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Precarious Labor, South and North: An Introduction

  • Sarah Mosoetsa (a1), Joel Stillerman (a2) and Chris Tilly (a3)

This special issue on precarious labor in global perspective includes analyses of precarious work in South Africa, Mexico, the United States, China and India. The key strengths of the contributions to this issue are that they demonstrate precarious workers’ capacity for collective action, the hidden forms of work that are not tracked by states, long-term historical continuities of precarious work, and differences between precarious work in the Global North and South. This introduction explores the challenges of conceptualizing precarious work; the history of precarious labor; its variations in the Global North and South; possible differences across sectors of precarious work; and the intersections between precarious work and categories of gender, race, and citizenship status. We conclude with a summary of the articles included in the issue.

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1. Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge, 2003).

2. Arnold, Dennis and Bongiovi, Joseph R., “Precarious, Informalizing, and Flexible Work: Transforming Concepts and Understandings,” American Behavioral Scientist 57 (2013): 298300 .

3. Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, 2011), 10.

4. Cranford, Cynthia J., Vosko, Leah F., and Zukewich, Nancy, “Precarious Employment in the Canadian Labour Market: A Statistical Portrait,” Just Labour 3 (2003): 9. Gerry Rodgers, “Precarious Work in Western Europe: The State of the Debate,” in Precarious Jobs in Labour Market Regulation: The Growth of Atypical Employment in Western Europe, ed. Gerry Rodgers and Janine Rodgers (Brussels, 1989), 3.

5. Kalleberg, Arne, “Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition,” American Sociological Review 74 (2009): 2. Breman, Jan and van der Linden, Marcel, “Informalizing the Economy: The Return of the Social Question at a Global Level,” Development and Change 45 (2014): 924.

6. Kalleberg, Arne L. and Hewison, Kevin, “Precarious Work and the Challenge for Asia,” American Behavioral Scientist 57 (2013): 274, 278. Emphasis in original.

7. For example, Chamorro adopts a different four criteria: degree of instability in continuity of work, presence of a labor contract offering some protection, level of earnings, and degree of individual or collective control over the labor relation. Catalina Chamorro Rios, “Precariedad laboral y capacidad de bienestar de los trabajadores Chilenos: ¿Una aproximación a nuevas formas de desigualdad?” Paper presented at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics Meetings, Madrid, June 23, 2011.

8. For example, Cranford and coauthors operationalize their four-criterion definition with three indicators that serve as imperfect proxies: firm size, union status, and hourly wage. Cranford et al., “Precarious Employment,” 13. Similarly, Mora and coauthors, in a study of precarity in Guatemala and Costa Rica, adopt overlapping but distinct indicators for the two countries and even for different employment statuses (self-employed vs. wage and salary workers) based on data availability. Minor Mora, Hugo Sarmiento, and Chris Tilly, Precarious Work in Construction in Guatemala and Costa Rica (Washington, DC, 2015).

9. Breman and van der Linden, “Informalizing,” 920–40.

10. Cranford et al., “Precarious employment,” 7.

11. This adapts a definition of the informal economy from Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes, “World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics, and Effects of the Informal Economy,” in The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries, ed. Manuel Castells, Alejandro Portes, and Lauren Benton (Baltimore, 1989),11–37.

12. Agarwala, Rina, “An Economic Sociology of Informal Work: The Case of India,” in Economic Sociology of Work, Research in the Sociology of Work 18 (2009): 323.

13. Chris Tilly, interview with Adrián Martínez, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, September 2012 (unpublished).

14. van der Linden, Marcel, “San Precario: A New Inspiration for Labor Historians,” Labor: Studies in Working-class History of the Americas 11 (2014): 921 .

15. Kalleberg, Arne, “Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition,” American Sociological Review 74 (2009): 122 .

16. Breman and van der Linden, “Informalizing”; van der Linden, “San Precario.”

17. Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1979); David Montgomery, Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York, 1977); David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge, 1987).

18. David Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich, Segmented Work, Divided Workers (Cambridge, 1982); Kitty Calavita, Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the INS (New Orleans, 2010); Rita Chin, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany (Cambridge, 2007).

19. Kalleberg, “Precarious Work”; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford, 1990); Bennett Harrison, Lean and Mean: The Changing Architecture of Corporate Power in the Age of Flexibility (New York, 1994); Silver, Forces of Labor; Michael J. Piore, and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity (New York, 1984).

