9 Work

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

After reading this Chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and apply sociological arguments regarding diverse forms of work,
  • understand, analyse, and critically evaluate how work is defined under capitalism, including what this includes/excludes, and implications for different social groups,
  • understand, analyse, and critically evaluate how work is changing under neoliberalism and capitalism, as well as its impacts on different social groups.

Work, employment, and unemployment

In Chapter 4, we introduced ‘work’ as a key social institution. Under capitalism, work is reified as the most important and sometimes only means to achieving ‘freedom’. Indeed, since the industrial revolution, economic security and participation have centred largely around one’s ability to undertake formal, waged labour. This is of course, however, not the only ‘work’ that people undertake. Indeed, as we touched on in Chapter 4, ‘work’ can be understood broadly as encompassing work conducted within the formal economy (e.g., via a waged labour relationship with an employer), but also in the informal or ‘grey’ economy (e.g., unpaid care work, volunteer work, domestic work), and within the black (i.e. illegal) economy. Nevertheless, the kind of work that is conducted in these other spheres is generally less visible than that which occurs in the formal economy. We turn to this below, where we first consider the reproductive ‘caring’ work that holds society together (what Hannah Arendt refers to as ‘labour’ – see below). This work is largely unseen and devalued under capitalism. Then we consider the changing nature of work, including increasing precarity and automation.

Arendt’s concepts of labour, work, and action

In her book, ‘The Human Condition’, Hannah Arendt (1958) conceptualises labour as one of the three fundamental activities that constitute human an ‘active life’ (viva activa), alongside work and action.

For Arendt, labour is the activity that addresses the basic biological needs of human beings, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Labour is necessary for survival, repetitive, cyclical, and is also performed in isolation, as individuals must attend to their own bodily needs before they can participate in other activities.

Arendt distinguishes labour from work, which involves the creation of durable objects, such as tools or buildings, and action, which involves human interaction and the creation of relationships and communities. Unlike labour, work and action are characterised by their public and social dimensions.

Arendt argues that in modern society, the emphasis on labour has overshadowed the importance of work and action, leading to a devaluation of human life and a loss of meaning and purpose. She suggests that by rethinking our relationship to labour and emphasising the importance of work and action, we can create a more meaningful and fulfilling human existence.

Reproductive labour and the ‘free riding’ nature of capitalism

From the ~1960s-80s, second-wave feminists made demands for women to enter the labour market and be treated equally as employees, spurring mass feminisation of the workforce across most developed countries. Indeed, women have moved into paid employment at far higher rates than in the early 20th century, though this varies across different geographies (e.g., remote, urban), different countries, and also across different social groups (e.g., able bodied versus less able, non-Indigenous versus Indigenous, etc.). This is demonstrated in the below graph from the World Bank, which shows female labour force participation for women globally was 52.6% in 2019, though this differs across several large geographic regions (e.g., it was far lower in Latin America & Caribbean and South Asia, and higher across North America and Europe & Central Asia). Australian Bureau of Statistics data demonstrate that Australian women overall are now more likely than ever to be employed, though employment rates remain relatively lower than men, and particularly low for First Nations women and single mothers.

Female labor force participation over three decadesWorld 80% 52.6% North America 78.7% 68.7% East Asia & Pacific 82.7% 66.2% Middle East & North Africa 77% 21.3% Europe & Central Asia 78.5% 64.2% Sub-Saharan Africa 74% 62.8% South Asia 80.6% 25.2% Latin America & Caribbean 81.6% 57.9%
Source: Kugler, Maurice; Viollaz, Mariana; Duque, Daniel; Gaddis, Isis; Newhouse, David; Palacios-Lopez, Amparo; Weber, Michael. 2021. How Did the COVID-19 Crisis Affect Different Types of Workers in the Developing World?. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank 2019. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO

Globally, however, women nevertheless continue to undertake disproportionately high rates of reproductive labour and care work, and this is often juggled as a ‘second shift’ alongside employment. According to the ILO (2018a: 37), women worldwide performed about 76.2% of the total hours of unpaid care work in 2018, and “In no country in the world do men and women provide an equal share of unpaid care work”. This excludes forms of reproductive labour that are not counted in official statistics, and thus possibly underestimates its overall volume. These statistics also miss racial differences in how reproductive labour is shared, and how this is also anchored in and inflected by histories of racial oppression (Duffy, 2007). In Australia, for instance, First Nations women do more care work (PDF, 346KB), and indeed more diverse forms of care work, than any other group.

