Sustainable labour market integration: challenges and advancements in algorithmic profiling of jobseekers

By Clément Brébion and Janine Leschke

◦ 5 min read 

The number of countries that are using algorithms to profile jobseekers has been on the rise since the 1990s. Algorithmic profiling aims at identifying individuals with little counselling needs, and those for whom intensive counselling and active labour market policies (ALMP) are expected to have the largest returns. The ultimate goal is to target services and thereby expenditures towards the latter. In a dual context of budget constraints and of technological innovations (which makes it possible to build and analyse large register databases), profiling algorithms are increasingly seen as an important vehicle to identify and target those unemployed who are most likely to become long-term unemployed. In an EU-funded project, HECAT – Disruptive Technology Supporting Labour Market Decision Making, we question this consensus. The goal of the project is to go beyond state-of-the-art profiling tools and develop a tool that will allow jobseekers and counsellors to get a snapshot of their labour market situation and a better sense of their labour market options.

State-of-the-art statistical profiling tools carry important shortcomings. One of them relates to the outcome category when used for defining the profiling categories. Most profiling algorithms approach jobseekers’ needs for counselling and for training programs by measuring their likelihood to remain unemployed for more than 6 or sometimes, 12 months. Usually, any type and length of employment spell is counted as a successful exit from unemployment in these models. Research on the causes and consequences of long-term unemployment (LTU) is extensive and we know that an early identification of the jobseekers that are likely to fall into LTU to take action at the earliest stage possible is key.

However, the mere focus on exits towards any type of employment is problematic. On individual grounds first, it disregards the agency of the unemployed by ignoring her lived experience of unemployment and wishes and aspirations for future labour market integration. Second, such a focus on exits without job quality in focus, can also be dysfunctional and inefficient both from the perspective of the individual and the PES as unsustainable labour market integration is likely to lead to vicious circles where people circle between (short-term) employment and unemployment.

In order to address this shortcoming, in deliverable 2.1 of the HECAT project, we discuss the scope for using job quality information in profiling and job matching tools. We develop a list of 24 items covering 7 dimensions that we see important to take into account to meet SDG (sustainable development goal) 8 on decent jobs and economic growth [1]. We do so by drawing on established job quality indices (e.g. here and here).

By putting the quality of jobs in focus, such an approach provides a more complete and sustainable vision of the labour market to the unemployed and the job counsellors and thereby increase their agency.

As we outline in the deliverable there are a number of challenges with this approach. This includes the high complexity of multi-dimensional job quality indices in view of an efficient and usable counselling and visualisation tool as well as a lack of sufficiently detailed job quality indicators on the level of occupations or sectors.

As regards data protection and data privacy, profiling algorithms also carry the risk of being in conflict with the GDPR and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Importantly, these legal bases provide no ready-made ‘checklist’ as to which data can be used, nor which algorithms can be implemented. Impact assessment of algorithmic profiling or job matching tools based on algorithms must therefore take place on a case-by-case basis that takes into account the impact of the algorithm on the citizens. Governments most often disregard the need for these impact analyses and entire profiling algorithm are therefore at risk of being shut down, such as in the Austrian case in 2020.

Impact assessments should first stress the necessity of using privacy-violating profiling algorithms. This can be justified in order to comply with a legal obligation to which the public authority is subject or for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest. The proportionality and fairness of profiling algorithms must also be checked and ensured. Proportionality relates to whether the ends justify the means.

For instance, collecting and analysing data carries a cost, in terms of privacy, which must be compensated by clear gains in accuracy. One should therefore not feed the algorithm with variables that have little explanatory power. Fairness concerns imply that one should ensure that profiling algorithms are not discriminatory. This is not straightforward. Profiling algorithms classify the unemployed based on the typical behaviour observed among other jobseekers with similar characteristics. As a result, individuals from social groups that are traditionally the least attached to the labour market will be profiled as high-risk individual more often than the rest.

