Book review: Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand

Edited by Shiloh Groot, Clifford Van Ommen, Bridgette Masters-Awatere and Natasha Tassell-Matamua (Palmerston North: Massey University Press, 2017).

Reviewed by Ross Webb.

We live in a society skewed in favour of those with extensive wealth, where attention is diverted away from an examination of inequalities by vilifying those who bear the greatest burden of a broken system.
Precarity, 14.

This new book from Massey University Press provides insights into the many dimensions of precarious lives in New Zealand. Its aim, set out in the introduction, is “not to further vilify them, but rather to place their lived experience in plain sight.” “It is time”, the editors of the collection continue, “[that] all New Zealanders understood the reality of what many of our own citizens endure in the struggle to make ends meet and live dignified lives.” The book owes its title and its central theme to the work of Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class and A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. His more recent book, The Corruption of Capitalism: Why rentiers thrive and work does not pay, continued the theme of his two earlier books: that income is channelled to the owners of property—financial, physical and intellectual—at the expense of society. Precarity provides a well needed analysis of how these broader themes apply to New Zealand and does so through a range of voices, approaches, perspectives and academic disciplines. In recent years, there have been some valuable contributions that address such topics as the financialization of the economy and the enormous wealth disparities that mark our society have been explored by scholars (for example, Jane Kelsey’s The Fire Economy and the essays in
Max Rashbrooke’s Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis). However, the composition and experience of the precarious lives that endure the worst of these issues is missing. Precarity provides the foundation.

The book opens with a broader perspective of the precariat, provided by the originator of the term, Guy Standing. In the forward, Standing outlines his definition of the precariat, and why this new “class-in-the-making” has emerged. Standings makes it clear from the outset, however, that the precariat is not an incidental feature of economic change. Rather, he writes, “[i]t is wanted by those steering and gaining from a global system and that has veered a long way from anything close to a textbook version of a ‘free market economy.’” Standing outlines an important theme of the book. That is, that while the precariat is often defined by their insecure employment relationship, it encompasses four other key dimensions. Along with that precarious employment relationship, the precariat have no occupational narrative or identity and “must do a great deal of work that is not labour, work that is neither recognised statistically nor remunerated in any way, but which must be done.” Secondly, the precariat do not receive the non-wage benefits and subsidised services that members of what Standing calls the salariat usually receive, which include pensions, paid
holidays and paid sick leave. Thirdly, the precariat are a class losing their rights, becoming denizens. Standing writes, “They lack or are losing all forms of rights— civil cultural, social, economic and political’. Lastly, is the experience of a sense of relative deprivation.

Following Standing’s forward, in which he outlines the global context and definitions of the precariat, we move into the New Zealand context. The introduction provides a broad overview of the book, including summaries of each chapter and situates the idea of the precariat or precarity within its historical and New Zealand specific context. “In one sense”, the authors write, “precarity refers to the negative consequences for the wellbeing and survival of citizens following the gradual dismantling of the welfare state and union representation; in another related sense, it refers to the changing nature of work that becomes intermittent, insecure and insufficient.” The introduction also outlines the broader focus of the book. While Standing focuses on the world of labour, this book explores other forms of precarity, such as opportunities for cultural expression and embodiment, and the struggle to secure safety in intimate and family relationships. The introduction demonstrates this with a focus on disability. People living with disabilities are one population in New Zealand whose access to equitable labour conditions has always been denied. This was illustrated through a restructure at KFC in 2013 where 17 workers with disabilities lost their jobs—a decision reversed with the aid of Unite Union, Labour and the Greens. It is an existence, the authors argue, marked by insecure employment, inadequate income and compromised social, political and economic rights that “clearly locates many people with disabilities in New Zealand among the precariat.” This is just one of the many “underexplored examples” of precarity uncovered in this book.

The book is divided into 18 short chapters and divided into 3 parts. The first part, ‘Selling Snake Oil’, is made up of three essays that address the more general aspects of precarity and the precariat, including its statistical composition, the poverty trap, media representations, penal welfare, food insecurity, precariousness among women and children escaping domestic violence, and older people and the “lessons of universality.” The first chapter, on the statistical composition of the precariat, outlines the definition of the precariat as comprising three categories: temporary employees, the jobless, and beneficiaries. The first outlines the demographic composition of the precariat and argues that in New Zealand, at least one in six can be defined as being part of this group, a group overrepresented by females, younger age groups, those with low or no qualifications, and those with low incomes. The New Zealand precariat has higher rates of prevalence in regions associated with meat processing, horticulture, and other seasonal employment. The following chapters address the poverty trap, and how those affected can lift themselves out of it. Centrally, it argues that if a ‘poverty trap’ exists, then poverty will never be eradicated without safety nets like international aid, welfare, and a decent living wage.