Illustration of 2 sets of hands holding each other.
Caring labour, which is disproportionately undertaken by women, remains grossly undervalued and ignored under capitalism

For most women, juggling waged employment and reproductive labour presents significant difficulties and, in a recent international ILO (2017) survey, was repeatedly identified as the biggest challenge faced by women worldwide. Employment also often fails to be ‘family-friendly’ for parents and carers, meaning they are more likely to either reduce or exit employment as a strategy to manage their multiple roles. The ILO reported that globally in 2018, labour market participation was 26.5% higher for men (sitting at 75%) than women (sitting at 48.5%) (ILO, 2018b: 7), while in Australia in February 2022, 62.1% of Australian women were participating in the labour force versus 70.9% for men (Australian Government 2022c). For First Nations peoples in Australia, the situation is worse overall, with 56% of men and only 52% of women participating in the labour force at the 2021 Census (ABS 2021). Women are also more likely to be working part-time as a means of absorbing additional domestic work. In Australia in 2021, for instance, ~44% of all women in the labour force were in part-time work versus 23% for all men (ABS Census 2021), and in 2020–21 men were twice as likely to be in highly paid jobs than women (Australian Government 2021). This results in a persistent gender pay gap, which has only decreased marginally (by ~0.17% per year) since 1975, and which means that women earned 22.8% (or -$22.8k AUD) per annum less than men in 2022. It also produces a situation whereby women are more likely than men to draw on social security as a source of income for labour that is not remunerated through employment.

As the latest (June 2022) data from the Australian Department of Social Services show, women account for 64% of all social security recipients on average, and this proportion is much higher for social security payment types related to caring and reproductive labour (e.g., Parenting Payments where women represent 94% of total combined recipients). Additionally, despite only representing ~3% of the population, First Nations peoples make up about 7% of all social security recipients. In neoliberal and highly conditional welfare states, like Australia, the UK, and the USA, which tend to have low payment rates, strong means testing, and intensive mutual obligation requirements, this can be a surefire pathway to poverty. Indeed, it is no accident that worldwide, women and particularly First Nations women and women of colour, are more likely to live in poverty.

As feminist scholars like Kathi Weeks, Nancy Fraser, Silvia Federici, and Carol Bacchi have long pointed to, the root cause of the problem here is that patriarchal capitalism does not make visible nor value/remunerate women’s reproductive care labour. Indeed, it is not that women are inactive, unproductive, or unskilled, but instead that the forms of productivity they often undertake are simply not seen. These persistent inequalities have led many to argue, for example, that ‘lean-in’ or ‘neoliberal feminist’ efforts to subsume women into capitalism do not address the patriarchal oppressions that are built into capitalism (Aschoff, 2015, 2020; hooks 1982, 2000).

Socialist feminist writer, Nicole Aschoff, argues that a feminism worth fighting for “is one that struggles against … capitali[sm]” (emphasis added), and as bell hooks, Moreton-Robinson and others have also repeatedly pointed to, one that is also anti-racist. That is, as opposed to the ‘lean in’ emphases of liberal feminism that seek to subsume women into capitalism, an anti-capitalist and anti-racist feminism sees gender inequality and colonial oppression as part of the inherent architecture of capitalism itself. Because these oppressions are woven into the fabric of capitalism, particularly in how the capitalist wage-labour system dismisses reproductive labour, they cannot be overcome by simply aiming for employment or wage parity. Instead, we must pursue strategies (and indeed, perhaps entirely different institutional structures) that (re)centre and fundamentally value care.

Reflection exercise

Take some time to think further about the persistent gender pay gap. Then think about how this is differently explained and responded to from a radical feminist perspective, versus a liberal feminist perspective. Write a short paragraph explaining each.

As you write, reflect on your own understandings and views about the gender pay gap. Which of these two perspectives do you think best captures your own thinking? Why?

Reflection exercise

In one of her seminal works, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Silvia Federici states:

“To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking. At the same time, it shows that we have cooked, smiled, fucked throughout the years not because it was easier for us than for anybody else, but because we did not have any other choice. Our faces have become distorted from so much smiling, our feelings have got lost from so much loving, our oversexualisation has left us completely desexualised.” (pp.15-16)

After reading this quote, reflect on the following:

  1. Can capitalism exist without domestic, reproductive labour?
  2. Are women more ‘suited’ to housework and domestic labour or is it, as Federici argues, that they simply had no choice?
  3. What avenues of recourse do you think Federici might suggest? (You may wish to search for more information on Federici online while thinking about this last question, including summaries of her other works.)

Work transitions and the precariat

In addition to changes in the gender patterning of paid and unpaid work, work across the globe is also changing in other important ways. An example is the global trend towards more precarious and insecure forms of work. This includes in forms such as:

  • part-time or casual work (including rolling casual contracts, with little opportunity for permanency),
  • self-employment, and
  • chronically low, sporadic and/or stagnant wages.

