A Precariat Charter: From denizens to citizens, by Guy Standing

Bloomsbury, 2014, xiv + 424 pp, 1 4725 1039 6, pbk, £16.99, 1 4725 0575 0, hbk, £55

The first chapter of this important book relates how citizenship rights have evolved, both rights granted by the State, and rights granted by other associations, such as those that grant rights to practise professions. It defines the difference between work (creative, ecological, and reproductive) and labour (resource-depleting and alienating); and it describes the precariat: ‘People living through insecure jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment or labour-force withdrawal … living insecurely, with uncertain access to housing and public resources’ (p.16), with no occupational identity, having to ‘work for labour’, and suffering from poverty traps induced by the withdrawal of means-tested benefits.

Subsequent chapters discuss employment restructuring in the austerity era; growing inequality; the growing precariat; and an increasingly utilitarian politics which ‘creates minorities, each targeted for denial of rights, transformed into denizens’ (p.117): that is, into people with limited social, economic and political rights.

The ‘hinge’ of the book is the list of five ‘justice principles’. A policy is ‘socially just only if it improves the security of the most insecure groups in society … if it does not impose controls on some groups that are not imposed on the most free groups in society … if it strengthens rightsand does not increase the discretionary and unaccountable power of those dealing with citizens … if it promotes the capacity to pursue work that is dignifying and rewarding in other ways … if it does not impose ecologically damaging externalities’ (pp. 123-4).

The second and longer part of the book contains the twenty-nine articles of Standing’s Precariat Charter, which is designed to promote ‘recognition … representation … and redistribution’ (pp. 138-43).

Article 1 calls for work to be redefined as productive and reproductive activity; article 4 for flexible labour to be regulated; article 5 for associational freedom; articles 6 to 10 for the reconstruction of occupational communities; article 14 for migrants to be seen as labour market equals; and article 17 for the removal of poverty traps and precarity traps ( – a poverty trap is where additional earned income results in very little additional net income, and a precarity trap is where forced acceptance of a low-paying short-term job can jeopardise training or future benefits). Article 25 calls for a universal basic income as a citizenship right: a proposal for which Standing offers ethical, labour-market, economic and social justifications.

The book’s final chapter is titled ‘There is a future’. Much of the first part of the book is a most depressing read because it describes the situation that all of us are in, and in particular the situation of the precariat; but the charter itself is a positive and hopeful document because it charts a way forwards.

Now all we need to do is to make it happen.

Readers might wish to refer to the following: Our review of Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class; an article in the journal Global Discourse in which Standing responds to critics of the concept of the precariat.