About the Seminar

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar
Precarious Work in Asia
Kevin Hewison (Carolina Asia Center) and Arne L. Kalleberg (Department of Sociology)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
January 2011-May 2012

This seminar series examines precarious work in a variety of Asian countries (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand). By “precarious work,” we refer to the uncertainty, instability and insecurity of work in which risks are borne primarily by workers rather than by employers or the government. The seminar will explore the extent of precarious work in these countries, examine the historical and cultural roots of precarious work, assess the consequences of precarious work for individuals and families in these societies, and consider a variety of political, social and economic policies that might address precarious work and its consequences. Throughout the eighteen months of the seminar, we will attempt to answer these questions in a series of internal seminars involving UNC participants and workshops that will bring in scholars from elsewhere in the U.S. and Asia.

“Precarious work” refers to the uncertainty, instability and insecurity of work in which risks are borne primarily by workers rather than by employers or government. Precarious work is not new. However, social, economic, political and cultural forces that have been operating for several decades, associated with the globalization of production, have resulted in pressures for flexibility that make work increasingly more precarious throughout the world and across all sectors of employment.

Precarious work has far-reaching consequences that cut across many areas of concern to workers and their families, governments, and businesses. It has created insecurity for many people and has pervasive consequences not only for the nature of work, workplaces, and peoples’ work experiences. Hence, it is important to understand changes to production and state policies that generate precarious work and insecurity.
In this seminar series, we propose to: assess the extent of different forms of precarious work globally and, more specifically, in several Asian countries differing in their levels of development; explore the roots of precarious work in these societies, including the socio-cultural institutions that have traditionally offered protections against neo-liberal imperatives; examine the consequences of precarious work for individuals and families in these societies; and consider political, social and economic policies that might address precarious work and its consequences. These issues and questions will be addressed in a series of UNC-based reading groups, seminars and workshops involving scholars from UNC and elsewhere.

What is Precarious Work?
Precarious work is a key aspect of the employment relationship and an individual’s experience of work. Production and work are central to human endeavor and it is thus vital to understand how work, production and security are changing the ways in which people live. Precarious work refers to a wide range of work arrangements in the formal economy as well as to work in the informal economy. It points to insecurity in standard employment relations (full-time work that is directed by an employer at the employer’s place of business) as well as nonstandard employment relations and informal economy activities. For example, contracted-in labor might meet definitions of standard labor in some cases but their working life remains precarious. Moreover, there may be an informalization of standard, “permanent” jobs when these jobs are declared redundant or phased out and replaced by short-term or outsourced jobs. ”Precarious work” captures the definitional fuzziness associated with the many and various categories of work that may not even be “new” forms but are redefined by employers and put to use by them in new contexts of production and in ways that cheapens the cost of labor and reduces its capacity for organization. The notion of precarious work has grown in popularity because the distinctions between standard/nonstandard and formal/informal work arrangements are often inadequate to capture the complexities of modern work resulting from neoliberal economic reforms such as privatization and deregulation.

Precarious work results from employment practices that are designed to: (1) reduce costs, (2) limit or reduce workforce size, (3) maximize flexibility, and/or (4) shift risks to workers. This involves the use of systems that include putting-out arrangements, in-house contracted labor, irregular and casual employment, competitive work teams, seasonal work and migrant workers. Precarious work is found in all sectors: manufacturing, service industries, and agricultural production.

Precarious work is not a new form of employment in the Asian countries being examined, such as India, China, Thailand and less industrialized countries. Nevertheless, as these countries have industrialized and urbanized the nature of work has changed in all sectors. In addition, there is now a huge variation in the form precarious labor may take across countries in terms of legal and social institutions. The nature of precarious work depends on national conditions and has been called more popularly flexible labor in the Philippines, nonstandard labor in Japan, irregular labor in South Korea, and contractual labor in the language of many local trade unionists, among other terms.

It is important to recognize that the precariousness associated with work is not determined solely by the nature of work. Instead, it must be determined in the relationship with other economic, cultural, historical, and social factors such as social welfare. Since precarious work can also refer to degree of social protection, the social meaning of precarious work also depends upon the level of risk due to work. Unfortunately, at the same time that work has become more precarious, social safety nets have been limited or reduced in many societies.

A copy of the proposal for the seminar is available by emailing Kevin Hewison (khewison@unc.edu).

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