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Fifth International Conference on Precarious Work and Vulnerable Workers

RICHENDA POWER and David Wilkins, from the London Freelance Branch, NUJ, report from this conference, held at Middlesex University, London, 13-14 June, where Richenda presented, on behalf of LFB: "Freelance workers do not work 'for free'." The talk outlines ways LFB is refreshing and renewing its work, as we see an increasing proportion of freelancers within the union (more than 40 per cent of new member applications) and technological and legislative changes impact on the nature of journalism. This fitted a conference theme, "Increasing vulnerability in the workplace", on which convenor Malcolm Sargeant, Professor of Labour Law at Middlesex, had posed the question: "who are the groups most likely to be vulnerable?", inviting contributions on "the role of trade unions in protecting such vulnerable workers and the role of whistleblowers in exposing abuses in the workplace."

The fifth of this series of annual conferences was sponsored by the Association for International and Comparative Studies in Labour Law and Industrial Relations (ADAPT), Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and the Middlesex University Business School (UK). The call for papers announced "If anything the world of work has become even more precarious since 2010", when the first conference was held, citing examples of employment contracts "under siege from new and apparently more flexible ways of working" together with increasing numbers of workers who could be classified as "vulnerable". The broad invitation to academics, practitioners, new researchers and PhD students, from a wide range of backgrounds, including "law, HR, business, sociology and economics" encouraged a good range of attendees from across the world who drew on a variety of disciplines and methods. A flavour of this breadth is given in this brief report which mainly deals with the session in which we presented.

In his welcome and theme-setting address Sargeant first listed the themes which also included "New forms of work", "Occupational health and safety"; "Demographic change" and "Climate change". While stating the aims as to develop and to pick up ideas, he emphasised the need to clarify exactly "what we mean by 'vulnerability' and 'precarity'", ideas sometimes mixed up, but "worth individual and careful study", such as Michael Quinlan's research on dock workers in the nineteenth century. Sargeant claims "Vulnerability" is a "complex issue, which could refer to individuals, or groups or situations", and vulnerability theory could be linked with work on inequalities.

Sylvie Gravel, Université de Québec à Montréal, (UQÀM) was first to present on "Health and safety of workers who accumulate precariousness: the struggle to attribute health inequalities at work". Synthesising research from two analytical frameworks, a social production model of occupational health and safety (OHS), and one using the concept of "cumulated job precariousness", she pinpointed a "paradox". While there are "hundreds of studies and recommendations with OHS professionals" there is a "cumulative precariousness" for workers in terms of "job insecurity, income insecurity, lack of recognition of professional skills and precarious immigration status". The paradox is that those workers "most exposed to the risk of occupational injuries are also excluded from preventive measures. How can OHS workers fulfill their role to all workers in these circumstances?"

After some discussion and a break, David Wilkins chaired the rest of the morning, keeping speakers to time and then facilitating a question and answer session well. Ours was the first of three presentations. In the accompanying slideshow, the image of "Robohack", "a prophetic fantasy to illustrate the multi-skilled journalist of the future, ... created for The Journalist by John Harris in 1993" (Gopsill and Neale, 2007, Journalists: 100 Years of the NUJ, p 90) was used to highlight current expectations of journalists, which have caused challenges within the union as well as to trades previously associated with ours. There is also the example David provided of disability discrimination: a training institution told him that he could no longer be a journalist if unable to create video or to use social media. (He is a journalist with visual and hearing disablities.) The warm and responsive audience understood what we are doing to make our branch more equal for all members, thereby refreshing it and the union.

Rafael Gomez, Director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources (CIRHR), University of Toronto, Canada followed with an in-depth quantitative analysis of labour market statistics and union membership. "Unions and Vulnerable Workers: Evidence from Union Wage Premiums in Canada 2000-2012" (co-authored with Danielle Lamb, Ryerson University, Canada). Gomez demonstrated the increasing value that union membership makes to individuals the more "vulnerable" (of many categories) they may fit. This was a good counterpoint in terms of its Canada-wide statistical analysis of the objective value of union membership, a macro level study to follow our micro-scale insider case study.

Jay Youngdahl, from San Francisco State University, USA, shared his "bird's eye view of Silicon Valley" in "Precarious Work in the US -Employees, Independent Contractors and the On-Demand 'Utopia'," i.e. not, citing the example of an online platform "Doordash", whose "Dashers" deliver food of all kinds to customers who order via that platform. He quoted from the company, which "wouldn't be interviewed, but sent a statement" about their "Dashers" "enjoying flexibility, freedom and a meaningful source of income". Youngdahl said this is a "new way of share cropping".