While this behaviour of profiling algorithms seems intuitive, research has found that among jobseekers who happen to quickly find a job, those from foreign origin are more likely to be misclassified as high-risk individuals ex-ante than natives.

The fairness condition therefore seems hard to meet for profiling algorithms. Last, profiling algorithms should only use data that is up to date and relevant and, importantly, one should ensure that jobseekers and PES counsellors who use the algorithm have a good understanding of its functioning and limitations. 

Whether or not the use of an algorithm is legal must be continually assessed before, during and after development and implementation. In a working paper based on deliverable 2.2 of the HECAT project, we therefore propose a model for designing algorithms to sum up these considerations. The model is circular in order to illustrate that the assessment should be continually updated.

A proposed model for designing algorithms 
Source: Working paper based on HECAT deliverable 2.2
“Working with not on the unemployed”

Given these shortcomings of state of the art profiling tools, our European project HECAT puts the unemployed persons and their aspirations and needs centre-stage. It aims at building a sustainable digital platform “My Labour Market” which provides both information on the estimated length of time before one exits the unemployment record and a visualisation of labour market opportunities according to one’s job quality preferences. This digital platform, to be piloted at the Public Employment Services in Slovenia, builds on extensive sociological fieldwork on unemployed persons and case workers. This tool will not sort jobseekers into profiling groups associated with specific services and labour market measures. Instead, we believe that well-informed jobseekers will make the best choices for themselves.

[1] The dimensions are: pay and other rewards, intrinsic characteristics of work, terms of employment, health and safety, work-life balance, representation and voice, distance to work.

Further readings

HECAT, deliverables 2.1:

HECAT, Deliverable 2.2:

About the Authors

Clément Brébion, postdoctoral researcher, received his PhD in economics in November 2019 from the Paris School of Economics. His main research interests are labour economics, economics of education and industrial relations. He has a particular interest into comparative research. More recently, he started working on the EU H2020 project HECAT that aims at developing and piloting an ethical algorithm and platform for use by PES and jobseekers.

Janine Leschke, political scientist, is prof MSO in comparative labour market analysis. Her research interests comprise issues such atypical work, job quality, labour mobility and migration, youth unemployment, as well as gender. She is currently the Danish lead partner in the Horizon 2020 project HECAT, participant in EuSocialCit and one of the editors of Journal of European Social Policy.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

The Concept of Fragmented Labour Markets

By Janine Leschke and Sonja Bekker

◦ 4 min read 

The employment and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have been larger on some groups of workers than others. In particular, low-wage workers and workers in forms of employment that differ from full-time wage and salary work with a permanent contract seem to have been especially exposed to job and income losses (see ILO-OECD Covid-19 report). The concept of fragmented labour markets, which we propose here, highlights the large and growing diversity in employment relationships. It demonstrates the relevance of relating the impact of the crisis on jobs, income and social security to the degree of ‘resilience’ workers had prior to the crisis in terms of job stability and decent earnings. It is therefore very suitable for detecting vulnerabilities that have been built into labour markets over the past decades.

Rise of diverse types of non-standard employment relationships

The concept of fragmented labour markets focuses on the group of workers commonly termed ‘outsiders’ or the population in non-standard (also termed atypical) employment. It goes beyond traditional views on segmented, dual or primary versus secondary labour markets, which divide employment into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs. There are a number of arguments as to why the use of binary divisions with regard to labour market status or outcomes are obsolete, such as the substantial variety within both the groups of standard and non-standard jobs.

Over the past decades, a further fragmentation of employment status has occurred. Some speak of an ‘explosion’ of diverse types of non-standard employment relationships, making these types of jobs an often occurring or even ‘normal’ phenomenon at least for some labour market groups, such as women. Consequently, within the group of ‘outsiders’, an ever greater variety of forms of employment is materialising, making the groups themselves far from homogeneous. 