Precarious workers are also often unable to enjoy social protections, like guaranteed superannuation, award rates and/or leave entitlements (e.g. sick or maternity leave). Carney and Stanford (2018: 4) note, “Many Australians worry about the insecurity of work, the declining opportunities for permanent, stable employment, and in particular what it means for the next generation of Australian workers — many of whom may never find a permanent, regular job.” Indeed, in Australia, the rise of precarious and insecure work is illustrated across several different datasets, as outlined in Carney and Stanford (2018) (PDF, 1.15MB). The impacts of increasingly insecure and precarious work are now felt across most industries and by people from a range of backgrounds. When other factors come into play, such as racism, sexism, ableism and more, some workers can effectively be locked out of the labour market for long periods of time.

Standing (2011) argues that precarious workers, or as he refers to them the ‘precariat’, are forming as a new class — different to the Marxist proletariat and still not a united force — but with an emerging set of political demands concerning fairer distribution of wealth, greater social protection, and a politics of time. He and others identify several contributing factors to the emergence of the precariat, including:

  • a surplus of workers unmatched by a surplus of jobs (so employees increasingly have to take whatever’s offered, rather than what might be in their best interest),
  • a decline in the general quality of work conditions and workers’ rights, which has been accompanied by significant declines in labour union density,
  • the excesses of government policies that are directed towards supporting unfettered capitalism (often via ‘neoliberalism’), and
  • the rise of technology, which has resulted in new platforms for work (like the ‘gig economy’).

The latter point regarding the rise of technology is not new, but has instead been at the centre of key changes to the institution of work for centuries. For instance, the so-called Luddites (textile workers during the industrial revolution) used to fear that machines would take their jobs and render them obsolete. Thus, they used to band together to destroy the machinery in the hope of keeping their jobs. Historically, however, advances in technology have typically displaced workers by changing the nature of available jobs, rather than making workers obsolete. Some argue that current technological shifts are different and will have more severe impacts, while others argue that the impacts will be similar and that we have little reason to fear robots taking our jobs. For more information, you might like to watch the following video: The big debate about the future of work, explained (YouTube, 9:02)

What is ‘neoliberalism’?

The term neoliberalism (literally, ‘new liberalism’) tends to be used to refer to policies and processes that liberate the economy and other social institutions from control or regulation of the state. Neoliberals argue that these social institutions should be shaped by the ‘free’ market (e.g. through privatisation of government services).

Others argue, however, that there is no such thing as a truly free market. For instance, the power of large corporations, which are supported by neoliberal government policies (e.g. through tax exemptions and other forms of corporate welfare) means the market is decidedly ‘unfree’.

Watch Three Minute Theory: What is Neoliberalism? (YouTube, 3:31) below for a brief introduction to the concept of neoliberalism and think about how it may also shape working conditions.

Reflection exercise

Watch Precarious work and Marx’s reserve army of labour (YouTube, 4:39) below, which talks about the rise of precarious work through the lens of Marx’s concept of the ‘reserve army of labour’.

After watching the above video, consider the following:

  1. Think about Marx’s concept of the ‘reserve army of labour’. Reflect on the concepts presented in the video and then write down some key characteristics of the ‘reserve army’ that also apply to the so-called ‘precariat’. What are some differences?
  2. As the video talks about, capitalism revolves around the accumulation of capital as a primary objective. In your view, can capitalism be made ‘more gentle’? Why or why not? If so, how might this happen?

What about those who cannot work, or for whom work does not provide economic security?

Income support and pension programs provide financial assistance to individuals who are unable to work due to physical or mental health barriers, disabilities, or other circumstances. They also provide support to those who are underemployed and for whom work does not, therefore, provide sufficient economic insecurity. These programs are supposed to ensure that those who are unable to work have access to a basic standard of living and are not left in poverty, though not all countries have these sorts of schemes, and the effects of neoliberal restructuring have also tended to undermine this objective in other parts of the world that do. 

Social security systems, which oversee eligibility and payment of income support and pension programs, tend to include a range of different initiatives that form what is often referred to as a ‘mixed economy of welfare’. Such initiatives may include:

  • direct cash transfers to citizens (e.g. unemployment allowances or aged and disability pensions),
  • indirect transfers via government subsidies (e.g. subsidised or free education and health care – for instance, Medicare),
  • welfare programs delivered by government, or through government funding (e.g. government funding to charities to provide services to those in need), and
  • services for those who are elderly, experience disability, or more.