In the discussion that followed the three presentations, Jyothi Kodungati, of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, India, asked what benefits a union could offer beyond wage improvements. Richenda took this opportunity to cite several examples of benefits the NUJ provides its members: the expertise and involvement at the highest level, nationally and internationally, of Mike Holderness, our co-editor, on copyright legislation; continual attention to and action on all threats to press freedom and workers' and trade unionists' rights; individually, automatic membership of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). The question took on a deeper significance the next day when Kodungati spoke on "The Emerging Nature of Work in the Indian Sharing Economy" an in-depth study of self-employed cab drivers working from the UBER and OLA platforms.' More recently these workers have started a union, but at the time of the presentation this was not the case.

After our session, Erling Rasmussen, from Auckland University of Technology, introduced himself to us, saying he had himself been an NUJ member when he was Assistant Editor at Income Data Services in the UK. Now he is involved, with Felicity Lamm, Sargeant and Dave Moore, in a study of workers reconstructing Christchurch, New Zealand, following the 2010 earthquake. Their paper "Under Pressure: OHS of Vulnerable Workers in the Construction Industry" looks at the research on migrant workers to highlight extant issues of vulnerability. As in journalism, the high level of contractors and outsourced work has created many vulnerable workers and the unions have difficulty in supporting and recruiting them. One way forward appears to be stronger collaboration with other unions and a range of grass-root movements. Late in the afternoon, Hanna Danilovich, also from Middlesex University, reported on the "Social and economic consequences of the 2015 Belarus 'social parasites' tax for vulnerable workers", based on an old Soviet idea that "those who don't work don't eat". Danilovich explained that last year's presidential decree claimed there were around 400,000 "social parasites" to "force into employment". The closest historical example is the British practice of workhouses. A "social parasite" could be a woman at home with two children, if they are over ten years of age (those with more than two children not being "social parasites"), an art worker, if not a member of an official association, and many more categories, with the one for an "economic migrant being most blurred". People who self-registered by a certain date would reduce the amount of SP tax due, but so far only a few hundred did. Let's hope the fact that it has been so spectacularly unsuccessful means that no other government considers copying this example.

Michelle O'Sullivan and Caroline Murphy, from the University of Limerick, had met Richenda on their way into the conference, saying they wanted to come and hear our session. Michelle is supervising Irish Times journalist Kathryn Hayes' PhD research on how working conditions of freelance journalists affect the journalism they undertake (contact details below). The following day they reported their study on "The Drivers and Outcomes of Zero Hours Work in Ireland". In fact, contracts for "zero hours" are not issued, but "if and/or when" and "as required" are the terms commonly seen in the Irish context.

Research into labour conditions and unionisation is of vital importance, whatever the language and terms used. Whether you are offered a "zero hours" contract in the UK or an "as required"/"if and/or when" version in Ireland, it is the impact on health and well being of workers, their families and our societies that matters. The meaning of "precarity" may be straightforwardly communicated, but "vulnerability" requires forensic unpicking in specific circumstances to ensure that unjust unequal situations may be exposed and groups and individuals enabled.


  • Thanks to the London Freelance Branch for voting for a motion to cover expenses, which covered travel expenses for Richenda and David, and the fee for use of "Robohack" by John Harris in the slideshow.
  • Thanks to all those who helped prepare the paper "Freelance Journalists do not work 'for free'": John Toner, Jenny Vaughan and Phil Sutcliffe for editing suggestions; Magda Ibrahim for contributing a section on the Equality survey and in depth interviews that she and Safiullah Tazib are conducting; especial thanks are due to Sonya Thomas for detailed comprehensive and constructive criticism.
  • Thanks to David Wilkins for stepping up to come and support Richenda at very short notice, and for taking on the unexpected additional duty of chairing the session.
  • Thanks to the conference convenor and the presenters who helped with this report: Malcolm Sargeant, Rafael Gomez, Jyothi Kodungati, Erling Rasmussen, Michelle O'Sullivan and Caroline Murphy.

Contacts and links

  • If you would like to read more about ADAPT International and their conferences: and
  • The Study on the prevalence of zero hours contracts can be read here:
  • Kathryn Hayes is at and her PhD is on how working conditions of freelance journalists affects the journalism they undertake and she'd be happy to hear from freelancers.
  • The slideshow for "Freelance workers do not work 'for free'" will be linked here later.
  • Last modified: 29 Jul 2016 - © 2016 contributors
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