Call for a new approach

The inadequate binary division of the labour market into groups of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ has spurred a call for a new multidimensional approach to understanding inequalities in work and employment. These suggestions go beyond merely defining non-standard work as all forms of work that deviate from the standard employment relationship.

Based on the trends and observations highlighted above, we develop the concept of fragmented labour markets as a way to both define and explore the most vulnerable types of non-standard employment. We build on the work of authors who point at key elements of such a definition, including the different labour market groups that have different sets of rights and labour conditions, and refer to different employment statuses such as part-time work, fixed-term contracts, temporary agency work, self-employment, marginal employment, platform work and other ‘non-standard’ forms of employment.

Additionally, we look at the earnings that workers (can) generate with their jobs, and whether they combine several employment statuses (e.g. being part-time as well as fixed-term employed). Moreover, we zoom in on certain occupational groups. The latter focus is relevant in order to prevent certain vulnerable groups remaining ‘hidden’ in overall labour market averages (see, e.g., the example of the occupational groups of cleaners below).

Therefore, we define fragmented labour markets as:

Labour markets characterised by an accumulation of insecurities. Fragmentation is evident where workers combine non-standard employment with low wages or where they combine several forms of non-standard employment − situations that are dominant in particular occupational groups.

We argue that using the concept of labour market fragmentation may render visible which labour market groups are generally more insecure and vulnerable to job and/or income loss and fluctuations and would therefore need additional support particularly when crises occur.

Exploring selected occupational groups in Germany and the Netherlands

Using this concept exploratory with a focus on two affluent countries – Germany and the Netherlands – highlights vulnerability in some occupations, particularly among women, but at times also among men.

For instance, almost 70% of female personal care employees in Germany are part-time employed and 18% of those combine part-time employment with a fixed-term employment contract (see EU-LFS). In the Netherlands, 43% of women in the occupational group of cleaners and helpers & service employees are marginal employed (less than 15 working hours per week) and 27% of those combine marginal part-time employment with fixed-term employment. Both occupations, and particularly cleaning are at the same time characterised by low wages (see SES). These groups would have been ‘invisible’ if only data on the average economy had been used. 

Additionally, the use of the concept of labour market fragmentation shows that in some occupations and groups, there are hardly any standard jobs left.

For instance, among women in the Dutch personal care and cleaners and helpers occupations, nearly everyone has a part time job (>90%), while in Germany the vast majority of women with a cleaning and helpers occupation has a part time job (>85%). At the same time these jobs are commonly relatively poorly paid and it is not uncommon that these part-time jobs are combined with other flexible forms of employment to make ends meet.

This not only has consequences for employment and earnings security while being in a job but also has important knock-on consequences for accessibility to and adequacy of social security, which is affected to a large degree by the level of earnings and job tenure (with the exception of social minimum benefits).

The concept of fragmentation thereby transcends labour markets and its value becomes particularly evident in times of crisis. As a result of the pandemic, low-wage workers and workers in diverse forms of non-standard employment relationships have been especially exposed to job and income losses. Moreover, in times of economic downturns, new jobs will often be more likely to be non-standard contracts than in times of economic upturns.

Both in Germany and the Netherlands, social security coverage has been problematic for some of these groups during the coronavirus crisis.

Understanding the growing flexibility in labour markets

The concept of fragmentation thus assists in achieving a more profound understanding of what growing flexibility in labour markets really entails in terms of cumulative insecurities for some labour market groups. It helps fuel discussion on making social security more inclusive for workers, regardless of their labour market position. Last but not least, with respect to occupations where up to 90% of (female) workers are in non-standard employment, often combined with other forms of non-standard employment and/or low wages, it helps raise questions as to how much labour market fragmentation affluent societies can legitimise.

Further reading

Bekker, S. and Leschke, J. (2021), Fragmented labour markets in affluent societies: examples from Germany and the Netherlands, OSE Paper Series, Research Paper No.48, Brussels: European Social Observatory, 24p.

