, my point is not to individualize this experience. I know that much of the working class, particularly those trapped in precarious work, are going through the exact same thing, facing the same fears and uncertainties.

Other times, rage comes over me in waves. I carry a floating and unexpressed anger in my guts for days at a time sometimes. I feel liable to explode at any moment. I need to be able to channel this anger into some kind of productive organizing. And yet, there is just something so defeating about having to fight so hard for every crumb that is thrown to us. I don’t mean to sound cynical. I believe that the working class can and must organize to overcome Capitalism. We have no choice. Our very survival is on the line.

UPDATE: March 28, 2017 – I just want to provide a brief update. I did manage to find and get the contact info to the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. She still has yet to be paid for her work this semester but I have put her in contact with campus organizations that can help. Her situation, while not great, is not one of immediate threat of homelessness or illness or anything like that.