The institution of work is hostile for people who identify as being disabled, neurodivergent, chronically ill, having impairments, and/or who have experience of mental distress. This is particularly true within precarious work, including in the gig economy, which is often the only type of waged work that makes securing an income or pursuing a particular career feasible for many people.
In this blog, I highlight the importance of collective resistance against precarious working conditions and the necessity of deepening the already existing solidarity across labour, disability, and mental health movements. I also highlight the need to consider the role that rest plays in people’s lives – as the basis for bodymind rejuvenation, collective flourishing, resistance, and ultimately, social change.
The nature of precarious work
I am currently a doctoral researcher in the Politics and International Relations department at the University of Birmingham. The research project that I am working on, ‘The Politics of Disablement and Precarious Work’, focuses on the ways in which people who identify as experiencing mental distress, being disabled, neurodivergent, chronically ill, and/or having impairments navigate, negotiate, and contest competing demands of work.
As a caveat, going forwards in this blog I will use the term ‘subjects of disablement’ as a non-identity term to refer to all the groups of people mentioned above. This stems from my argument that disablement is a structural feature of capitalist societies, and as a result, regardless of the identity terms one uses, the processes of disablement oppression and exploitation affect all these groups (albeit differently).
The research project involved part-time, short-term, zero-hours, casual, and self-employed workers. Many people who experience disablement and mental distress worked full-time before starting more precarious gig work and found the gig economy to be the only option available at the time for waged work. Reasons for leaving full-time work vary, but one underlying feature is common: employers’ anti-worker and disablement-imbued hostility manifested in a myriad of ways.
Employers often refuse to implement reasonable adjustments or bully (or ignore the bullying of) workers, slowly but steadily managing out and chipping away at the dignity and wellbeing of employees. Some employers discriminate on the grounds of trade union involvement – for example, a research participant spoke about how, in the cultural sector, the contract of an outsourced catering company was not renewed upon finding out that workers were organising to establish a union branch at their workplace.
In gig economy roles, people involved in the research project reported a lack of understanding of mental distress among colleagues, managers, and HR departments. Freelancers and self-employed workers, as well as those who owned their own small Community Interest Companies, indicated a relatively higher level of autonomy and control over the pace and conditions of their work, including the ability to embed reasonable adjustments and particular conditions of working within their contracts and work environments. None of the participants fully recommended gig economy work to other subjects of disablement due to the financial and emotional precarity embedded within this form of work.
Resistance on the job takes place through individual acts of challenging management and through collectively organising with fellow workers – within and outside the structures of union branches. However, all participants in the research project suggested that employers and trade unions must do more to centre the interests and demands of those subjected to disablement oppression and exploitation and whose waged work is precarious. For instance, too often, reasonable adjustments and other matters relating to disability are treated by employers through the framework of ‘health and safety’– thus individualising and depoliticising what in fact are structurally-imposed issues. Trade union activists should challenge such individualising approaches.
Long-standing union activists in the project further noted that unions ought to engage with the politics of mental distress and disablement more generally as collective issues. As a participant suggested, workplaces need to be ‘social modelled’. This could involve being proactive (rather than dismissive or reactive) with regards to reasonable adjustments, decreasing managerial control and increasing workers’ direct participation in decision-making processes, ending the pay gaps, and ending precarity.
A ‘social modelling’ of trade unions would bring the concerns of precariously employed subjects of disablement at the centre of collective negotiations and action – including strike action. Unfortunately, several participants mentioned that they had been discouraged from joining a union not only by their employer, but by union officials themselves – due to their precarious contractual circumstances. One activist who collaborates with trade unions also highlighted that at times, unions are weary of encouraging subjects of disablement to join due to concerns about potential legal support that the workers may wish to access in response to mistreatment by employers. Others stated that unions ought to restructure their membership fees, so those with the lowest incomes could afford to join – especially considering that workers with multiple jobs would need to join multiple unions.
What counts as work?
Importantly, some participants also suggested that trade unions ought to focus not only on what happens in workplaces, but also beyond the boundaries of waged work. For instance, I argue that the social security-related activities that claimants are forced to undertake should be regarded as imposed unwaged work for the state and its contractors. This unwaged work directly benefits the work ‘enforcers’. This unwaged work, alongside the work for a wage, is part of the exploitation that we experience in capitalist societies. Therefore, struggles against Work Capability Assessments (to give an example) are important struggles against work – and should be considered as standing alongside the exciting wave of strike action that many trade unions in the UK are undertaking at the moment.
Resting as a collective necessity
Throughout the research project, participants stated that what they wished they had more time for rest and restful activities. They had little time and resources (energy, financial, emotional) for anything else but work. Societally-shaped ideas of ‘laziness’ and ‘unproductivity’ are difficult to ignore and can often make resting something that causes guilt: we are made to believe that to rest means to be passive, and passivity is deemed undesirable in a society shaped by productivist dogmas. At times, such exclusionary productivism is replicated through activist circles, too. What would it mean to consider resting as an active process?
We need a much more imaginative vocabulary to delve into the complexities and importance of resting. We need to consider resting not only as an individual concern, but as a collective and very much political matter for which much more time, space, and infrastructure are needed. Resting is a collective necessity; it is the basis for individual and collective flourishing, social change, and resistance.
Moving forwards in solidarity
When we talk about work in everyday life, we need to have a much more expansive approach. Beyond recognising a wider set of activities as work, it is also crucial to consider how to reduce, abolish, and/or expand certain activities. Resting, supporting others and oneself, and organising are the types of activities that I would argue ought to be expanded, as they are the fundamental basis for social change. In that sense, I suggest that grassroots campaigns that resist violent policies against people who experience mental distress and that challenge the ‘recovery’ dogma (to name but a few) are intrinsically linked to, and part of, the impressive collective struggle that trade unions such as RMT, RCN, CWU, IWGB, UVW, UCU, Unite, and others are reproducing during this year’s Spring of Discontent. All these initiatives and campaigns are struggles against the oppressive and exploitative institution of work and productivism that governs society.
The active solidarity that is ongoing in the UK now represents the crucial coalitional and organising work of prefiguring alternative futures – right here, in the present. Centring the abolition of disablement oppression and exploitation ought to be a key organising tenet of all social movements.