When at the 2015 UK Conservative party conference the Home SecretaryTheresa May invokes “the most vulnerable as a selling point for harsh new proposals regarding the treatment of refugees (which the Refugee Council described as “thoroughly chilling”), it isn’t to highlight the human cost of the current wave of migration originating to a greater extent from Syria and other conflict zones, rather it is an attempt to employ a vulnerability narrative to soften the harsh and draconian new asylum proposals in what can clearly be seen as a self-serving speech in her presumed bid for the Tory leadership. When however the World Health Organisation tells us that although ‘the vulnerable’ pre-exist globalisation, groups such as “the elderly, the young, and the poor [who] are already so marginalized that they cannot benefit from globalization… are increasing in numbers as globalization increases the gap between rich and poor” it suggests that vulnerability represents a substantive and long-standing problem. And when Martha Fineman, a Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University and an internationally recognized law and society scholar, argues that vulnerability is a life-long universal human ‘condition’ which has both political and policy implications, then clearly there is more to the concept than simple semantics and something which is clearly worthy of further research and investigation. Indeed it is precisely the political and policy implications of vulnerability which is the driver for research that myself and my colleague Enrico Reuter are currently engaged in. Our research examines the relationship between a specific conceptualisation of vulnerability and labour market policies, and the impact policy has on those at the margins of the labour market.
Vulnerability as the WHO suggest is not a new phenomenon, nor is it new to the social sciences. For example, it has a history as a way of conceptualising risk (Beck 1992) in contemporary society, with Beck (2009: 178) noting that vulnerability and risk were “two sides of the same coin”. Perhaps what is ‘new’ is the plethora of uses this term is applied to, clearly not with the same intent or agenda, by a range of social actors, whether that be housing, education, disability or youth justice (Levy-Vroelant, 2010; Brown, 2012; Emmel and Hughes, 2014).
In thinking about vulnerability, I want to make a distinction between what can be thought of as the generalised conceptualisations of vulnerability in popular discourse on the one hand, and a perhaps broader conceptualisation of vulnerability which can be applied to labour market relations in general and to those on the margins of the labour market in particular on the other hand. The margins are those areas of the labour market that are less secure, more informal and so at greater risk of exposure to the vagaries and the ebb and flow of the broader global economy (Savage et al, 2013). The margins also contain those who are employed on short term or ‘zero hours contracts’, those who in plain terms are more vulnerable to unemployment and at greatest risk of poverty and/or increased inequality whether that be through unemployment or as members of the working poor. In September the UK’s Office for National Statistics released figures which showed that nearly three quarter of a million people are on zero hours contracts It is this group whom Guy Standing (2011) has defined as the precariat, which he argues is a coming class defined by its members’ relationship to a range of securities allied to the labour market.
In addressing vulnerability, the policy results of institutions, of governments and their departments can either exacerbate or ameliorate individual/shared vulnerability, and too often in the current neo-liberal political environment it is the former rather than the latter that results from social policy reforms. Too often vulnerability is linked to a spurious notion of ‘choice’, and the predominant discourse is behaviourist and seeks to impose restrictions upon, or hurdles in the way of, those deemed vulnerable as a direct result of their own action or inaction as perceived by the state. This is particularly the case when the current (and previous) UK government talk about and legislate for employment and access to the labour market, as illustrated by the work capability assessment of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Whilst not wishing to push the exact relationship between the precariat and vulnerability too far, it is those who lack some or all of the ‘seven forms of security’ (labour market, employment, job, work, skill reproduction, income, representation) identified by Standing (2011) who become the target of social policies that highlight and target the individual. This can be both a positive as well as a negative element in policy making; in the former bolstering individual resources and resilience – being identified or labelled as vulnerable can result in individuals and groups being the recipients of direct or tailored support to combat such vulnerability – and in the latter adopting a behaviourist approach through restricted and conditional access to welfare state support. The common ground for both however is that social policies which simply co-opt the vocabulary of vulnerability pursue a clear focus centred on individual accountability rather than a social and collective rights-based response (Levy-Vroelant, 2010). It is the change in the relationship between employment and citizenship which, as the determining factor in the access to social rights, has undergone significant structural change as a result of the impact of a liberal globalised economy. In the words of my colleague Kate Brown, in her excellent book ‘Vulnerability and Young People’, we need a structural approach to vulnerability, one which takes account of “institutions and their role in the provision of ‘supportive’ services… institutional factors and forces that shape the choices, views and lives of individuals which persist over time, but which can be modified by human action” (Brown, 2015: 16).
On balance, the shift from de-commodification to re-commodification of labour (Greer, 2015) can result in greater individual insecurity and vulnerability to external shocks. Allied to the hegemonic neo-liberal discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, employment and participation in the labour market became and remains more precarious for a greater number of people in a variety of economic settings – particularly the young and least skilled – which places them at greater risk of (long-term) unemployment and confines them to the margins of the labour market.
Recently Professor Peter Fleming wrote a piece for The Guardian called ‘There is nothing good about the rise of zero hour contracts – ban them now’. In the context of vulnerability, citizenship and social rights, it is difficult to find anything to disagree with in what he says.
Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.
Beck, U. (2009). World at Risk, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Brown, K. (2012). Remoralising ‘vulnerability’, People, Place and Policy Online, 6 (1), 41-53.
Brown, K. (2015). Vulnerability and Young People: Care and Social Control in Policy and Practice. Bristol: The Policy Press
Emmel, N. and Hughes, K. (2014). ‘Vulnerability, Inter-Generational Exchange, and the Conscience of Generations’ in J. Holland and R. Edwards (eds) Understanding Families Over Time: Research and Policy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Greer, I. (2015). Welfare reform, precarity and the re-commodification of labour, Work, Employment and Society, (available online May 13 2015).
Levy-Vroelent, C. (2010). Housing Vulnerable Groups: The Development of a New Public Action Sector, International Journal of Housing Policy, 10 (4), 443-456.
Savage, M.,Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., Yaojin, L., Hjellbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Friedman, S. and Miles, A. (2013). A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment, Sociology, 47 (2), 219-250.
Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class, London Bloomsbury.