The traditional dichotomy in sociology of seeing work as either paid (productive or waged) or unpaid (reproductive or unwaged), leads to the marginalization of unpaid work when conceptualizing precarity in both research and policy. This is problematic since it systematically neglects a range of types of unpaid work, both traditional (caring), and emerging (work carried out as a precondition for welfare payments) as well as a totality of economic activities in which workers engage, including those for which people in paid work are not compensated. The situation is still further exacerbated by workers’ need to carry out career development activities, such as unpaid or low-paid internships or accumulating ‘symbolic capital’ on their own time alongside the pursuit of a certain level of economic profit (see Bourdieu, 1993) as in cultural industries. Such cases blur the boundaries between paid and unpaid work.

The blurring of the boundaries between paid and unpaid work is related to a profound change occurred in the employment arrangements which have accompanied the changing nature of paid and unpaid work. On the one hand, paid work is increasingly disconnected from a permanent income or a wage connected to a full-time and permanent job, which should guarantee security by generating economic independency through enhanced welfare (Kalleberg and Vallas, 2018). While there is growing diversity in the kinds of contracts covering paid work (Weil, 2014), paid work is also less secure (Vosko, 2005), since people can be dismissed at any time through restructuring or company closure without the job necessarily being contractually ‘temporary’. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerates this trend. The International Labour Organisation ILO Monitor on COVID-19 and the world of work estimates that an equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs will be lost globally during the second quarter of 2020. Eurofound Living, working and COVID-19 online survey illustrates that compared to other regions, a growing number of Europeans experience a dramatic decrease in working time and working hours. The result is a deterioration in the quality of paid jobs, including those with both a temporary and an indeterminate duration. On the other hand, traditionally conceived voluntary (unpaid) activities have progressively lost their original purpose. For example, voluntary internships for the younghave become contractual devises for first jobs for which these young people are often hired under casual conditions (Supiot, 2001). During the 2007-2008 austerity crisis, welfare and ‘work-first’ reformshave reflected pressures for reducing labour costs, by cutting public spending and forcing people, particularly the vulnerable, to enter the labour market in low-paid jobs or (unpaid) community-work as conditional to social benefits (Pulignano, 2018).

To my view a major barrier to the analysis of the relation between unpaid work and precarity to date is the neglect of the role of value creation and extraction in linking the two. In the first instance, one would expect that labour market actors who take the risk of investing their time in undertaking specific activities would be the ones who to reap the rewards these activities contribute to create. By rooting my analysis of precarity in a theory of value, however, I point to examine how in neoliberal capitalist economies there is an ongoing separation between those who take the risks of investing their time in jobs and/or tasks and those who reap the rewards these jobs and tasks generate. Specifically, I emphasize that it is not just that business has been able to squeeze labour costs and the wage bill by removing labour market regulatory constraints. It has also been able to effectively push elements of work, which might in the past have been included in normal working hours and paid accordingly into the sphere of unpaid work so that workers hardly can appropriate any created value through wages. Socio-political scholars supports my argument by illustrating how employers have shaped institutional change (Baccaro and Howell, 2017) and established new alliances with investors (including finance) and consumers (Rahman and Thelen, 2019) by searching novel ways to promote exciting image of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility, which promise to empowering and giving freedom to individuals from the old-fashioned wage dependences of a remote past.[1]


[1] This contribution has received funding by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme [ResPecTMe grant agreement number 833577]. https://soc.kuleuven.be/ceso/wo/erlm/respectme

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