20. Munck, Ronaldo, “The Precariat: A View from the South,” Third World Quarterly 34 (2013): 747–62.

21. Hart, Keith, “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11 (1973): 6189 .

22. Tokman, Victor, “Integrating the Informal Sector into the Modernization Process,” SAIS Review 21 (2001): 4560 .

23. Portes, Alejandro and Hoffman, Kelly, “Latin American Class Structures: Their Composition and Change during the Neoliberal Era,” Latin American Research Review 38 (2003): 4182 ; Alan Gilbert, The Latin American City (London, 1998).

24. Munck, , “The Precariat”; Andries Bezuidenhout and Buhlungu Sakhela, “From Compounded to Fragmented Labour: Mineworkers and the Demise of Compounds in South Africa,” Antipode 43 (2011): 237–63.

25. Buckley, Michelle, “From Kerala to Dubai and Back Again: Construction Migrants and the Global Economic Crisis,” Geoforum 43 (2012): 250–59.

26. Kalleberg, Arne L. and Hewison, Kevin, “Precarious Work and Flexibilization in South and Southeast Asia,” American Behavioral Scientist 57 (2013): 395402 .

27. Millar, Kathleen, “The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Cultural Anthropology 29 (2014): 3253 .

28. Kalleberg and Hewison, “Precarious Work and Flexibilization.”

29. Solaiman, S. M., “Unprecedented Factory Fire of Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh: Revisiting Bangladesh Labor Laws in Light of Their Equivalents in Australia,” Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal 31 (2013): 125–57; William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York, 1998).

30. van der Linden, “San Precario.”

31. Rina Agarwala, Informal Work, Formal Politics, and Dignifying Discontent in India (Cambridge, 2013).

32. Wright, Erik Olin, “Working-Class Power, Capitalist Interests, and Class Compromise,” American Journal of Sociology 105 (2000): 1559–71.

33. Kalleberg, and Hewison, , “Precarious Work and Flexibilization”; Naomi Lightman and Luann Good Gingrich, “The Intersecting Dynamics of Social Exclusion: Age, Gender, Race and Immigrant Status in Canada's Labour Market,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 44 (2013): 121–45; Harsha Walia, “Increasing Precarity: The Politics of Migrant Labor.” Left Turn, July 9, 2007, (accessed March 10, 2016).

34. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139–67.

35. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in Selected Works, ed. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Moscow, 1975).

36. Ronaldo Munck, Carl Ulrik Schierup, and Raúl Delgado Wise, eds., Migration, Work and Citizenship in the New Global Order (London, 2008); Stephen Castles and Marl Miller, The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (Houndmills, 2009); Heather Bernhardt, Annette Boushey, Laura Dresser, and Chris Tilly, eds., The Gloves-off Economy: Workplace Standards at the Bottom of America's Labor Market (Ithaca, 2008).

37. Jennifer Jihye Chun, Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (Ithaca, 2009).

38. Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley, 2003).

39. Edward Webster, Robert Lambert, and Andries Bezuidenhout, Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the Age of Insecurity (Oxford, 2008).

40. Silver, Forces of Labor; David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London, 2012); Craig Phelan, ed., The Future of Organized Labour: Global Perspectives (Bern, 2006).

41. Kate Bronfenbrenner, ed., Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital Through Cross-Border Campaigns (Ithaca, 2007); Jeffery Harrod and Robert O'Brien, Global Unions: Theory and Strategies of Organized Labour in the Global Political Economy (London, 2002).

42. Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements (Ithaca, 2003).

43. Ranis, Peter, “Argentina's Worker-Occupied Factories and Enterprises,” Socialism and Democracy 19 (2005): 123 ; Eva Cheng “Bangladesh: Workers Revolt against Pay Squeeze,” Green Left Weekly, July 26, 2006, (accessed March 10, 2016).

44. Moody, Kim, “Towards an International Social-Movement Unionism,” New Left Review 225 (1997): 5272 ; Waterman, Peter, “Social Movement Unionism: A New Model for a New World Order,” Review 16 (1993): 245–78; von Holdt, Karl, “Social Movement Unionism: The Case of South Africa,” Work, Employment, and Society 16 (2002): 194213 ; Andries Bezuidenhout, “Towards Global Social Movement Unionism? Trade Union Responses to Globalisation in South Africa,” International Institute for Labour Studies (IILS) Discussion Paper 115 (Geneva, 2000).

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International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
  • URL: /core/journals/international-labor-and-working-class-history
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