About the Authors

Janine Leschke, political scientist, is prof MSO in comparative labour market analysis. Her research interests comprise issues such atypical work, job quality, labour mobility and migration, youth unemployment, as well as gender. She is currently the Danish lead partner in the Horizon 2020 project HECAT, participant in EuSocialCit and one of the editors of Journal of European Social Policy.

Sonja Bekker is an associate professor European Social Policy at both Utrecht University and Tilburg University. Her research interests include European employment policies and social policies, particularly focused on vulnerable groups such as people with flexible employment relations, youth, people experiencing in-work poverty. She is part of the Horizon 2020 WorkYP project.

Photo by Danny Sunderman on Unsplash

Impact of COVID-19 on mortality inequalities: The case of France

By Clément Brébion

◦ 3 min read 

Despite an unprecedented worldwide decline in mortality over the last century, a substantial income gradient in life expectancy persists within most countries. In the US for instance, the 1% richest men have a life expectancy at the age of 40 that is 15 years larger than the poorest 1% (difference of 10 years for women) and this spread is currently increasing. In France (on which this blog post is based), the income gradient is of a similar size despite a more egalitarian access to health care.

Pandemics likely amplify this spread because they reveal latent inequalities in individual health capital and because they spread differently across living environments. Our recent study reveals that the COVID-19 crisis, which epitomizes such massive mortality shock on a worldwide scale, is not an outlier in this respect.

A few definitions

We analyse the impact of COVID-19 on mortality inequalities over the whole year 2020 in France, one of the most severely hit country in the world. We use comprehensive registered data, allowing us to study the evolution of mortality as well as the income level of each municipality of metropolitan France. Given the unreliability of public data on deaths attributed to COVID, we focus on excess mortality occurring in each municipality, defined as the deviation in 2020 all-cause mortality with respect to the average of 2019 and 2018. The link between poverty and morality related to the epidemic is thus analysed by comparing excess mortality between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ municipalities, where ‘poor’ is defined as belonging to the poorest 25% of municipalities (‘Q1’ hereafter).

Two waves that have affected more the poor municipalities 

Figure 1 below shows that, as in many European countries in 2020, France has been hit by two distinct waves that peaked in April (17,000 extra-deaths) and November (15,100 deaths), respectively. Each time, a lockdown was implemented at the national level to reduce the spread of the disease (March, 17 to May, 11 & October 30 to December 15). The first lockdown was the most stringent and has seemingly worked best to reduce casualties to COVID-19.

Figure 1: The figure represents the difference between the monthly number of deaths in 2020 and its average over 2019 and 2018 in France

Figure 2 shows the distribution of excess mortality across municipalities according to their income. Each month, the figure shows the average number of abnormal deaths that occurred since the beginning of the year in each group of municipalities (per 10k. inhabitants). While no specific pattern can be seen over the first three months of 2020, a marked difference between the two groups of municipalities appears in April (wave 1), that further grows as the second wave takes place (October-December). 

In-depth analyses tell us that excess mortality in poor municipalities was 30% larger than in non-poor municipalities in 2020 (2.6 more extra-deaths per 10k. inhabitants). Our research shows that this spread directly relates to COVID-19 and is not explained by differences in the geographical localisation, in the share of old-age inhabitants or in the life conditions under the lockdown between rich and poor municipalities.

Figure 2: The graph plots the cumulative sum of all excess deaths per 10,000 inhabitants from January 2020 for poor and non-poor municipalities in French urban areas.

The fact that the income gradient uncovered during the first wave is not compensated during the second wave, but rather reappears with regularity every time the epidemic returns must be emphasized. One can indeed show that the income gradient is the strongest in areas that got most affected by COVID-19 in 2020. If further epidemic waves occurred – and some signs suggest that it has already started in France as well as in several other countries – our result suggest that, once again, the poorest municipalities will suffer greater losses.