Although tax breaks and subsidies to large corporations are generally not conceived of or framed in the same way, these are also forms of social welfare. These forms of social welfare do not tend to be problematised in public and political discourses, while social security for unemployed people is heavily problematised. This is evident in discourses that define ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the ‘lifters’ (those who work in the formal economy) and the ‘leaners’ (those who don’t work in the formal economy).

Reflection exercise

Watch The myth of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – why we all need the welfare state (YouTube, 16:15) below:

After watching the video, answer the following:

1) In your own words, what is the purpose of the welfare state?

2) Near the end of the talk, Peter Whiteford remarks that ‘we’re all them’. What does he mean by this? How might this shift our understandings of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ welfare beneficiaries?  Do you think COVID-19 will or already has affected peoples’ thinking about social welfare and the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide?

Unemployment allowances and ‘workfare’

The social welfare payment to unemployed people in Australia was, until very recently, called Newstart. The payment rate of Newstart has been frozen (i.e. not increased) for 25 years, despite significant increases to general living expenses (like the cost of housing and food) over that time. This has caused many to argue that Newstart does not alleviate poverty, but instead keeps people living in state of perpetual poverty on what is typically about $40 of income per day.

Raising unemployment allowances

For decades, there have been Australia-wide campaigns to raise the levels of income support provided to those who find themselves unemployed. These payments were referred to as ‘Newstart’ payments until early 2020, when the name changed to JobSeeker Payment.

Watch The growing momentum to raise Newstart (YouTube, 2:38), which provides an overview of this long-running campaign.

In response to COVID-19, the Australian Government announced that Newstart would be replaced by a new unemployment allowance, called the JobSeeker Payment. The JobSeeker Payment included a temporary supplement, which essentially doubled the previous rate of income that was available under Newstart. This was designed to cope with widespread and rapid unemployment caused by COVID-19.

However, the COVID-19 supplement was removed at the end of March 2021. Subsequently, the Government also agreed to make a very small increase to the base rate of JobSeeker by $50 per fortnight – equivalent to about $32 per day, still below the poverty line, and below the increases that have been publicly called for. Meanwhile, some policymakers in other parts of the world have seen COVID-19 as an opportunity to change the culture and structure of the economy; to shift entrenched inequality (see Hawaii’s plan for a ‘feminist economic recovery plan’).

While unemployment allowances are very low in Australia, the kinds of activities and obligations that those receiving such allowances must undertake — like searching for work and attending regular appointments with job service providers — are amongst the strictest in the world. This is often referred to as a ‘workfare’ (instead of welfare) approach and involves strict welfare conditionality. That is, people have to do things (e.g. maintain certain behaviours, participate in work for the dole, etc.) to remain eligible for social security payments.

A commitment to ‘activating’ unemployed people to search for work focuses intensively on individual-level reasons for unemployment (e.g. not trying hard enough to find work, not having the right skills) and tends to ignore structural concerns. Intensive workfare programs, such as Australia’s JobActive program (applied in urban areas) or the Community Development Programme (applied in remote areas), have also been shown to be harmful because if people don’t comply with the program rules, they can have their social support income suspended and be left with no means of support at all (for example, see Welfare suspensions increase by 40% under new compliance regime, Indigenous communities slapped with more fines under Government work-for-the-dole scheme, data shows). There are, however, a range of reasons that people might not be able to comply with workfare obligations, such as language barriers, illness, mobility and more.

Wacquant (2010) understands workfare as part of a broader globalised movement towards state-led punishment of poorer populations, who must either enter the formal economy or else be subject to strict paternalism. This perpetuates the ‘truth’ that “economic participation is… the key marker of the responsible adult citizen”, even though this is only “one course of action in an array of potential alternatives” (McDonald and Marston 2005: 379). In this ‘truth’, individuals are overwhelmingly blamed for their circumstances; if they find themselves unemployed, they are characterised as lazy or undeserving — something Wacquant (2010: 213) refers to as the “cultural trope of individual responsibility” or which Foucault called a process of ‘individualisation’.

Reflection exercise

The refusal to raise the level of baseline unemployment allowances in Australia has often been accompanied by key ministers’ (including Prime Minister Morrison) insistence that the ‘best form of welfare is a job’. Workfare arrangements, such as those that require people to undertake job-search and upskilling, are supposed to move people from welfare and into jobs. Think about and unpick this approach – what does it ignore? For example, you might consider:

  • are jobs always a source of economic security?
  • what kinds of factors hinder peoples’ ability to gain secure employment in the formal economy (and thus, create a need to draw on welfare)?