Wayne Hope and Janes Scott then address the media representations of precarious work. This chapter, however, focuses far too much on the context of neoliberal capitalism and less on media representation, and the power that lies within and behind the media and its representation. The next chapter uses the term ‘penal welfare’ to describe the increasingly ruthless free-market approaches to welfare and the criminalisation of families in need—a trend we saw very recently with the attacks on Metiria Turei. Crucially, the chapter includes the voices of those who are the targets of the ‘tough love’ approach and face coercion, detailed monitoring, denial of resources, blaming humiliation, threats and minimisation of legitimate concerns.

The chapters calls for the abolition of penal welfare, and a more humane approach based on universality and one that is embedded within a broader socio-economic system that ensures living wages, quality work, and an equitable society. This section also includes chapters on food insecurity and domestic violence as forms of precarity. The last chapter in this section is particularly interesting. Against the background of youth struggle and exclusion, the author Mary Breheny argues, older people are “cast as the villains.” However, such a characterisation simplifies the conversation about inequality and precarity to one of “trade-offs” between generational cohorts. In short, Breheny writes, “the argument is used to suggest all that is required to address insecurity is redistribution from wealthy older people to the disenfranchised young and poor.” Such an argument rests on the assumption that no substantial structural changes are possible, and that instead, equity becomes about making everyone equally insecure. Breheny thus makes the case for universality.

The Second Part, entitled ‘Native Disruptions: Māori and the Precariat’ details the experience of Māori living with insecure housing, employment, education, and/or access to health services. The guiding theme of the section is the past and present and a focus on how social, economic, political and cultural structures contribute to the maintenance of precariousness for Māori. But this section also focuses not only on what is “broken”, but also provide inspiration in the face of adversity. The section begins with an invitation to the reader: “to understand, embrace, and own the past. By recognising and accepting the past—our collective histories—we can determine our collective present and future.” The first chapter somewhat mirrors the first chapter of the first section, described above, in that is provides a demographic portrait, or as the authors put it, a “silhouette”, the fundamental starting point for understanding the lived experience of the Māori precariat.

Delta King, Mohi Rua and Darris Hidgetts expand on the previous chapter’s notion of penal welfare. Following a historical overview of the emergence of the Māori precariat (describing Māori as becoming a “economic shock absorber for society in austere times”), the authors describe the perceived “dependency” of Māori on social services and the experience of those requiring assistance as well as for advocates. The Māori experience with social services is continued in the following two chapters which address the precarious position of young Māori mothers and Māori Health providers. The final chapter of the section addresses Māori youth homelessness, with powerful description of the lived experience of precarity. What unites these essays is understanding precarity not only as a global development of a new class, but something unique and specific to the history of Māori. The solution, too, remains specific to Māori and through the “incorporation of a Te Ao Māori (Māori world) perspective into local and national responses… we can contribute to the native disruption of the precariat.”

The last section of the book, ‘Arrivals: Past and Present’, contains perhaps some of the most innovative approaches to understanding precarity. As the title suggests, this section of the book addresses the stories of those arriving from elsewhere, including the experience of non-European immigrant experiences in the labour market, the refugee experience, and Pasifika women. Paul Spoonley opens Part One with an essay on the history of immigrants in New Zealand, the various waves of immigration and the challenges of seeking secure employment in New Zealand. Since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, Spoonley argues, migrants have found themselves in a much more casualised and individualised labour market, while those earlier migrants faced the decline of manufacturing jobs in the face of deindustrialisation. The strong theme of the following three essays is the focus on the individual experience of Pasifika people: Byron Seiluli and Philip Siataga focus on Tauivi, an afakasi (Samoan and palagi, mixed heritage) man grieving the loss of his father; Bridgette Masters-Awatere and Jessica Gosche describe the story of Teuili, and the horrors of domestic violence, and Seraphine Williams and Shiloh Groot look at the experience of four young Samoan transwomen and discrimination in the workplace. The final two chapters address the experience of refugees and asylum seekers, an area often not discussed in the discussion of the precariat.

Overall the book is effective in achieving its goal of demonstrating the varying ways precarity is experienced. The book sets out to combine an interdisciplinary approach to precarious lives in Aotearoa and does so by drawing on work by academics, emerging researchers, and advocates. In this way, it is successful. There are some issues, however. There is far too much repetition of the broader framework across the chapters. Summaries of neoliberalism and the economic reforms since 1984 are detailed too often across each chapter. Nevertheless, this is an important contribution that begins an important conversation. Hopefully, like Max Rashbrookes’ Inequality, it sparks a broader debate, ensures that those living precarious lives are indeed placed “in plain sight”, and the issues they face are addressed.