Worse housing conditions and higher exposure through employment

What are the main differences between poor and non-poor municipalities that explain the income gradient in Covid-19 mortality? Our analysis highlights the key mediating role of labour market and housing conditions, in line with the idea that local factors are important determinants of the spread of epidemics. More specifically, the larger share of essential workers and of overcrowding housing almost fully explain the income gradient in COVID-19 related mortality. Interestingly, labor-market exposure remains an important determinant of COVID-19 mortality across both waves, while the role of housing conditions decreases over time, probably because the second lockdown was less stringent. 

Our work shows that the current health crisis amplifies already existing socio-economic inequalities. It also suggests that public policies aiming at limiting its effects should primarily focus on the poorest municipalities, notably by protecting workers as much as possible in the short term and by improving housing conditions in the medium term.


Brandily, P., Brébion, C., Briole, S., & Khoury, L. (2021). “A Poorly Understood Disease? The Impact of COVID-19 on the Income Gradient in Mortality over the Course of the Pandemic” , Working Paper, n° 2020-44, Paris School of Economics.

About the Author

Clément Brébion joined CBS in September 2020 as a postdoctoral researcher.  He received his PhD in economics in November 2019 from the Paris School of Economics. His main research interests are labour economics, economics of education and industrial relations. He has a particular interest into comparative research. More recently, he started working on the EU H2020 project HECAT that aims at developing and piloting an ethical algorithm and platform for use by PES and jobseekers.

How organizations avoid to hire highly-skilled migrants

By Annette Risberg and Laurence Romani

◦ 2 min read ◦

Labor integration of migrants is a topic frequently on the public and political agendas, as it is increasingly seen as the first step to successful societal integration. Often the light is turned on the migrants and what they need to change and improve to get a job. They are expected to make themselves employable by learning the local language, by adapting to local ways of applying for jobs, and by adding local skills to their existing competencies. So, it seems, the moment migrants show some form of adaptation, they should do fine on the job market. But do they?

Why do organizations under-employ highly-skilled migrants? 

Well, maybe there is more to it. Highly-skilled migrants are often underemployed. This means they get jobs below their qualification level. We have all heard of the medical doctor driving a taxi. But who asks ‘why does a taxi company hire a medical doctor as a driver’? In a recent study, we decided to turn the light on the employers, the hiring organizations, instead of the migrants. We searched for an answer to the question of why organizations under-employ highly-skilled migrants.

We followed a mentor program aiming to integrate highly-skilled migrants in the labor market through mentorship and internship. In this program, support was given to migrants to learn the rules of the Swedish employment game, how to write a strong CV, cover letters, the importance of networks, for example. In our interviews, we talked to both mentors and mentees (migrants). They told us about arguments used in organizations to explain (or shall we say justify?) the under-employment of highly-skilled migrants. 

Alleged risk, but for whom?

They said that migrants are often described as lacking local job-seeking skills, how to write a CV, how to present oneself in the application letter, how to get in contact with a potential employer. At times, they may lack local language skills too. Yet, these skills were precisely what they acquired in the program (and in internships) and many of the migrants we interviewed possessed those skills, yet, remained unemployed. More interestingly, we got to hear that the highly-skilled migrants were also talked about in terms of bringing with them the unknown and the unfamiliar: unknown diplomas, unfamiliar job references, unfamiliar working cultures, and habits, for example. And, interestingly, in the interviews, this unknown was associated with a risk… but a risk of what? And, a risk for whom?

Keeping migrants in a lower symbolic position to maintain the power of ‘normality’.

Using the relational theory of risk, a theory where risk is seen as socially constructed, we realized two things. First, if people talked about risk, it was because they felt that something that they value was being threatened.  We found that they valued their usual (habitual) ways of doing things, the organizational normality, more than the new skills and experiences the skilled migrants could bring to the organization.

Hence, highly-skilled migrants were perceived to be a risk to the valued organizational normality and kept away from employment, to avoid disruption of this normality.

Second, if employed, they were hired at a level that did not allow them to fully contribute to the organization, at a level that indicated: your skills are not valued here, they are not to be considered, they are not to transform our usual way of doing things. 

