Replace Me: On Precarious Jobs

Time for a change of pace. I’ve been reading (or trying to read) Berdyaev’s Slavery and Freedom for a month and a half, and I’m not making any meaningful progress. So I’m done with that, and possibly also done with the Orthodox writers as well. Maybe we’ll move on to the Protestants, I don’t know – I’ll take a couple weeks to think about it. In the meantime, I’ve been reading Amber Husain’s Replace Me, a 2021 tract built around the idea of replaceability. It’s about the market and job opportunities and the growing inequality between labour and our corporate overlords. It’s a book that can only be read in one sitting, an elongated scream – it’s probably Amber’s fault that I’m fed up reading obscure Russian nonsense. Every sentence is precise and rage-inducing.

“Bouncing between platforms to patch together wages, TaskRabbits and Deliveroo riders are sold the idea that these companies are conveniently replaceable to the worker, rather than the other way round. The gimmick of ‘flexible’, ‘local’ and ‘autonomous’ service provision normalises subcontracting as a form of ’employment’. Self-motivation wards off revolution and ensures, as DeWitt suggests, that whoever’s at the bottom gets fucked.”

This whole book is just opening up a language that I’ve really struggled to find. Let me tell you a story – when I first started working in the university sector, it was as a tutor for first-year courses. We could get maybe five hours a week for each group of students that we taught, although they wouldn’t give anyone more than four classes, or twenty hours. And they paid us on a fixed-term basis – we got paid for the thirteen-week semester that we taught, and then our employment ended. And it struck me that the university really wasn’t making much of a long-term commitment to me as an employee. I was, one tenured professor told me, essentially an intern – there for a little while for not much pay to cover some of the donkey work.

So during this tutoring job, I started thinking about university in general. The pitch, with university, is that you go and get a degree and it helps you along your way in the world. You get an education and it makes you more employable – because you know more, you’re more valuable. And yet the university itself hired me on a fixed-term basis, demonstrating that the value of what I’d learned, to them, wasn’t worth a full-time or permanent role. Which – you know, I don’t want to over-stretch this argument. Obviously I understand the business case for the university – teaching staff are only needed during teaching semesters, and there’s no point paying me over the summer to twiddle my thumbs. And obviously I don’t think I’m entitled to a full-time amazing job with my own hand-picked employer. But it feels telling that this institution took my money, trained me up and spat me out, supposedly instilled with all of this value, all of this education – and then immediately told me I wasn’t that valuable after all. Even though other factors were obviously involved, the combination of those events felt indicative of a broader trend. It indicated an imbalance between the number of graduates who go through university and the number of jobs that actually require a university education – between supply and demand. It indicated a broader pattern of behaviour that I think does hold true across the university sector. There are many more PhD candidates each year than the number of available post-doc positions; the workforce relies on casual and fixed-term labour in a manner entirely disproportionate to the level of training and experience required to fill the actual roles; and there are enough hungry graduates that if some individual person objects to their own precarity, they can easily be replaced by somebody more desperate, somebody more willing to live with that instability.

This trend is not restricted to the university sector, either – it’s where I find my own grounding in this topic, but the problems are everywhere. Husain recounts her own experiences working as an assistant in publishing: “The ‘marginal value’ we brought to the business had been steadily diminished by the number of available replacements. Our roles required minimal skills yet were subject to ferocious competition … for as long as we, the assistants, were replaceable, our condition of relative powerlessness could be continually upheld.” The examples of Deliveroo or Uber offer a similar scenario in a more distilled form. In a normal job (at least in Australia), your employer has obligations to you – they have to supply a certain amount of sick leave and holiday leave, they can’t make you work more than a certain number of hours except under special conditions, and so on. But in the gig economy, workers are classed as independent contractors – Uber isn’t ‘really’ an employer, the argument goes, Uber is just an app putting independent drivers in touch with people who want a ride. The company has tried to position itself as a facilitator rather than a direct employer – and has been increasingly knocked back internationally, as seen (for example) in the 2021 UK decision that Uber drivers were entitled to protections from the company. We might see further parallels with labour conditions in strip clubs, where in many countries it’s common practice for dancers to be treated as independent contractors. The club owners again position themselves as facilitators – they don’t have employees, they claim; they’re just renting their stage (at a cost) to any independent contractors who happen to want to book the space. All of the costs and liabilities of labour are removed from the club and offloaded onto the dancers. And if some women don’t want to work in those precarious conditions – well, there’s always someone more desperate.

Desperation seems so much the motivating force in all of these examples. Whether it’s a desire to enter into the hallowed halls of academia or just to put food on the table, our options are limited – and maybe even shrinking. One of the common culprits, Husain observes, is automation – the idea that the robots are coming for our jobs. But, she says, our anxiety around automation “takes place in the context of a very real under-demand for labour. This widespread underemployment comes with the ongoing slowdown of economic growth across the West that has threatened such industries as publishing for over fifty years.” That framing puts a different spin on our search for labour, and our associated sense of self-worth. It shifts the lens up, away from personal qualities (productive members of society vs lazy bludgers), and suggests that maybe there simply aren’t enough good jobs to go round.

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