Wednesday, 14 October 2015

So we’re all vulnerable now, or are some more vulnerable than others?

When at the 2015 UK Conservative party conference the Home Secretary
Theresa 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.


  1. As I walked up the staircase to my office on Wednesday I was stopped by a young man who was looking for an employment advice session that was taking place in a nearby building. His job had been to keep the coke ovens at Redcar fuelled. He had been well paid but now faces an uncertain future in an area where good jobs are few. I hope he makes it.

    It brought back vivid memories of the late 1970's when I walked with my dad through that gates on the last day of the last ship yard on the Tees. I remember turning to him and asking him what will happen to all those who walked with us. "I don't know son" was the answer. It also brought to mind my father in law who for most of the 80's and 90's worked like thousands of others for major employers as agency workers. These were a mix of skilled workers, fabrication workers, electricians, draughtsmen etc as well as the unskilled.

    I am interested to learn what is new about vulnerability and what are the policy answers? This is such a vital issue . When my daughter is old enough I do not want her to ask me the questions about unemployment that I had to ask so many years ago.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment G F

    It would seem that geographically we aren’t far apart at all, and like you I too hope that those affected by the closure of Redcar’s SSI steelworks make it.

    An initial aim of our research is to conceptualise vulnerability in relation to the rise of labour market insecurity and a redefined approach to social protection policies. This is a clearly observed approach which requires greater activity on the part of individuals in order to gain access to what where previously defined as unalienable welfare rights.

    In the context of social protection, vulnerability tends to manifest itself as ‘vulnerable vulnerability’, because the status is ascribed primarily by policy-makers and social policy practitioners who are at relative liberty of withdrawing this status if individuals or social groups fail to conform to the established rules and expectations regarding their behaviour, or when the tides of welfare politics turn.

    Such vulnerable persons are likely to be subjected to activating measures of different intensity and kind, in order to conform to the conditions of support. Welfare states can either alleviate and help to overcome vulnerabilities, or they can alter the form and exacerbate the degree of vulnerability, depending on the specific design of social policy programmes. And this for me and my colleague is the key element which is the focus of our research. We argue that the extent to which the principles of conditionality and activation apply to the most vulnerable members of society can serve as a useful indicator to assess whether a welfare system is built on universal citizens’ rights and the idea of equal access to social protection.

    Assuming that a wider range of persons are vulnerable (because of their precarious position in the labour market) than the narrower (behaviourist) definition of vulnerability used by policy-makers implies, examining the differences between the treatment of groups can enlighten us as to whether the concept of vulnerability in its politically charged form becomes an updated tool to differentiate between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ recipients of social protection, while keeping the definition of who is seen as ‘deserving’ in flux.

    We argue that the increased attention to the problem of vulnerability in its narrower political sense opens the door to a profound reorganisation not just of the welfare state but of the definition of citizenship, by establishing boundaries between different categories of citizens and using this unstable differentiation to undermine the principle of a rights-based social protection system.

    Not sure if that answer your post though....


  3. Hi and thanks for getting back. I think the point I was trying to illustrate is that vulnerability has become the norm in many parts of the economy. Zero hour contracts are yet another extension of neoliberal labour market as was the use of agency workers in the past.

    I agree that social security policies have been designed to punish the undeserving poor back to work. Labour attempted to support the deserving poor with a range of in-work benefits and the introduction of the minimum wage. What I find interesting recently has been the attack on in-work benefits and by implication the deserving poor. Has this change in policy stance changed your view?

    I wonder if we are heading to a position where only those out of work are given support and that is so tied up with requirements that the so called underclass living outside of state benefit systems increases. Are there no workhouses are there no prisons!


  4. Hi Geoff

    As you say the neoliberal market economy’s use of zero hour contracts is an extension of vulnerability to those in work. And yes, the attack on in-work benefits is, I would suggest evidence of an agenda which seeks a reduction of state activity based on a behaviourist approach to what is structural vulnerability and increased labour market precarity.

    I agree that in some sectors, vulnerability is spatially defined, but I do think it goes beyond this.
    Has my view changed as a result of the reduction of in-work benefits? No, because I’d suggest that the increase in conditionalities for both those at the margins of, as well as those outside the labour market is symptomatic of the state’s subordination of social policy to the demands of labour market flexibility and ‘competitiveness’. The impact this has had, and will continue to have, on the relationship between the state and its citizens I would argue is significant, and it is this element of the vulnerability discourse which I am particularly interested in.

    Do you think we are heading in the direction your penultimate sentence suggests, one of increased conditionality and by extension an increasingly exclusory model of citizenship.?


    1. I believe a number of facts point to this. However, I believe that the governments desire to take government spending as a proportion of GDP to 35%, a level not seen since the 1930's is critical. Spending departments are at present drawing up spending cuts proposals of a minimum of 25% and up to 40%. Given that Social Security spending is not a protected area like Health or Education, then it must be formulating ways of achieving this target. On top of that within the departments budgets are pension spending and other spending for the over 65's such as the heating allowance etc, which are protected. Pensions are protected by the so called triple lock. This leaves a smaller basket of welfare spending left.

      So how do you reduce this residual spending. Firstly, get people into work, no matter what type of work it is. Secondly, reduce in-work benefits. Thirdly, restrict the numbers of those who can claim out of work benefits. If you can make it really hard to claim in-work benefits all the better. A number of people will drop out of the system and enter the grey economy but it educes the welfare bill.

      Of course claim success that you have reduced the number of people on welfare by helping them into work and giving them self respect. Note Jeremy Hunt's comments at the Conservative conference.

      Once you have set the Strategy of rolling back state spending as a proportion of GDP then the welfare cuts are just another mechanism to achieve it.

      "At this festive season of the year, Mr. Osborne," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
      "Are there no prisons?" asked Osborne.
      "Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
      "And the Zero hour Contract?" demanded Osborne, "Are they still in operation?"
      "They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
      "Ian Duncan-Smith and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Osbourne.