These findings point to an organizational ground for the underemployment of migrants, independent from migrants’ skills and adaptation efforts. In simple terms, organizations may have an interest in under-employing migrants: they assure that their ‘normal’ way of working is not changed, that they are not challenged in their comfortable, everyday routines. The organization’s interest in under-employing migrants goes beyond having a (cheap) skilled workforce without recognizing its value, it is also to clearly indicate that ‘the way we do things around here is valued and we don’t want to question it’.

Who should be seen as a risk? The migrants or the organizations?

In a nutshell, we got to hear that migrants are presented by some as being a risk. But, frankly, a risk for whom? For those comfortably installed in their routines? How about we turn things around and consider that those organizations, not the migrants, should be seen as a risk.

Indeed, by stopping the integration of highly-skilled migrants, are those organizations not a risk to a sustainable society and the (labor) integration of the migrants we welcomed?

The good news is that often, this comfort of the ‘normality’ is not so difficult to change. Organizations’ routines are constantly in the making and it is actually beneficial to challenge and change them from time to time to continuously adapt to the organization’s changing environment.  So, the next time you hear that it is ‘normal’ to expect a local degree for this position, ask yourself: who really benefit from this ‘normal’? And, who should be seen as a threat here?

Further reading

Risberg & Romani (forthcoming) “Underemploying highly skilled migrants: An organizational logic protecting corporate ‘normality”. Human Relations. 

About the Authors

Annette Risberg is a Professor of Diversity Management at Copenhagen Business School and Professor of Organization and Management at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. Her research focus is on practices of diversity management in general and the inclusion of immigrants in organizations. Her latest co-edited book is The Routledge Companion to Organizational Diversity Research Methods and Diversity in Organizations.

Laurence Romani is an Associate Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics. Her work focuses on representation and interaction with the cultural Other in respectful and enriching ways. She currently investigates the conditions of integration of the perceived cultural Others (e.g. ethnic minorities, migrants) in the Swedish labor market. She critically studies race, gender and class hierarchies in organizations’ work with cultural diversity.

Insecure work: rethinking precarity through Kenya’s tea plantations

By Hannah Elliott

Over the last decade, the term ‘precarity’ has become ubiquitous in studies of work and labor, as jobs are increasingly characterized by temporary and insecure contracts; lack of basic welfare provisions such as paid leave; and low pay. The informalization of work has gained pace in a post-Fordist world. And we can expect to see more precarity. The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing employers the world over to think of new ways to reduce labor costs as economies flounder.

Anthropologist of work Kathleen Millar has argued that we need to be careful about how we think about ‘precarity’ when we talk about insecure work. The term can inadvertently “smuggle in a conservative politics”, valorizing and romanticizing a Fordist past of full-time wage labor. This employment past is not universal. In the majority of the world, economies have historically been characterized by informality. Here, formal secure work has been more of an idea, a promise tied up in teleological ideals of modernization and development, than a reality. Furthermore, in former settler colonies such as Kenya and South Africa, formal wage employment has roots in colonial capitalism, coercion and exploitation.  

I’ve been thinking about precarity through the case of changing employment conditions on Kenyan tea plantations, where I’ve been researching the production of certified sustainable tea as part of the SUSTEIN project. I carried out my latest fieldwork between January and March this year, right up until the majority of European countries went into lockdown. A few weeks later, Kenya followed suit. In Kericho, the heart of Kenya’s tea production and where I spent most of my stay, there was little sense that the world was on the brink of an impending global pandemic, let alone reflection on what that could mean for the tea industry. And yet, in conversations with diverse actors in the sector, there was a shared narrative that the industry, responsible for one of Kenya’s biggest export commodities and foreign exchange earners, was struggling.

Enduring low prices of tea on the global market and rising costs of production have led multinational companies owning large tea plantations to look for ways to cut labor costs.