Thinking about alternative approaches – (universal) basic income

Debates about the future of work have led many to argue that changes are needed to the ways in which we think about and administer social welfare. While we have seen recent dramatic changes to social welfare provisions in response to COVID-19 (see right), many have otherwise argued for the efficacy of alternatives for years but without much movement. This has included ongoing advocacy around the concept of a universal basic income (or similar), especially in terms of thinking about ways in which we can:

  • support members of society who suffer as a result of structural inequality, unemployment, and poverty,
  • pursue policies that are focused on a fairer redistribution of wealth across society, over the longer term,
  • recognise and value work that occurs beyond the formal economy (e.g. unpaid care work, which is – as we spoke about last week – still predominantly undertaken by women), and
  • re-situate greater power and autonomy in the hands of workers.

The Basic Income Earth Network – an advocacy network of policymakers, scholars, citizens and more, originally established by Professor Guy Standing – defines a basic income as a “periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all  on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement” (BIEN 2021). BIEN goes on to describe the five key characteristics of a basic income as follows:

  1. “Periodic—It is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
  2. Cash payment—It is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
  3. Individual—It is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
  4. Universal—It is paid to all, without means test.
  5. Unconditional—It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.” (See BIEN’s website, for more information.)

Technically, the term ‘universal basic income’ (UBI) assumes the universality of the payment (point 4) above, while ‘basic income’ is often used to refer to a payment that meets characteristics 1, ,2, 3 and 5, but “BI gives people the freedom to say no and get a better deal for their labour.” (Klein et al. 2019: 3)not characteristic 4 (universality).

A (universal) basic income decouples income from work, thereby further enhancing individual autonomy and enabling individuals to decide how to expend their labour and time. In this sense, it would not devalue and penalise those who undertake productive labour (e.g., informal care work), as is currently the case under market capitalism. As Klein et al. (2019: 2-3) point out in your reading (9.1), this goes “beyond the usual understanding of the ‘safety net’ associated with post-World War II welfare states.” Indeed, “For those in paid work, a BI gives an unconditional economic base that improves workers’ bargaining power… [and it] means if people want to withdraw or suspend their labour from exploitative or oppressive conditions, they can do so without the fear of destitution” (Klein et al. 2019: 3).

Proposals and trials of basic income have tested diverse payment rates and arrangements. Per month rates range significantly, from $35 USD/$47 AUD (Brazilian Citizen’s Basic Income), to $500 USD/$671 AUD (Stockton California trial), to $635 USD/$852 AUD (Finland), to $1,430 USD/$1,920 AUD (Germany), or $1,968 USD/$2,643 AUD (Spain) (Samuel 2020). As at 2022, a weekly income of at least $496.77 AUD ($1987.08 AUD per month) is necessary to take (single) Australians above the Henderson poverty line, but this could be met either wholly or partially by a basic income payment, which could provide either a core single payment or an unconditional extra (and thus, safety net or economic floor) to supplement ongoing unemployment and other social security benefits (Staines et al. 2021). Proposals and discussions about different possible design and implementation strategies for a basic income in Australia are, however, ongoing. Indeed, there is not currently political support from either of the two major political parties for basic income, though the Greens have put a specific proposal forward (which they call a ‘Liveable Income Guarantee’, see No Poverty in a Wealthy Country (PDF, 107KB)).

While universal basic income is not a panacea, at the very least it provides us with an alternative vision; one that enables us to think more critically about our current approaches and whether there are things we can do differently in order to create the futures we want for ourselves and for those who come after us.

Reflection exercise

Watch Why we shouldn’t have to work just to survive (YouTube, 13:13) below:

After watching the video, consider the following questions:

1) Jonny Ross-Tatum was an undergraduate history student when he gave this TEDx Talk! Why is it important for young adults and students to be active in thinking and talking about these sorts of future options?

2) What is your understanding of a universal basic income?

3) What role (if any) might a basic income play in perhaps protecting against the threats of automation and AI and/or recognising and encouraging important work outside of the formal economy?

4) What are some possible downfalls of a basic income? (You might also like to do some further googling to support your thinking in relation to this one!)

Resources for further learning


  • Federici, S. 2020 [1975]. ‘Wages for housework’. In. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press, pp. 11-18.
  • Klein, E., Mays, J., and Dunlop, T. 2019. ‘Introduction – implementing a basic income in Australia.’ In. Implementing a basic income in Australia, chapter 1, pp. 1-20.
  • Graeber, D. 2013. ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.’
  • Voice, P. 2014. ‘Labour, Work and Action’, In. Hayden, P. (Ed.) Hannah Arendt, key concepts. Routledge, London. Chapter available (PDF, 773KB)
  • Passerin d’Entreves, M. 2019. Hannah ArendtStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Other resources:


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