Tea is a labor intensive crop, and companies have historically depended on large resident workforces to pluck tea, plant and prune tea bushes and operate factories, among a multitude of other tasks required to maintain vast tea plantations. Biannual collective bargaining agreements led by the workers’ union have seen wages increase at a rate companies say is unsustainable for business. Citing high wages relative to other agricultural sectors in Kenya and the additional costs of employee benefits such as free housing and water, payment of retirement funds, and contributions to health insurance, along with the costs of maintaining infrastructures used by workers and their dependents such as schools and dispensaries, companies argue for the need to reduce labor forces.

The gradual reduction of company-employed low-level or ‘general’ workers has been taking place through parallel processes of mechanizing tea harvesting and outsourcing tasks outside of companies’ core activities of tea harvesting and factory processing. While workers carrying out core tasks continue to be employed directly by the company, thus receiving a union-negotiated wage and the package of employment privileges described above, outsourced workers are hired on insecure terms by external service providers who hold contracts with tea plantation companies. Outsourced workers are typically employed on short contracts, sometimes for as little as a few days. This renders them ineligible for union membership, and most earn less than half the daily salary of a company employee. If they are unable to work due to sickness, they will not be paid. The contractors who employ them are required by the company to make deductions from their salaries to national health insurance and social security schemes, but low wages and short-term employment mean that contributions are meagre.

Kenya has a large work-seeking population, and people are prepared to take outsourced jobs because of few employment opportunities.

In spite of the striking unsustainability of labor outsourcing for these workers, international sustainability standards say surprisingly little about this category and establish few mechanisms to safeguard them.

In the context of decreasing opportunities for employment in permanent company jobs on tea plantations, current and former workers talk with nostalgia about a time when company jobs and their related securities were a plenty. This nostalgia echoes the valorization of stable, full-time wage labor that Millar identifies as lurking in the notion of precarity. But, without dismissing workers’ nostalgia, we should be careful not to romanticize plantation jobs of the past which were, in spite of their securities relative to outsourced work, inherently precarious.

During the early twentieth century, the colonial administration sought to disrupt and undermine subsistence economies so that people would be forced to seek work on infrastructure projects and in settler industry and agriculture, including tea plantations. For decades, the industry struggled with labor shortage which undermined its growth and expansion. During the 1940s and 50s, efforts were made to create permanent resident labor forces through welfare provisions such as housing, kitchen gardens and retirement funds. Yet workers could never own the houses they lived in, nor the land they were given to cultivate, which remained the property of the company.

In seeking to create a stable workforce that could make Kenya’s tea industry sustainable, the colonial administration destabilized rural economies and created a class of people who would be forced, for generations, to seek wage labor.

If, in these uncertain times, we shouldn’t wish for a whole-sale return to permanent, full-time wage labor, what might we hope for instead? Millar argues for a critical politics of precarity that problematizes the centrality of economically productive work and its promise in contemporary capitalism rather than calling for a return to stable full-time work. Campaigns that propose alternatives to work include Universal Basic Income – where governments makes regular unconditional payments to every individual – and Universal Basic Services. A 2017 study by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity proposing Universal Basic Services in the UK argues that government provision of basic services such as food, shelter and transport has the potential to reduce dramatically the cost of living for those on the lowest incomes, making participation, belonging and cohesion possible in the face of increasingly precarious work. These initiatives are becoming more compelling as the world reels from the pandemic and we try to imagine a recovery that prioritizes social and environmental justice.


Kathleen M. Millar (2017) ‘Towards a critical politics of precarity’. Sociology Compass, 11 (6), pp. 1-11.

Henrietta Moore, Andrew Percy, Jonathan Portes and Howard Reed (2017) Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services. Social Prosperity Network Report: Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL.

About the Author

Hannah Elliott is a postdoc at MSC focusing broadly on the political and economic anthropology, in particular in eastern Africa where she has been conducting research since 2009. Her current research examines the production of certified sustainable tea in Kenya as part of the SUSTEIN project.